How to Build a Sod House
This is a letter to my son, Thomas Kerns, grade 5 (1966) for a school project. It was written by my father, Robert Orloff Dragoo, whose parents homesteaded in Perkins County, South Dakota in 1910, when he was 9 years old.
I can’t qualify as an expert at building a sod house, but I can remember some experiences that have to do with building one, for my folks built one in 1910 and I built one in 1933.
To begin with you must find the proper kind of sod, something that has a dense, continuous mat of roots. Many of the homesteaders chose a draw that had a growth of what we called "red top grass". You could get good sod for convenience in handling and building but the dirt in the roots would not stand up long under wind and rain. My dad, after the first couple loads followed some old timers’ advice and went down along the creek, beside a water hole and got what we called "alkali sod". Long course marsh grass, with a heavy root system grew there, and when it dried, it turned almost white with alkali and baked almost as hard as a brick. For years we hung coats on nails driven into the sod wall and for over sixty years the walls withstood rain and wind erosion with no protective coating. (Note: as of 1997, the house is still standing.) The sods were so wet that water almost ran down the furrow from which they were taken. The grass grew back and 23 years later I took a second crop of sod from the same place.
The requirement was a plow and team of horses—tractors were unknown in 1910 and they would have mired down if they had been there. The steadier the team, the more uniform the furrow and the sod that was turned over.
The plow was made different from the plows of later years, a "breaker moldboard". Today’s plows have a twist to the moldboard that breaks up the soil as it passes across the moldboard. The "breaker" plows were twisted just enough to lay the sod over in one long strip—ideally from one end of the field to the other. Those designed for heavy work had a heavy oak beam of about a "4 x 6" about 6 feet long. The one my dad had was a light plow—a "Blue Bird Rod-breaker" with a moldboard consisting of 4 rods each about 5/8" thick adjusted to different angles of turning. A gauge wheel on the beam kept the plow at the proper depth. If the horses walked straight enough it cut a sod of about 12" wide.
The furrow is turned and hopefully in one long strip 12" wise, about 4" thick and as long as possible. A piece of board a little more than 2 feet long was used for measuring. A sharp spade cut the furrow into 2-foot long chunks plus a little for trimming and lost of plain back muscle loaded them on the wagon. I weighed two that went into my house in 1933. One weighed 104 pounds, the other 106 pounds. 110 loads of sod went into my Dad’s house.
Dad used sand rocks (sandstone) for foundations—a mistake because they gave way and eroded. A cement footing is better. When the first layer of sod was down it was trimmed exactly 2 feet in length using a 2 x 4 to trim the sods, leaving a straight, clean-cut wall.
Each sod, after the first layer, was placed over the joint made by the sods underneath; at the corners, one layer was laid in one direction in one layer and in the other direction in the layer above. These precautions were taken so that no two joints in the sod were directly above one another, helping to bind the walls together to prevent cracking as it dried and settled.
Door frames and window frames, made of 2" by 12" material were placed at proper levels, each having a 2" x 2" nailed on the outside of the frame in the middle. The sod next to the frame had to be notched to fit this 2" x 2". This kept the frame from tipping in or out. About 6" above the frame 2" by 12" planks had to be laid across to the sods on each side to receive succeeding layers of sod. This was to allow for settling of the sods. Not much space would be left after the walls were dry.
On the house my father, your great-grandfather built, the roof was a conventional type, with rafters, boards and roofing. On the house I built, I put heavy beams across to support the weight, the main one with a truss, put on rafters, boards on the rafters, tarpaper on the boards, then about three inches of the stickiest, gumbo-iest clay I could find. This gumbo-clay shed water and provided excellent insulation both summer and winter.
The floor of our house was made of cement.
It was in 1933 that I built our house and some people will remember that money was very scarce in those days. (By using materials in an old shack that had stood empty for ten years and by using odds and ends from other sources, the total cash outlay for a house with two rooms—one 16’ by 16’ and the other 10’ by 16’, was $72.00). Because money was so scarce, I plastered the house inside with a mixture of one part clay and 4 parts sand from a particular sank bank found high on the side of a butte. But we had to wait until the walls dried before we could plaster. During this time of drying, the grass started to grow from the sides; we let some grow just to see how long it would get before lack of moisture killed it. About two feet! Real decorations for a room at Christmas time!
Well, that about tells the story, Tom. Except for this: the house my father built in 1910 is still standing after 56 years. (Note: It is still standing in 1997.) You saw it this summer I think.
Your mother moved into our sod house when she was about seven months old. Your Aunt Alice and Betty were born in it. I rather suspect you wanted a letter you could read to your class. You have my permission to read this if you want to.
Merry Christmas, Tom.....and to all the rest of the family.
©1997 Lily M. Kerns; Teachers may reproduce this material for their classes. All other rights are reserved.