Flashback Friday: Historic Soddies as Modern Dwellings

Can you imagine living in a sod house—not as a pioneer, but as a modern person? Some people do, and some e pioneer-era soddies survive as modern dwellings.

A recently occupied and well preserved sod house. Photo courtesy by Diane Laffin.

Most of our fieldwork on historic sod buildings is concerned with redundant houses—those that have been abandoned and left to return to the earth. Very few have remained occupied. Project architect David Murphy and architectural historian Diane Laffin, however, found a small group of sod houses that are still, or were very recently, occupied. They show how commodious and modern a sod house can be under favorable conditions. This small group has been occupied for 100-120 years, and look like they could stand for another century. The difference? Mainly, care and maintenance.

Recall our earlier post on ruins (see it here), where we outlined four conditions that are crucial to sod house longevity. Those were: fence the livestock out, keep a good roof on it, make sure water drains away from the building, and protect the exterior surfaces from the elements.

We show two well-maintained houses here, one constructed in the late 19th century, the other in the early 20th. They illustrate the importance of stuccoed, plastered, or cemented walls, for the exterior walls of these are in excellent condition. In these examples, the sod bricks are protected not only from roaming livestock, but from the long-term effects of surface erosion caused by wind and rain. Protective coverings were very commonly used in history, and are ultimately an essential long-term preservation treatment. When cracks do occur in stucco, timely repair using caulk or plaster not only helps the coating stay sound, but ultimately protects the sod inside the walls.

Another detrimental impact on a sod house, like all buildings, entails the loss of a weather-tight roof. The two sod houses shown have well-maintained roofs: one is covered in metal and the other has an asphalt-shingled roof. Tight roofs offer protection from water that can seep into the top of a sod wall, saturate the bricks with moisture, and eventually erode the wall from the inside out. Water will also rapidly cause exterior plaster to fall off the walls. Leaking roofs will cause multiple other problems as well.

We also mentioned the importance of good site drainage. Excess water at the base of sod walls can develop serious structural problems. A lack of proper site drainage will increase ground moisture in the bottom of the walls and allow freeze-thaw cycles to undermine the base by reducing the solid bricks into loose dirt. In un-plastered walls, this causes the outside surfaces to fall away, reducing the structural profile at ground level. This is why, on plastered soddies, we often see thick concrete curbs poured around the base of the walls. Curbing can either be part of a repair, or an original preventative measure, depending on when the plaster was first applied. These thick curbs are often seen on ruins, where they can be evidence of formerly plastered walls. The high curb on the house shown here is unusual, and looks to be part of its original aesthetic.

Detail of plastered wall on an occupied sod house, western Nebraska. Photo courtesy by Diane Laffin.

Detail of the wall curb on an occupied, 19th century soddie, western Nebraska. Photo courtesy by Diane Laffin.

The sod houses featured here have all the modern conveniences one would expect in a house. All have internal plumbing and modern bathrooms, though in the older ones, the bathrooms were provided in wood frame additions to the sod house. One, built in the mid-1940s, had both the bathroom and the kitchen built within the sod walls. And just to reinforce the points made here, two of these illustrated soddies are equipped with WiFi and satellite dishes!

Front facade on a recently occupied, mid-century soddie in central Nebraska. Photo courtesy by David Murphy.

Written by architectural historian Diane Laffin and senior project architect David Murphy

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Timeline Tuesday: Butter Churning

Fairmont Creamery, butter packing, Omaha plant, 1911. RG4218-1-16

Well into the nineteenth century butter was made chiefly by hand using butter churns, which came in many sizes and styles. Butter, the fat found in cream, is made by churning the cream, which causes the fat globules in it to combine into lumps of butter. The remaining liquid is buttermilk. Once the butter has formed, it is removed from the buttermilk, washed in cold water, and gently kneaded to incorporate salt for flavor and to make the butter smooth. Catherine Arndt of York recalled in 1981 the churns and methods used to make butter during her Nebraska childhood in the early 1900s:

“The first churn I remember was a large round wooden ‘Contraption’ that was fastened to a metal stand. It had a wooden lid and on the inside it had wooden paddles or dashers fastened to a metal frame that connected to the handle or crank on the outside. When you turned the handle this cause[d] the paddles to splash through the cream in a circular motion. The constant motion through the cream caused the butter fat to separate from the buttermilk and eventually you had a nice large batch of butter. . . .

