Living in a house made of dirt doesn't sound like the an ideal situation, but some of Iowa's early European settlers did just that. They lived in houses made of sod! They were usually temporary homes, and sod house dwellers made the most of their unusual situation. The arrival of the railroads brought about changes in many areas and housing was one area that saw improvements. For those who lived in sod houses, the changes were welcomed with anticipation.
Learning to Adapt
The Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged people to go west. European-American pioneers who settled in northwestern Iowa found that the land offered few trees to build log cabins and frame houses, and lumber was too expensive.
Determined settlers adapted to their environment. They built inexpensive sod houses. They cleared and cut the prairie sod into long strips. They laid the strips on top of each other, leaving space for windows and a door. They made roofs out of sticks, boards and sod. Some sod houses, called dugouts, were dug into the side of a hill.
Most sod homes were small and no matter how often families cleaned, the insides were damp and dirty. When it rained and the roof leaked, the floor became muddy. Pioneers shared their "soddies" with rodents, bedbugs and other creatures. Families tried to make their temporary homes pleasant. They plastered walls and hung curtains.
Furnishings were sparse. Beds were made from poles and ropes. Boxes, originally used to transport a family's belongings, made tables and chairs. Cast iron stoves provided heat and a place to cook. Since there was little wood on the plains, pioneers burned prairie hay, cow chips and corncobs.
Railroads Bring Change
After the railroads came to Iowa, lumber was more affordable and settlers abandoned their soddies for sturdier frame houses.
While the idea of living in a house made of dirt doesn't appeal to most people, early settlers in the Iowa country were used to sacrifices. Unusual housing conditions were just one of many problems faced by early settlers. Along with the hardships they faced came hope for a better future. Soddies were viewed as a temporary inconvenience. And as with many of the problems faced by early pioneers in Iowa, new technologies and scientific advances helped to make life better.
- Mary T. Brauch Petersen, “Build a Sod House,” The Goldfinch 17, no. 3 (Spring 1996): 16.
Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa