Monday, July 13, 2020

Sheltering in Place in a Sod House

Christmas Sister by Solomon Butcher (1880s)
By Cindy Ervin Huff

The year 2020 has taken us through a new quarantine experience, either alone or with loved ones. Life as we knew it changed. But this is not the first time in American history that people were isolated from the outside world. Throughout history, as the nation grew, civilization might be far from a family farm.

The land rushes after the Civil War drew many settlers and European immigrants to the Great Plains. The first to arrive got the choice land near rivers and with ample timber. Later settlers, however, had to stake their claims in the middle of the tall prairie grasses and build their homes from what was on hand. They patterned their homes after the Omaha, Mandan, Arikara, Pawnee, and several other Native American tribes who built their dwellings from sod.

Lacking materials or the funds to purchase wood, they spent hours cutting through the thick layer of topsoil and compact root system of prairie grass to create hefty bricks of sod which would then be stacked to create walls. As time went on, the settlers improved on their sod homes—referred to as a soddie (or also spelled soddy). A plaster was made from mud, grass, and sometimes dung to create a barrier between the dirt walls and the inhabitants. This reduced the number of insects and vermin that often lived in the dissected earth that came inside. Tarps or muslin material might be draped on the ceiling to keep dirt and insects from dropping on the residents’ heads. Whitewashing the walls gave the home a cleaner look. Over time, wood floors covered the packed dirt. 

Some soddies were neat.
The windows might be covered with greased paper to let in the light until the resident could afford framed glass. Imagine being forced to stay inside such a primitive home during a blizzard. Each home was miles from another, and wives, unaccustomed to the lonely life of farming, often lost their minds. Thus the term cabin fever.
And some were sloppy!
European immigrants populated the Dakotas. Arriving with little more than the clothes on their backs, they adopted the sod house structure. By then, the mechanical grasshopper had been invented—a plow that broke up the sod faster and with less effort than a shovel.

Depending on your family size or how much help you had building, the sod homes could be as small as 10x10 or a two-story affair. Often they were 16x30 with a fireplace between two rooms. If stones were not available, the fireplace was made of sod lined with plaster with a chimney made of mud and sticks.

Buffalo chips or cow chips mixed with hay became the fuel of choice with no trees nearby. Over time, stoves replaced primitive fireplaces, and the interiors took on a more civilized look with furniture, curtains, and rugs. 

Railroad expansion brought building materials, and most soddies were abandoned for wood structures. Often they were repurposed as storage buildings or homes for newly married children or elderly parents.

I am amazed at the resilience of our ancestors who lived in isolation and created a life from nothing.

Did any of your ancestors live in a sod house?

Cindy Ervin Huff is a multi-published writer. Her historical romance, Secrets & Charades, won the Editor Choice, Maxwell Award, and Serious Writer Medal. Her contemporary romance, New Duet, placed second in the 2019 Serious Writer Awards and was a finalist in the 2019 Selah Awards. Cindy is a member of ACFW, a mentor and founding member of the Aurora, Illinois, chapter of Word Weavers, and a Christian Writer’s Guild alumni. She and her husband make their home in Aurora, Illinois. 

Facebook at Twitter @CindyErvinHuff 
Website at
Secrets & Charades (which includes a soddie!): 
New Duet: 
Photos credits:

By Unknown author - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by User:Quadell using CommonsHelper., Public Domain,

Soddy circa 1880s Wikimedia - Christmas Sister by Solomon Butcher


  1. Thanks for the post. I just can't imagine living in a soddy. And we consider a few hours once in a while without electricity a hardship!!

  2. One of the Chrisman girls in the first photo was my son-in-law's great grandmother. I've spent a lot of time on the "back roads" in Nebraska seeking out extant sod houses. They fascinate me, although I am very grateful I don't live in one. Did you know that Solomon Butcher's photos can be accessed online at Just thought I'd share it for those who might enjoy seeing more. Butcher left a wonderful legacy.