Pioneer Life: Sod Homes on the Prairies
Overburdened wagon trains lined the border between Kansas and Indian Territory on a warm spring day in April 1889. Excitement coursed through the crowd as they waited in eager anticipation. They had come in droves from all walks of life; there were doctors, lawyers, dentists, shopkeepers, farmers, and even the occasional ruffian. They were brave pioneers who had traveled across the country for this unprecedented event. Large parts of the Indian Territories would be divided up and given to whoever was first to make a claim. The land was wild and uncharted, but the promise of free land was intense.
Within hours of the land openings, hundreds of shabby tent cities emerged. Streets were quickly laid out as each town site began was established.
Outside of these tent “cities”, these Oklahoma pioneers began the laborious process of erecting their own homesteads. Small wooden shanties soon replaced tents as the untamed land was forced into submission. For many, the harsh land was too much and they left, dejected and penniless. For others, they simply did what was required. While those living among the east coasts lived in high style, those new settlers in the Indian Territory soon came to realize that hard work and survival was the way of life.
All across the future state, this scene was repeated time after time. Land would be opened up to settlement and those who were lucky enough would receive the best plots. Among those who faced the most difficult task of building were those that settled on the endless plains of western Indian Territory.
A Little House on the Prairie
The vast, rolling plains stretched out towards the horizon. It was a beautifully enchanting place where dreams could become reality. Once the Oklahoma pioneers began to build homes, they soon realized that this beautiful place was not the paradise they envisioned. The scarcity of trees and other raw materials poised a major housing problem, and importing lumber was, for most, financially impossible.
At first, many of these Oklahoma pioneers simply slept on the ground. Some of the more fortunate camped out in tents. As more and more people left the High Plains, they soon realized that this housing problem had to be taken care of.
The Native Americans who settled this area originally had already figured out the solution to this problem. The Osage, Pawnee, and Hidatsa Indians constructed their homes out of sod bricks cut from the fertile earth. It did not take long for the pioneers to duplicate this method.
Before long, sod homes began to dot the prairie horizon. These "sodbusters”, as the pioneers were known, cut sod bricks with a plow into strips one foot wide and four inches thick. Choosing the best sod, generally grass that has densely packed roots, these pioneers slowly began to make a living on the prairies.
Construction of these sod homes was a simple task that involved a lot of hard work. Sod bricks, typically made out of Buffalo grass, big and little blue stem, wiregrass, prairie cord grass, Indian grass, and wheat grass, were stacked one upon another to build up walls in the house. The bricks were laid grass-side down, and were placed alternately lengthwise and crosswise to increase the strength of the wall. It took about one acre of sod to create a house.
These sod homes generally consisted of one room with divisions made by hanging blankets. If the pioneers desired windows, they were made of a wood frame with wood pegs driven into the sod wall. After the walls had been formed, roofs were then made of thatch, or sod held up by poles.
While the image of a sod home may seem a little unusual, they were extremely efficient. The excellent insulation the walls provided helped to keep the homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter. It also served as an effective haven during those intense prairie wild fires. It was almost expected that the early Oklahoma pioneers would take in the cattle, horses, and pets during the threat of wildfires.
While the benefits of living in these “soddies” were many, they were not without their problems. The floor was typically hard-packed dirt, and the ceiling constantly leaked muddy water during the torrential rains. Snakes, mice, and bugs were always a constant bother. Many times, the woman of the house would erect a canopy over the cook stove to prevent these pests from falling into the stew.
The Last of the Pioneer Homes
He was just another face among many on that fateful day of September 16, 1893, when the Cherokee Outlet was opened for settlement. Marshall McCully, one of early Oklahoma's pioneers, could not have known how much of a lasting impression he would make. To this day, the McCully’s small grass “soddie” is the only one still standing in Oklahoma that was built by a homesteader.
McCully's first land claim was disputed, which was not uncommon during the land runs. After a brief bit of haggling, he finally gave up and moved on to file another claim. After searching across the Cherokee Outlet, he finally found what he was looking for. It was on this large piece of land that he would leave us with a small piece of history.
Having little supplies and no shelter, McCully formed a one-room "dug-out" that was hollowed out of a ravine bank. He lived in this dugout home for almost one year until he could begin construction on his two-room sod house in August 1894.
Construction of McCully’s sod home was typical of that time. Using a flat shovel, he cut blocks of the thick Buffalo grass sod that grew about a mile north of his home site. He then used the 18-inch long buffalo grass blocks to form the walls.
McCully then split poles from the few trees growing in the area and laid them across the top of the walls for rafters. After the rafters were laid, he laid 12 inches of sod on the rafters to form the roof. After the two-room soddie was built, he then did something that was atypical in these types of structures. On his land, he ran across a spot to the West where alkali salt was abundant. Using the alkali clay, he plastered the inside walls of his soddie to help keep insects and other varmints out.
It took little more than 1/2 acre to furnish enough sought for the house. Originally, the floor in the sod home consisted of hard packed dirt, but McCully installed a wood floor in 1895.
Marshall McCully's family lived in the sod home from 1894 until 1909. In 1909, a large, two-story frame house was built immediately west of the sod home. They continued to use the site for storage until 1963.
On December 31, 1963, exactly sixty years after McCully first settled the land, the sod home was given to the Oklahoma Historical Society. Since that time, the Oklahoma historical Society has done its best to restore the sod home to its original condition and protect it from the elements. During the restoration, McCully and his daughter were still available to verify that the restoration reflected the authenticity of its original appearance.
Today, the sod home remains as a testament to those brave Oklahoma pioneers who tamed the wild and rugged terrain of Oklahoma. Housed inside a protective structure, the sod home will remain sheltered from the elements for generations to come. Thanks to McCully, visitors to this historical "soddie" can gain unique insight about the life and times of Oklahoma's early pioneers of the plains.
Visiting Oklahoma’s Sod Home
Hours: 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Address: 1 mile east, 2 1/2 miles south of Aline on Oklahoma State Highway 8 in Alfalfa County.
© 2010 Eric Standridge