Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Sod Houses and Quilts

Photo courtesy of Nebraska State Historical Society
Have you ever looked at a photograph like the one above and wondered "what was that like?" Have you thanked God you don't know? This is the Chrisman sisters on their claim in Custer County, Nebraska. The girl on the right is my son-in-laws great grandmother (or maybe it's two-greats). These young women were part of a family that took advantage of the Homestead Act and was able to claim lots of land by having several individual family members file on claims. Of course meeting the residency improvement requirements wasn't just a matter of putting one's name on a document. I'm not sure I would consider the soddy in the photo much of an "improvement," but plenty of women on the Great Plains made homes in sod houses, and their lives continue to fascinate me. 
                   Many years ago I had the privilege of being shown the Dowse Sod House in Custer County, Nebraska, by the gentleman who's father had build the soddy. The house is beautifully finished and stands as testimony to homesteading on the Great Plains. If you look carefully at the photo, you'll see the clue that this is a sod house:  that window sill. Three feet wide, because the sod "bricks" that stack up to form that wall are three feet wide. 
     When I asked him where he'd been born, Mr. Dowse turned around and pointed toward the bed pictured
here and said, "Right there."
I looked at the quilt on the bed and wondered ... "What kinds of quilts did those women have?"

So I went on a search for quilts used in Sod Houses. I'm showing it here to share the photo of the sod house homemaker AND the quilt, which is a copy of the one on the fence behind Miss Comer.

You'll note that the woman pictured on the book cover has spread a couple of her quilts on the fence in front of her sod house just before the photographer took her photo. What does that say about her? Did she make them? Or did the woman you can't see (seated in the wagon the mules are pulling) make them? We'll never know which member of the Comer family created these quilts, but we do know part of their story. As a woman, the most interesting "detail" to me is that Mrs. Comer gave birth to Sarah Ellen in 1872,Cora in 1875 (who died in 1876), Paschal in 1877, Minnie May in 1880, Hattie Bell in 1883, Georgie in 1885, Andrew in 1886, James in 1889, Melville in 1891, and Mary Elizabeth in 1903. How's that for a family?

When pioneer Luna Kellie arrived in Nebraska with her toddler in tow--her husband and father had come on ahead to start homesteading--and saw the soddy she was to live in, she burst into tears. Her father asked her what she thought a "sod house" was, if not one made of dirt? Luna said, she surely didn't expect "something like that." Luna got to work turning that soddy into a home, and over the years that she and her husband lived in Nebraska, they welcomed over a dozen babies into their lives. Luna was active in the Farmer's Alliance and even published a newspaper promoting political causes helpful to farmers. Late in life after she was widowed, Luna homesteaded in a log cabin near Phoenix, Arizona. Alone. She was in her 80s. 

Luna's "sod house quilt" was a log cabin quilt she had begun before her marriage, but she never got a chance to finish it. A neighbor offered to finish it for her, and absconded with the whole thing! When Luna drove to the neighbor's farmstead to retrieve her cherished quilt pieces, she was heartbroken to see log cabin quilt pieces being used as everything from chair pads to baby clothes. A beloved aunt had started piecing that quilt for Luna, and the loss was hard for the young homemaker to accept. 

I expected to find only primitive tied comforters when I went on the search for quilts used in sod houses, but women brought gorgeous things with them from back east, and the quilts they cherished were no different. The beds on those sod houses were adorned with princess feathers and appliqued baskets ... works of art that any of us would be proud to cherish. 

Sod house life was hard, but the women were no different than you and me. They found ways to make it better; to make their surroundings more attractive; to make a home. How they would have loved to have access to Pinterest!

If you're interested in seeing more sod house quilts, here's a link to the book that includes a preview of the book.https://www.pickledishstore.com/productDetail.php?PID=1252

--Stephanie Grace Whitson


  1. What a wonderful post, Stephanie. I love to "connect" with women of the past and know what was meaningful to them. I have my husband's grandmother's hand-stitched quilt, and it's a treasure.

  2. Thanks, Louise. This part of western women's history continues to fascinate me. I never tire of reading these women's diaries and reminiscences. I admire them so.

  3. I have to say, the inside of that soddie is nicer than any I've seen. I also have several quilts my grandma and great-grandma made.

  4. Stephanie, what a wonderful post. I just finished writing a novella set on the Nebraska prairie and came across this photo of the Chrisman sisters. How awesome that your son-in-law is related to them. I enjoyed hearing the quilt stories that you shared in your post!