Sod Houses on the Prairie


Once the grid goes down and you bug out, what then? Even if you have a “permanent” settlement, it’s best to plan for the worst. And when your position is compromised and you’re forced to pack up and ad hoc relocate, what’s your plan for procurement of food, water, and all-important shelter? The latter is where we have an idea for you. This is not reinventing the wheel, but simply goes back into the rearview of history to examine one rudimentary but effective solution for establishing a new settlement.

Sod houses were an alternate structure used to provide shelter and leveraged heavily across the American westward expansion. The Homestead Act of 1862 granted US citizens 160 acres of free land and settlers needed to quickly toss up a shelter to keep their families protected from punishing prairie winds and brutal winters as they prepared farmland to make a living off. Sod houses were simply another tool in the arsenal to help settlers survive.

Since masonry was rare and frankly not a plausible solution to many migratory families, sod houses were practical, could be erected relatively quickly and easily, and provided the necessary shelter for the time they were needed. Constructed largely with materials found in nature – including bark, branches, strips of grassland or turf, deep-rooted grasses found on the plains, sticks, shrubs, and mud – you’d likely be able to build yourself a sod house over a long weekend.

What made sod houses popular on the prairie?

There is a reason homesteaders had a tendency to build sod houses over log cabins in the 1800s when making the trek to the American West. There are also reasons you don’t generally see sod houses anywhere in the United States anymore. 

For what it’s worth, sod houses were an extremely valuable part of the American experience during the time. Not only were sod houses quite easy to build and inexpensive, when couples got married they would simply consolidate individual houses, thus doubling the size of the original sod house. 

Sod houses were often sturdy but certainly nothing in comparison to a log cabin or brick house. Oftentimes severe weather patterns could dismantle the house and leave owners homeless or living in a destroyed mess of muddy rubble. Here are some of the other advantages and disadvantages of each home choice. 

Lumber was expensive and not always available on the grassy plains of Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Sod was unlimited, meaning they could build a sod house in any location to give minimalistic sheltering and precipitation coverage. 

Sod house characteristics

A “Soddy” as it was called, was insulated quite well. Its walls were built 2-3 feet thick and this proved to ensure winters were warm and summers were cool. Grassroots were strong and firmly held soil in place. The strongest roots came from buffalo grass, Indian grass, wheat grass, and prairie cordgrass. 

Inside a sod house built during the American westward expansion

Sod building techniques developed over the years and in the late-1800s a new method of cutting sod bricks was developed by horse plow. As opposed to manually slicing sod bricks by hand, the grasshopper plow was developed to break ground into 1-foot wide and 1/3 foot thick bricks.

The bricks were then laid along a wooden foundation to give the soddy a bit more support. When a settler needed to migrate, they could disassemble the wood, load it on the wagon, and continue onward leaving the soddy behind. Portability was a great advantage of the soddy. 

Drawbacks of sod houses

It wasn’t all blue skies and pretty prairie flowers for those who lived in soddies. Because the main bulk of the home consisted of soil, precipitation often caused some major problems. During storms, soddies leaked rain and snow. Water would drip through the roof and into the rooms of inhabitants. 

Wind and dirt

Constant wind eroded walls and roofing. This could cause cave-ins to occur regularly. On top of this, homesteaders were forced to deal with a house made of mud, dirt and grass. The hot, dry wind of mid-July in Nebraska battered settlers while May rains kept farming families soaked and clamoring for any dry corner of the house they could find. Have an aversion to dirty jeans or mudded shoes? This was more a regularity when living in a soddy.

Ventilation and infection

Ventilation within the walls of a soddy was poor and would oftentimes cause illnesses and infections that were virtually impossible to eradicate without moving from one sod house to the next. Because soil was a key ingredient to the walls of sod housing, moisture was ever-present within the walls of a soddy, particularly during times of heavier rainfall in early summer or late fall.

Flourishing pests

Pests living in the soil floors of a sod house became problematic as well. This included fleas, bedbugs, spiders, and rodents easily infiltrating the settlers’ homes, especially during the cold winter months. This goes without saying, but settlers would very rarely furnish a soddy with interior decoration as is commonly seen in Western cabins and lodges. 

Empathizing with a soddy-living settler

Sod housing was popular during the migration west. Try imaging what that life was like, if you haven’t already. Living on a tight budget with no true destination in mind, searching for the next spot to sleep for the night before moving onward, into the heart of the frontier. Life was difficult enough through foraging, hunting, and surviving the wilderness, and while sod housing was a popular way to provide a bit of shelter for the family, it wasn’t without its own drawbacks.

Of course a soddy was not as effective as a permanent housing option, but it became popular across the frontier because of its portability, inexpensive building supplies, and quick construction. Point is, a soddy may become popular once again out of one’s own necessity to survive. Keep this option in the back of your mind as one of many options within your survival strategy.

To read more about sod houses, we recommend checking out Everett Dick’s excellent book The Sod-House Frontier, 1854-1890.

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