Houses Of The Early Days


Debbie Rabe


Many of the shortcomings of the pioneer life could havebeen more easily endured if the housing had been more satisfactory. Theearly pioneers, however, made few complaints about their homes. If theydid complain is was out of sheer amusement rather than because of any discomfortthat they suffered.

There were three main types of houses, the sod, the log,and the frame. The pioneers did not know what type of house they were goingto build until they found a plot of land and saw what materials that wereclose by. Also, the most important part was the money involved.

In the Red River Valley, where trees were not soplentiful, the average house was a square, 16 x 16 feet, and the cost washigher than any other place. The standard size for the more primitive claimshanties was only 12 x 12 feet. Some of these temporary houses cost onlya few dollars, and this was spent for hardware on doors and windows.

One bachelor arrived too late in the season to build asuitable home, so he turned a triple wagon box upside down. He covered itwith sod and used it as a dwelling.

The first winter when pioneers came here, they were forcedto make their homes in dugouts or earth mounds. Because there were no hills,they would dig into the river bank just far enough to protect their livestockand themselves.

If the pioneers could find a hill or river bank somewhere,they could dig the back of the side walls of sod. Poles for roof rafterscame from a river bank and on them the builders spread brush, grass, andstill more sod. The floor was of coarse dirt. Canvas or leather made a door,and anything but glass, covered the window. A ditch across the bank, behindthe house, and down the slope on either side prevented a complete washout,but the roof leaked so bad that the people customarily hung small tentsover their beds. Even in dry weather, dirt falling from the roof got intoeverything. Dirt was not all that fell, there were also bugs, mice, andsometimes a cow wandering onto the roof, suddenly joined the family. Allof their out buildings, including the barn was made of sod.

One family lived in wood-framed sod house, for many years.These people brightened the interior by using lime that had been fired,making it suitable for white washing. This lime came from a lime pit.

When the fired lime was not used, they covered the wallswith magazine pages. Each spring the walls were repapered with new pages.Long pegs were driven into the walls to hang kitchen utensils and cloths.

A semi-sod house was also built, the walls and roof wereframed of rough boards. The sod was cut about three and a half inches thick,and had long grass roots that were in ten blocks two feet by three inches.These roots made the sod tough and flexible. In the construction of thehouse, each layer of sod was filled with sand, and this allowed the irregularspots and any holes in the walls to be filled. The walls were eight to twelveinches thick. The roof boards were covered with tar paper. Sod was laidin strips that were at least three feet or even more in length. These longerstrips of sod were put down lengthwise on the roof, with the top stripsoverlapping, slightly, the lower one was about half way down, providinga double thickness of sod with no open seams exposed. When the roof wascompleted, a second wall of sod was built in the interior of the woodenframe. This sod was made smooth by sweeping and white washing it annuallywith white clay, from a near by slough. The double thick sod walls madea comfortable house that was cool in the summer, and warm in the winter.The house had two windows, and a door.

A sod house was made without mortar, a plastic buildingmaterial, as that made by mixing lime, cement, or the like with sand, water,and sometimes other materials; square, to make the house even; plumb, thisweight was lead attached to a line, and used by builders; and green backs,this is money, of course.

The log house was never extremely popular because goodlogs were scarce. It could be built with only the aid of an axe, and requiredno costly nails. Intended to serve merely as a way station in the wilderness,log houses rarely became a permanent home. When the families desired betterhousing facilities, they either abandoned their houses, often to be occupiedby new settlers, made them into larger dwellings, or converted them intostorage facilities.

For added protection against the cold weather, it was practicallydug into the ground, but this was only if the building side was high enoughto avoid moisture problems.

One of these log houses was set into the ground so thatonly four feet of wall was exposed to the elements of the weather. Thisreduced the amount of banking and to make these houses more comfortable,that is if it were standing out on the prairie.

A frame house is a single-walled, one room shack with alean against one side, for the cows and horses.

There was a house considered to be the best constructed.The outside wall was ship lap covered with heavy building material and finishedwith lap siding. On the interior of the studs there was lath and plasterfinished with wall paper. This made five layers of material and a dead airspace between the studs. That was the standard house construction for manyyears to come until modern insulation material was invented.

One of the frame houses was considered the warmest andbest built in the area. The builders used two layers of building paper,clap board, siding, an air space in the studding, ship lap, plaster, andwall paper. One thing happened though, the weather became so cold at times,that the people, who lived there, had to wear their outside cloths, liketheir mittens, coats, and so on, and had to live in just one room of thehouse.

The cost of building material varied from community tocommunity. Because lumber was scarce and expensive, most early houses werenot large or luxurious.

These homes were poorly furnished. There were very fewappliances and only the absolutely essential pieces of furniture, they weregenerally home made. Furniture items were held to a bare minimum in costand wherever possible built into the wall.

The only furniture was what could be made on the spot.A sixteen inch long section of an oak log, stood on end, made an enormouslyheavy "block cheer", a bedstead, bench, and a table. The buildersbored holes into roughly dressed timber and drove the whittled-down endsof sticks into them as legs to make stools and benches. The roughly dressedtimber, side by side, made the top of a two-legged table. It rested on twowooden logs, between the logs of the wall, each supported with a leg underits outer end. A bed went into the corner at the end of the house oppositethe stove. For the bed, the builder selected a post with a branch a coupleof feet from its thicker end. The builder made a hole in the floor for itsbutt; the upper end he fastened to the ceiling. This post was set aboutfour feet from. the end wall and six feet from the side wall. Then the builderthrust one end of a pole, between two side-wall logs and rested the outerend of the branch onto the post. Split planks running crosswise with theirinside ends in a wall crack, completed the bed. A plank across two pegsmade a shelf for the family's scarce tableware.

Straw-filled ticks, the stout covering, or casing; whichwhen filled formed a mattress or a pillow. When threshing season arrivedthe flattened-down straw was removed from the tick and then was turned insideout and washed. Ticks were refilled as quickly as possible after threshing,in order to avoid wet straw. The fresh straw, never barley, because thisgrain was too scratchy to sleep on, but either wheat or oats, was stuffedinto the ticks. These ticks varied in thickness from twelve to twenty-fourinches. Cleaning out and refilling them was the job for women and children.

Often the ticks in the bunkhouse where the hired men slepthad mice in them. There were few mice in the family's house because theyset many traps but this did not seem to work in the bunkhouse because themen were not as careful about keeping the traps set. The children had funcatching the mice, however, the parents did not think mice were so muchfun. They were tormented with the gnaw of the mice chewing everything inthe house.

Windows were risky; a few houses had none at all. Whenthey did have windows, there was no glass put into them, there were merelyholes covered at night and bad weather with heavy sliding shutters.

Pioneer homes left much to be desired as keeping warm wasconcerned.

On many pioneer farms the nearby creek or swimming holewas the most commonly used as the bath tub. But most of the pioneers reliedon the wash tub, which was placed in front of the oven door for the winterSaturday night baths.

The most pressing task that the families faced after comingto Kittson County was the erection of shelter. These houses showed the social,economic, and cultural development of each community. They were far from"palaces" and many times more people "resided" in them.


Davidson, Marshall B. The American Heritage; History ofNotable American Houses C. 1971

Drache, Hiram M. The Challenge of the Prairie C. 1970

Sloane, Eric ABC Book; Early Americana C. l963

Tunis, Edwin Frontier Living C. 1961ge of the Prairie C. 1970

Sloane, Eric ABC Book; Early Americana C. l963

Tunis, Edwin Frontier Living C. 1961