Pioneer Building


Scott Wallenberg


In pioneer days of the Red River Valley, settlers livedin three different kinds of buildings. The type of building built dependedon the type of land in the Valley. Sod buildings were built in prairieswhere there were no trees or stones. In areas where there was stone, stonebuildings were built. In areas where there were trees, log buildings built. These three types of buildings were the only types to the pioneer settlersof the Red River Valley.

Sod buildings were built by some of the earlier settlersin the prairies where there were no stones or timber for construction ofhomes and buildings. Material used for sod buildings consisted of sod andturf. Sod is a piece of grassy surface soil held together by the mattedroots of grass and weeds. Another product of the early settlers of ourarea used was turf. Turf is the grass of other fine plants with the longerstrips of sod. They were laid lengthwise on the roof with the top stripoverlapping the lower one halfway giving a double thickness of sod so thatthere were no open seams. The sod buildings were cool in the summer andwarm in the winter. In some cases when the fire went out, the water inthe dishpan would even freeze inside the sod houses in the winter time. The sod buildings had sand spread upon each layer of sod to fill in theirregular spots. This eliminated any openings in the walls. The walls wereeight to twelve inches thick. The roof was held with rails that were availableand the strips of sod were laid in three foot lengths or longer.

The inside of the sod building was made smooth by sweepingthe walls. In some areas where white clay was available, they used it asa whitewash for a cleaner, better look.

The main purpose of a sod building was using it for livingquarters. Pioneers that had livestock had sod barns, too. The lifetimeof sod buildings depended on how well they were constructed. A study wasmade of one sod building that was built in 1878 and they found it was stillin good shape in 1969.

Stone buildings have the fewest pores or air holes anddon't leak as much as sod and log buildings. Stone buildings are wind proofand rain proof. The construct the stone buildings the early settlers usedhammers and chisels for cutting the stone. They also used horses and wagonsto haul the heavy stone from the local fields. The walls were from eighteento twenty-four inches thick. The stone buildings in this area had roofsmade of lumber. Stone buildings in this area were used for storm sheltersand cool storage in summertime. There are still stone buildings standingin this local area that were built in the late 1800's. They are locatedin Kittson County between Lancaster and Humboldt.

The first log buildings were built by Swedish settlerswho came to Delaware in 1638. German pioneers who settled in Pennsylvaniabuilt the first log building in about 1710. Settlers first came to thispart of the Red River Valley and the log building they made was not easyto put up because they had to drive with a team of horses about thirty toforty miles to reach a good forest. It took them two days to reach theforest. One day to cut and load. They would stay overnight, again get upearly, and go home again. The most logs they could haul was about eightlogs but it depended on the thickness of it and the length.

The log buildings were not easy to build, although it requiredfew tools. Builders used three types of logs: round, hewn, and squared. Hewn means to notch in the logs. They they laid the logs and drove woodenpegs about one inch thick to hold the logs together. They used no nails,just wooden pegs. The logs had to be about the same size so that the cracksbetween them could be easily chinked or filled with moss, clay or mud. Builders had to be careful in cutting the notches where the logs fittedtogether. They usually covered the cabin with very few holes. They hauledclay and put straw chaff and pout water then they drive over it with horsesmixing the clay and straw together or even people would help by taking theirshoes off and walking over it with bare feet to mix it well, at the sametime turning the clay over with a pitchfork till it was well mixed and readyfor plastering. Or, they would chase sheep back and forth over the claymixing it, but the sheep were more of a nuisance. They carried clay bypail to the buildings and threw the clay hard in between the logs to geta good catch between the logs, then smooth it by hand so all of the logwas covered. The clay would have to dry a week if it was good weather. Then the people had to put on a second layer of plaster over the firstlayer after it was dry and smooth. If it was a barn, they would leave itwith two coats of white clay. If it was a house, they would whitewash itwith lime and it made beautiful whitewashed walls. The roof in the earlierdays was made of bark. In the later days, it was made of rough wooden shinglescut from logs. Most log cabins did not have windows because few peoplecould afford glass panes. But settlers often covered openings with animalskins or greased paper. They made doors and floors from logs split lengthwise. The door was usually hung on leather hinges. Most log cabins had one storywith one or two rooms. Some had a loft for sleeping and storage which peoplecould reach with a ladder or by steps cut into the cabin wall. Later, pioneerserected two story log cabins with several rooms.

There are still log cabins to be found in northern Minnesotaand North Dakota and southern Manitoba along the Red River. These crudeshelters, as well as the stone houses and sod huts, are vivid remindersof the sacrifices our ancestors suffered. Their way of life reminds usof the rich heritage we have in the Valley.


Murray, Mr. and Mrs., Lancaster, Minnesota, Interview,December 27, 1973

Wallenberg, James, Humboldt, Minnesota, Interview, January4, 1974

Wallenberg, Pearl, Lancaster, Minnesota, Interview, January1, 1974ONT>

Wallenberg, Pearl, Lancaster, Minnesota, Interview, January1, 1974