Excerpted from the July, 1911 issue of Hunter-Trapper-Trader magazine
I got wise with them in the old days on the prairies of Iowa and Minnesota, by seeing the first settlers of land make them. The first one I ever saw was made by a trapper on the upper Sioux River when I was freighting in that country in the late seventies.
In the first place you must select the place which should be a dry sandy knoll and the south side of it. The tools required will be just a common old pick and shovel, also ax. You can make it larger or smaller according to the number of people, but for two men one 12×13 feet will do, If you do not have too much duffle and stuff. Having selected your place, drift into the bank 12 feet by IS feet wide and cut the bank or sides a little sloping instead of straight up and down, and throw the dirt out in front on the downhill side. Now build up in front log house fashion, or with sod and leaves, two openings for windows and one for a door. In the sod or logs, you can line the walls with rosin paper If you can get it, if not, with poles and grass, or they will do very well if not lined at all.
Now for the roof; and this is very Important. Cut long straight poles and lay them across lengthways, having a piece four inches in diameter lying across the center of the roof to strengthen the roof in the center. You need not bother about pitch of the roof, although a little would not hurt. Now lay on your poles straight and close, then lay on your prairie or slough grass eight inches deep. Now a layer of sod and another layer of grass and last another layer of sod well fitted together, then a layer of dirt.
Some of the old timers used to lay an eight-inch log through the center on top of the first layer of poles and grass, and then lay poles and sod, leaving the center log serve as a pitch for the roof. If such a roof leaks I have never seen it, and I have seen them stand some very hard rains. Now dig a trench V-shaped on the uphill side to turn any water that would run down the hill onto your roof, and you have got a very good home.
Now for the fireplace: In the back part dig out a square hole back 24 inches deep and 30 inches wide by 24 high, more or less, to suit circumstances. Now dig out a hole in the back end, say one foot back, and dig one from the outside to meet it. This is the chimney and you can line It with clay and grass mixed, and build’ a chimney high enough for a draft outside of sticks and clay mixed with grass.
Now for the roof of your fireplace: For this you must have (or the dirt will keep falling down) a large flat stone, if you can get it, if not, you will have to arch it with clay and sand, and this is quite a job. You will have to make your arch of wood first, then plaster on your clay six Inches deep. Now fill the fireplace with dry wood good and full and touch her off and let the whole thing burn out, arch and all. You will find this will burn your clay arch hard enough to stand fire and hold the roof up, or you can pack In a piece of heavy sheet Iron for the roof of the fireplace. You do not need a large fireplace, for a dugout is easily warmed with a little wood. By sloping the sides and back of the fireplace and not making them straight they will usually stand; if not, line with clay and burn as above. You can find either the stone or clay on most any stream or lake; the stone in the woods stream and clay in the prairie river. Look along the banks and you will find where a seam of clay creeps out on most all of our rivers. The Red River of the North has splendid blue clay.
If you want a sod house on the prairie cut the sod with a sharp spade or ax. Lay the walls two feet thick at the bottom tapering to one foot at the top. Make them six feet six inches high and leave openings for windows on the southeast side, also for door and build the roof as for the dugout. If you want to be high toned and are building a permanent home, build a frame of drop siding, then build your sod house on the outside of it and paper the inside with newspapers. It is the best house ever, and will stand fire from the outside, and in olden times it would stand bullets as well. You can pound down the earth for a floor and make it as hard as you want so you can sweep it or you can lay a board floor.
I knew a family that settled on some land in Minnesota, who got well off and high toned with the natural rise of price of land. They built a frame dwelling, lathed and plastered, etc., with all the trimmings. The second year saw them back in the old sod house after it was repaired. They said the frame was unbearable, cold in the winter, hot in the summer—the sod house for them
I knew a stage station which in the time of the stage express across the plains stood an Indian siege of two days and nights and came out winner (it was a sod stable). The Indians could not set it on fire or get a bullet through it. When the soldiers got there they found the boys all O. K., three of them, only a little short of water. Nowadays they want all modern improvements, hot and cold baths, steam heat plumbing, etc. Bah! Do you see as healthy and hardy people now? Spindling, weak kids and sickly looking men and women. These kinds of people were not raised in the old sod shacks. We had no “white plague” in the old log or sod shacks. I have often wondered why the dugouts and sod houses were not used more by the H. B. Company trappers. From what I can learn it was always the log house for the whites and the bark tepee for the reds. It seems to me that they overlooked a bit in this matter, or perhaps the country was so barren that there was no sod on it. I would like to hear from Martin Hunter on this subject. There is only one secret in building a dugout. Select a dry spot . I lived in one that old “Happy Jack” built, the last part of the winter of 1893, and five years after I was in this locality again, I could not resist the temptation to take a look into my former home, and, believe me, two hours’ work and a few nails would have put her in first class shape for another winter. They are not quite so light as a log house, but they are many times warmer in winter, do not chill so quickly after the fire has died out, and very little fuel keeps them warm.
A. F. Wallace.
Thanks to Surviving the Times for republishing this article