The Dugout: Pioneering Frontier Homes

article image
Photo by Victor A. Croley
Sod dugout on South Loup River, Custer County, Nebraska, 1890. Load of sod on wagon to repair roof.

When grandpa came home from the War Between the States, he
was 24 and in a hurry to settle down to some worthwhile
living. Business was in a severe depression following the
war I boom but the federal government had passed the
Homestead Act offering free land–with additional
concessions to veterans–for those who could “prove
up” by living on the land and farming it for a prescribed
number of years. Grandpa, with wife and two small babies,
was among the first to take advantage of that offer.

The family soon found themselves on the Nebraska frontier
with all their household goods packed in a canvas-covered
wagon. They had no home and the spindly wild plum thickets
and sparce cottonwoods along the few streams were not trees
enough for the log cabins they had known back in Ohio and
Indiana.

Shelter was the first essential and grandpa and the
hundreds of other homesteaders who pioneered with him were
resourceful men. They had brought a few farming tools along
and first in importance was the heavy iron breaking plow.
Drawn by a team of horses or oxen, this instrument could
turn up an eighteen inch ribbon of the thick virgin prairie
sod. The strip could then be cut into two foot sections,
four to six inches deep, to make an almost perfect building
block.

The first–and most desirable–homes were
simply small rooms dug into the lee side of a low rolling
hill. The walls were built up with sod blocks to a height
of seven or eight feet. Holes were left for doors and
windows which were usually store-bought and hauled from the
nearest town or railroad point. Cottonwood poles laid side
by side, then spread with a thick layer of coarse prairie
grass to provide insulation and prevent dirt from sifting
through, formed the roof. Over this was carefully fitted a
double layer of the sod building blocks. The first good
rain started this sod to growing and soon the dugout roof
was covered with waving grass. The grass almost concealed
the roof but did not affect its insulating or protective
properties.

The floor of the dugout home was of rough wooden planks if
the family could afford to buy them. Otherwise, it was
treated as the neighboring Indian squaws treated their tipi
floors: Sprinkled with water daily and swept with crude
grass brooms until the surface was a hard and smooth as
finished concrete.

Walls of the sod houses were lined with newspapers pasted
or pinned up with small, sharpened sticks to keep the, dirt
from brushing off. Some of the more ambitious families
located outcroppings of limestone rock which they burned
and mixed with screened sand to make a plaster coating for
the walls.

The dugouts were amazingly comfortable homes; cool in
summer, snug and easily heated in winter. The thick sod
walls and roof made excellent insulation in a day when few
knew or appreciated the value of insulation. When properly
located on the south side of a low hill, with adequate
drainage to provide run-off for rain and melting snow, the
dugout was probably as comfortable a home as any our
pioneering forefathers ever knew.

Unfortunately, the pioneer dugout had a very short life. It
couldn’t stand prosperity. The fertile Nebraska prairie sod–turned over in the fall and broken down to mellow
richness by winter snows, freezing and thawing–produced bumper crops of corn and small grains. With money
in the bank, the status symbol was a clap board house and
grandma couldn’t be satisfied until she had gotten her
family out of “that hole in the ground” and into her
uninsulated clapboard structure: A house that was stifling
hot in the summer and poorly heated in the winter by
buffalo chips in the kitchen range or costly store bought
coal that had to be hauled from town, carefully hoarded and
sparingly doled out.

Prosperity put an end to the dugout in little more than a
decade of pioneering, but a few pictures still exist to,
show how these homes looked and memories and journals of
the oldtimers record the dugout’s comforts and advantages .
. . advantages that are still available to today’s
pioneers, homesteaders and freedom folk who want to get
away from big city congestion and find a quiet, simple life
close to the land.