“The liquid or buttermilk was drained from the churn by removing a small wooden pin from the hole in it. The paddles were then removed and the butter was lifted out and put into a large wooden bowl. This bowl and the wooden paddle used to ‘work’ the butter were never used for anything else. Butter was ‘worked’ or kneaded to get as much moisture out of it as possible. Cold water was put on it several times until it was clear. Then it was worked some more until all of the milk & water were removed. Salt was then added, usually to taste. Then it was either shaped into molds by hand using the wooden paddle or put into wooden molds. . . .

“Then came the dasher churn. It was a tall round ‘Crock.’ It had a lid with a hole in the center that fit over the handle of the dasher. The dasher was a round wooden pole about three foot tall fastened to a wooden paddle in the shape of a plus sign. These took a long time to make butter, but were simple to clean. You got butter by ‘dashing’ the paddles up and down in the cream. Sometimes a tired cranky child could really make it dash.

“Then Happy Day, somebody invented the ‘Daisy Churn.’ These were gallon size glass jars. The paddles were fastened to a metal frame, which in turn had a metal rod that came through a hole in the screw on lid. This fastened to the metal frame on the lid and to the crank and glass. So that when the lid was in place you turned the handle and the paddles stirred through the cream at a great rate. You got butter much faster with these churns. They also had an opening in the top covered by a removable screen. So the butter milk could be easily removed. Then cold water could be poured into the churn onto the butter. And the working process was shortened. Then the butter was molded as always.”

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Marker Monday: Ak-Sar-Ben Field and the U.S. Air Mail

Welcome to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers.

Location

Parking Garage, S 67th St, Omaha, Douglas County, Nebraska

View this marker’s location 41.241576, -96.01588

View a map of all Nebraska historical markers, Browse Historical Marker Map

Marker Text

Ak-Sar-Ben Field, whose hangars were located on the southeastern corner of these grounds, was used extensively during the early development of U.S. Postal Air Mail Service. Ray Benedict landed here with the first airmail from Chicago on May 15, 1920 and William DeWald piloted the return flight the same day. The Omaha-San Francisco leg of the transcontinental route was opened by Pilot Buck Heforn the following September. Daytime airmail service from New York to San Francisco began on September 8, 1920 and the first shipment from the east was flown into Omaha by James Murray. Although the early airmail flights took place during daylight hours, the feasibility of night flying was soon explored. On February 22, 1921, Jack Knight took off from the North Platte, Nebraska, airfield on the first night airmail flight in the United States. He landed here at Ak-Sar-Ben Field before continuing on to Chicago. The efforts of these pioneer aviators led to the inauguration, on July 1, 1924, of day-night airmail service from coast to coast. In September 1974 the Air Mail Pioneers of America met in Omaha to observe the 50th Anniversary of this significant event in aviation history.

Further Information

For one day in 1938, hundreds of Nebraska towns had direct airmail service. Read Kathleen Alonso’s “3,937 Pounds of Letters: National Air Mail Week in Nebraska, May 1938,” Nebraska History (2005) here.

For Air Mail Week in 1938 more than two hundred Nebraska communities created their own commemorative designs for airmail envelopes, and the result is a study in local pride. Read John Carter’s “Landmarks on Paper,” Nebraska History (2005) here.

Nebraska Marker Project

The Nebraska Marker Project is for the repainting, repair and in some cases, replacement of state historical markers throughout the state. Nebraska’s markers share our exciting history for generations to come. Please consider donating by visiting the Nebraska Marker Project webpage at http://nshsf.org/the-nebraska-marker-project/.

