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Homestead History
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Written by Christopher W. Czajka

"I am looking rather seedy now while holding down my claim,
and my victuals are not always served the best.
And the mice play shyly 'round me as I settle down to rest,
In my little old sod shanty in the West.
The hinges are of leather and the windows have no glass,
While the roof lets the howling blizzard in;
And I hear the hungry ki-yote as he slinks up in the grass,
'Round my little old sod shanty on my claim.
But I'm happy as a clam,
on the land of Uncle Sam,
in my little old sod shanty on my claim."
-- from "Little Old Sod Shanty on the Claim" (Traditional)


photo
Interior of an old-time ranch, Powder River. Montana Historical Society, Helena.
ightening a leaky faucet. Installing a ceiling fan. Caulking bathroom tile. These relatively minor home improvement projects can be daunting to many people today. Only the bravest and most experienced among us would consider constructing an entire house. Fewer still would accept the task of building a house with primitive tools, limited building resources, and little or no outside assistance. Yet for homesteaders arriving on the frontier in the latter part of the nineteenth century, building a home was the first crucial step in and securing the "free" land offered by the United States government.

The image of the frontier home that most of us have is a rustic log cabin, nestled in a peaceful mountain valley or on a sweeping green plain, adorned with patchwork quilts, butter churns, cast-iron pots, and other primitive but folksy items. But in reality, the "little house on the prairie" was often not much more than a drafty shack or a hastily scratched out hole -- literally -- in the ground. At the end of their cramped, uncomfortable, dirty journeys to the frontier, settlers often found themselves living in cramped, uncomfortable, dirty homes. Mrs. Eva Nelson, a settler who reached Montana in the 1880s, shared the sentiment of many homesteaders when she reported, "My heart sank the first time I saw the shanty [that her husband had built]. I was terribly discouraged, and I began to wish that we had never left home." Modern-day Americans on backcountry camping trips are often far more comfortable than homesteaders in their houses.

The provisions of the Homestead Act largely dictated frontier home design and construction. The Act mandated that, in addition to other improvements to the land, homesteaders had to build a dwelling that was at least ten by twelve feet in size, and contained at least one glass window. Since more than half of all homesteaders lost their "bet with Uncle Sam" and gave up their claims before their five-year "proving up" period was completed, it was extremely unwise -- and often impossible -- to spend a great deal of money on home construction. Frugality was a homesteader's chief concern when building a home. Settlers constructed their houses of the materials most readily -- and cheaply -- available to them. Homesteaders' houses were made to be disposable, or improvable, when and if "proving up" time ever came. Comfort was often a secondary issue.

Homesteaders frequently waited several weeks, or even months, after their arrival on the frontier to put up this semi-permanent housing. The immediate and crucial needs of obtaining food, planting crops, and filing claims forced many to continue to live in their wagons or tents long after their journeys were over.

When it came time to build, the most appealing housing option for homesteaders was, by far, the log cabin.
frontier fact Swedish settlers introduced "American" log cabin design to the United States in the early 1700s.

Its relatively easy construction, impenetrability by wind and water, and long-lasting sturdiness also made it among the most comfortable. Henry Bierman, who homesteaded in Montana in the 1880s, was astonished to visit his old cabin in 1939 and discover that "it was still standing, though badly rotted at the bottom ... the roof and the logs were still in place."

Homesteaders could often build a log cabin in a matter of days, using only an axe and auger. No nails were required for the task. The first step in construction was to build a stone or rock foundation, to keep the logs off of the ground and prevent rot. Once the foundation was laid, settlers would cut down trees and square off the logs. These logs were then "notched" in the top and bottom of each end, then stacked to form walls. The notched logs were fitted snugly together at the corners of the cabin, and this "interlocking" held the walls in place. After the logs were stacked, gaps remained in the walls, and settlers had to "chink" their cabins. "Chinking" consisted of jamming sticks and wood chips into the gaps, and then filling in the remaining space with a homemade cement of earth, sand, and water. Fireplaces were built of stone, and frequently featured stick-and-mud chimneys. Because of a scarcity of smooth board, most cabins had dirt or gravel floors, which had to be raked daily to preserve their evenness.

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