• Dennis McCaslin

Chronicle of the Old West: Go west, young man...and live in a house made of sod?


On May 20, 1862 President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act. Thousands of families were heading to the plains with dreams of building a home like it was traditionally done back in the east.


But, there was a problem, because much of the land that was to become Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, had no trees.

In order to get, what were to become the plains states, settled, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act on May 20, 1862. And, it worked as thousands of people took up the government’s offer for free land.

They expected to settle on treed land with running water similar to the places they left behind. But, what they found was a treeless plains.


With shelter the first priority, and no trees or stones to build one, they resorted to burrowing a cave in the side of a hill. It was called a dugout home. Although these dugouts were protection from wind and cold, they were dark, crowded and damp.

Being ever resourceful, they discovered they could build a home using one foot by two foot pieces of sod cut from the ground with a shovel or special plow. These pieces of sod were called “Nebraska marble.” As one pioneer put it, a house could be built “without mortar, square, plumb or greenbacks.”

A 12 ft by 14 ft home could be built in 10 days. The sod houses were ideal for the plains. They were cool in the summer, warm in the winter and in case of a prairie fire, wouldn’t burn.

However, there was the down side. The roof shed dirt into food and bedding, in addition to an occasional snake. When it rained, it would drip muddy water, forcing wives to hold an umbrella in one hand while cooking with the other.

But, these “sodbusters” rarely complained.


It truly took a special person to settle the West.

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