While still mightily engaged in conducting Northern affairs during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln turned his attention to the part of our country that was then referred to as “The Great American Desert.”
Lincoln proposed, to encourage settlement of the Great Plains, that citizens could receive 160 acres of land from the government by paying a $10 filing fee. Applicants had to be 21 years of age, and would receive title to the land if they would make improvements on that land for a period of five years.
The resulting legislation was known as The Homestead act of 1862. As a matter of record, the man credited with filing the very first homestead was a fellow by the name of Daniel Freeman.
In 1861 Freeman was a soldier serving with the 7th Illinois Volunteer Infantry, stationed at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
On December 31st, 1861 Freeman was on leave in Brownsville (Nebraska). The land office at Brownsville was not authorized to issue Homestead permits until January 1st 1862, but Freeman was due back in Fort Leavenworth that day, so he persuaded the registrar of the land office to open up his office for him at one minute past midnight, enabling him to be first in line, probably first in the nation to file a Homestead claim.
The land that Freeman chose was along Cub Creek, some four miles northeast of Beatrice. Freeman lived on that land until his death in 1908. His second wife lived on the land until her death in 1931. The farm is now the site of the Homestead National Monument of America.
The Homestead Act had a profound effect on what would become the state of Nebraska, as a good many of the homesteads were claimed in our part of the country. McCook has particularly benefited from the Act and ensuing related legislation. After the Civil War veterans were entitled to additional Homestead land. A veteran could receive an additional 80 acres of land even if he had already received a 160-acre (quarter section) homestead. Furthermore, the veteran did not have to live on the 80 acres, and could sell the rights to another party.
In McCook, Theodore F. Barnes secured powers of attorney from soldiers for their additional land, then sold the rights to the Lincoln Land Company on their behalf. The city of McCook is made up almost entirely of “soldiers’ rights” land.
The Homestead Act brought people to our area in large numbers, but there was no housing for these people. In 1872 the first settlements were made in the Republican River Valley, at Arapahoe, Indianola, and Culbertson. That year a fellow from North Platte, by the name of Washington Hinman, brought a portable sawmill to the valley and set up his operation in a grove three miles southwest of Indianola. The green lumber from this mill was the material used in the first houses in our area. The first load of commercial lumber in McCook did not arrive for another 10 years.
But while houses in the towns were made of lumber, most of the folks who homesteaded throughout the area had no such luxury. In the first place, there were no trees in the area — away from the riverbanks. Additionally, the homesteaders did not have money to buy lumber for their homes. So what they did was use the material that was available to them — and was free. They used their resourcefulness, and sod from the prairie, of which there was abundance.
The use of prairie sod for building material was made possible by John Deere, who had invented the steel “breaking plow,” sometimes referred to as the “grasshopper plow” in the 1850s.
This plow enabled a farmer to turn over a furrow of sod six inches thick, twelve inches wide, and from eighteen to thirty inches long. These “sods” were cut, lifted, carried and placed, as building blocks to construct a house. A 30″x12″x6″ sod block was extremely heavy.
Flora Dutcher, a long time teacher in the McCook school system, who was born in a sod house (seven of the 12 children in the Dutcher family were born in the sod house), describes the task of building a sod house as “sheer, backbreaking, excruciating hand labor.” Sod houses were not built as permanent structures. No one knew just how long living in one would have to continue. They were built with skill and great care. The labor of building another one was unthinkable. Generally, they were expected to last about 7 years. Flora’s home, which her father built with great care, coupled with the dry Nebraska climate, lasted for 23 years!
The sods were lain, grass down, layer by layer. A plumb line was used, both on the inside and outside, to keep the walls perfectly perpendicular. Short, pointed posts were placed in each corner, at floor and ceiling levels. The smooth sides of these were flush with the inside wall surfaces, and batting was nailed to it. Batting was used to hold rag rugs on floors and ceiling canvases (usually flour sacks sewn together) on ceilings.
Frames for windows and doors were placed as the walls were raised. These were covered with sturdy planking, to sustain the weight of the sods laid above them. Windows were small, with four-panels, set flush with the outside walls. Doors were hung flush with the inside wall, making a little, dark hall of each entrance. But the window well allowed for a generous space for flowers.
The end walls were brought to a peak, providing support for a ridgepole. For Flora’s home the ridgepole was of hand-hewn cottonwood, taken from Driftwood Creek. It was supported by strong 4x4s of lumber. The rafters were rough-cut poles laid from the ridgepoles to the walls, then overlain with willow brush. This in turn was covered with carefully placed sod. In time weathering rounded the roof, which carried away rain.
Growing roots opened the sod, causing leaking, so the roof had to be hoed regularly.
The inside walls were finished with plaster, of native lime and fine sand, then whitewashed, with slaked lime. The ceiling canvas was also white washed, causing the canvas to pull taut and give the room a neat appearance.
At times prolonged rains caused even the finest sod roof to leak. The canvas ceiling would sag, and holes would be make with a pocket knife so that the rain water could be directed into dishpans on the floor. In the fall, after harvest, mice invaded and sleep was disturbed by little feet, scampering between the canvas and the sod roof.
On the floor, prairie hay, laid under the rag rugs as a pad, disintegrated, causing dust, which added to the dust that sifted in from the outside, covered everything, making cleaning a constant, and impossible task. Some homes simply had bare earthen floors, making for a muddy mess when it rained.
Flora remembers her sod home fondly, though realistically, and with humor.
” We had air-conditioning. Those thick walls of sod made the home warm in the winter (up to a point) and cool in the summer. We had running water — it ran through the roof, to someplace where we didn’t want it, such as under the rug or onto the bed. And our house was wired — guy wires were fastened through pieces of lumber to give the walls strength to stand just one more year. We had an inside toilet — it was portable.”
The sod houses of the early pioneers had few comforts and represented hardship, which would be unacceptable today, but those sod house joys and discomforts are a part of our pioneer heritage, for which we are ever grateful to our hearty pioneer forefathers.
Source: “A Sod House, by Flora Dutcher, from The Journal of Geography, Dec. 1949