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Homestead History
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he typical log cabin was ten by twenty feet, regardless of the number of inhabitants. Settlers maximized their space by building lofts across the cabin roof, or lean-tos across the rear of the cabin. Typically, frontier cabins featured only one room, which served as kitchen, dining room, living room, workroom, and bedroom. It was not uncommon for a family of six to ten people to live in a single log cabin.

frontier fact
After their journeys to the frontier, settlers frequently built their wagon boxes into the design of their new homes. One Montana setter used her wagon box as a root cellar for her new home.
In the treeless lands of the plains and prairies, log cabins were out of the question. In places where a settler might have to drive sixty miles to see a single tree, homesteaders turned to the ground beneath their feet for shelter. The sod house, or "soddy," was one of the most common dwellings in the frontier west. The long, tough grasses of the plains had tight, intricate root systems, and the earth in which they were contained could be cut into flexible, yet strong, bricks.

Ground soaked by rains or melting snow was ideal for starting sod house construction. When the earth was soft and moist, homesteaders would break the soil with an ox- or horse-drawn sod cutter, which was similar to a farming plow. Sod cutters produced long, narrow strips of sod, which could then be chopped into bricks with an axe. These two- to three-foot square, four-inch thick sod bricks were then stacked to form the walls of the sod house. Soddy roofs were constructed by creating a thin layer of interlacing twigs, thin branches, and hay, which were then covered over with another layer of sod. Many sod houses were built into the sides of hills or banks, which saved time, since settlers could simply carve out a space in the hill, and build only a front wall and roof.

As a result of their extremely thick walls, soddies tended to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Soddies were also extremely cheap; one 1870 Montana settler reported spending only $2.78 on the construction of his entire sod home. However, there were several drawbacks to sod-house living. Since the house was literally built of dirt and grass, it was constantly infested with bugs, mice, snakes, and assorted other "varmints and vermin." One sod-house settler lamented that, "In the afternoons, every afternoon, the rattlesnakes would come out of their hidden dens in the walls and roof, and sun themselves on the western window-sill." The very best sod roofs tended to leak, which turned indoor dirt flooring into a quagmire. Wet roofs took days to dry out, and the enormous weight of the wet earth caused many roofs to collapse.


Jasper City, Colorado, first mining log cabin in camp. January, 1897. Denver Public Library

Even in the very best weather, sod houses were plagued with problems. When the sod roof became extremely dry, dirt and grass fell like rain inside the house. One settlers' guide suggested that "an umbrella is indispensable when preparing meals in the sod home." A woman visiting friends in their frontier sod house reported:

"I had not been asleep long when I was awakened by something similar to fine hail falling on my face and hands. I called out, ‘Please get a light, there is something falling on my face and hands, and all over the bed.' This aroused the lady of the house, and she remarked, ‘It is only the dirt falling out of the sod which our house is made of, and when the wind blows, it gets dry, and it crumbles off. We are so used to it that it does not disturb us.' But I could not sleep, as I was afraid that the whole house would fall in on us at any moment."

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