Roberta C.M. DeCaprio
On Sunday night I tune into a show called Extreme Makeover, Home Edition. Each week a family down on their luck and struggling with adversity, is selected and built a new home. The home is constructed in seven days by a team of builders and decorated by the show’s designers.
Now, for any of you who has attempted to fix a leaky faucet, install a ceiling fan or re-do a bathroom, you know how hard the task can be without the proper equipment. It’s hard to envision building an entire house with primitive tools, limited building resources and little or no outside assistance. Settlers arriving on the frontier didn’t have Lowe’s or Home Depot to help. And in the latter part of the nineteenth century, building a home was the first crucial step in securing free land by the United States government.
The little house on the prairie wasn’t really as we like to imagine it to be . . . the rustic log cabin nestled in a peaceful mountain valley with homemade patchwork quilts adorning each bed and a cast iron pot filled with stew cooking on a wood burning stove. Much more often a pioneer dwelling was a shack or a hastily dug out hole in the ground, cramped, dirty and drafty. One room served as a kitchen, dining room, and living room, bedroom and work room.
The Homestead Act dictated home design and demanded a dwelling had to be at least ten by twelve feet in size and contain one glass window. Because a homesteader’s first priority was taking care of crucial needs, like obtaining food, planting crops, and filing claims; many were forced to live in their wagons or tents for several weeks or even months after their long journey on the trail.
Frugality was another chief concern when building a home, so settlers constructed homes using the materials most readily and cheaply available to them. The log cabin proved to be the easiest to construct and the strongest against the elements. Its long lasting sturdiness also made it among the most comfortable, and it could often be built in a matter of days.
First a stone or rock foundation was built to keep the logs off the ground and prevent rot. After trees were cut down and squared off, the logs were notched in the top and bottom at each end, and stacked to form walls. The notched logs were then fitted together at the corners of the cabin. This system of interlocking held the walls in place. Then the settlers had to “chink” their cabins. “Chinking” consisted of jamming sticks and wood chips into the gaps, then filling the remaining space with homemade cement made of earth, sand, and water. Fireplaces were built of stone, featuring stick and mud chimneys. Because smooth boards were scarce, most cabins had dirt or gravel floors, which had to be raked daily to keep them even. Regardless of the number of inhabitants, most cabins were only ten by twenty feet in size. To maximize space, settlers built lofts across the cabin roof or lean-tos across the rear.
In treeless areas settlers built their homes out of sod. The long, tough grasses of the plains had tight, intricate root systems and the earth containing them could be cut into flexible, yet strong bricks. A horse drawn sod cutter, similar to a farming plow, produced long, narrow strips of sod, which then could be chopped into bricks with an axe. These two to three-foot square, four inch thick sod bricks were then stacked to form the walls. Soddy roofs were constructed by creating a thin layer of interlacing twigs, thin branches, and hay, covered over with another layer of sod. Many settlers saved time by building their sod houses into the sides of hills and banks. In this way only the front wall and roof had to be constructed. As a result, because of the thick walls, sod homes were cool in summer, warm during the winter, and extremely cheap to build.
But sod houses also had drawbacks. Because the house was literally built of dirt and grass, it was constantly infested with bugs, mice, snakes and other assorted vermin. The very best built sod roof tended to leak and took days to dry out. The weight of the wet earth caused many to collapse. And when the sod roof became extremely dry, dirt and grass fell like rain into the house.
When the railroads reached the frontier, materials such as lumber, tarpaper, and shingles became available. Sod homes were abandoned in favor of the board-and-batten shanty. It was much easier for settlers to build a frame shelter than to cut sod and stack bricks. Shanties were built directly on the ground, with a dirt floor and no foundation. Shanty walls consisted of studs, horizontal boxing and a layer of tarpaper held on with lath. But shanties also had their drawbacks. A strong wind could topple them, and they were hard to heat in winter, stifling in summer.
In time the shanties and log homes improved, but the first settlers lived harder than modern day Americans on a camping trip.
If you would like to read more about domestic life on the frontier, consider reading PIONEER WOMEN, by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith (University of Oaklahoma Press – 1996).