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Timeline Tuesday: Comic Valentines

A Valentine’s Day portrait of a child sitting in a large heart with an arrow through it, Omaha 1934. RG3882-49-0173-3

Although Valentine’s Day and the sending of love messages associated with it have roots in antiquity, the exchange of comic valentines originated in the United States. These valentines were particularly popular from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s and are still available today along with traditional greetings. The Omaha Daily Bee on February 14, 1876, editorialized on the increasing popularity of the comic valentine at the expense of the sentimental variety and (inaccurately) predicted the demise of both:

“The time when the most delicate expression of a young man’s admiration for a young lady lay in sending her once a year an expensive and elegant valentine to express his sentiments of tender love for her, has nearly passed, and costly missives of this character are almost numbered among the things that were. . . . The sentimental valentine has almost dwindled into a tradition. Nobody sends it, excepting fools and children, and perhaps a few old bachelors, who are to be placed somewhere between the two. The only kind of valentine which to-day has solid existence is the comic one. That still holds place because of the opportunity it provides to malice, satire and ridicule.

“If we could obtain correct statistics of purchasers we should perhaps find that not a few adults employ this ingenious method of venting their vindictiveness. Decency forbids that Jones should tell Smith to his face that he is a common drunkard, but it cannot prevent him mailing him a valentine representing him with a very red nose and an empty brandy bottle. The sweet amenities of life render it impossible for Mr. Snob to taunt Jenks with having had a mother who took in washing; but it is eminently admissible for Snob to send Jenks some anonymous rhymes about soapsuds, accompanied with a highly colored illustration representing the old lady Jenks over the tub. Mr. Smithers does not want to inform his landlady that her terms are high and living low; but he can send her, without detection, some satirical verses on hash, which will be a superb indemnification for the punctual payment she injuriously insists upon. . . .

“St. Valentine’s day is, then, an annual escape-valve for the malice and uncharitableness of close acquaintances. It affords one an easy method of wounding our neighbor’s sensibilities without being found out. Yet even in this respect it is steadily on the decline, and ere long must take its place among the ghosts of dead institutions, and it is a ghost which no one need materialize and make tangible again. It has had its golden hours and has contributed in bygone times to the smiles and blushes and happy tears of innocent maidens and susceptible spinsters. Its sentimental side has too much of gushing simplicity and ingenuousness to suit this rattling locomotive age.”

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Marker Monday: Cedar County

Welcome to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers.

Location

101-199 S Broadway St, Hartington, Cedar County, Nebraska

View this marker’s location 42.620300, -97.26459

View a map of all Nebraska historical markers, Browse Historical Marker Map

Marker Text

Much of the early history of Cedar County involves the Indian inhabitants, the Ponca, Omaha, and Sioux. Several prehistoric and historic Indian villages were located in the region. In 1804, Lewis and Clark ascended the Missouri River near here during their exploration of the Louisiana Territory. From August 28-31, they held a council with the Sioux at Calumet Bluff, now the southern abutment of Gavins Point Dam. Permanent settlement occurred during the 1850’s and 1860’s and formed the basis for Cedar County’s future development. The county was organized by act of the territorial legislature on February 12, 1857. St. James was the county seat until 1869, when it was moved to St. Helena. Hartington, near the center of the count, was selected as the permanent county seat in an 1885 election. The Cedar County courthouse was constructed at a cost of $19,000 in 1891-1892 during the terms of County Commissioners John Lorang, Theodore Beste, and Joseph Morten. Designed by J. C. Stitt, the building is an example of a simple Romanesque style of architecture and was constructed of brick manufactured locally. One of the contractors was Henry Stuckenhoff of Hartington, who also helped build many of the churches and early commercial buildings in Cedar County.

Nebraska Marker Project

The Nebraska Marker Project is for the repainting, repair and in some cases, replacement of state historical markers throughout the state. Nebraska’s markers share our exciting history for generations to come. Please consider donating by visiting the Nebraska Marker Project webpage at http://nshsf.org/the-nebraska-marker-project/.

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Timeline Tuesday: Willa Cather and Beauty and the Beast

Cast of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ including Willa Cather in a top hat. The play was a comedic musical version written by J Barmby. RG1951-1119

The Red Cloud Opera House on February 4, 1888, was the scene of an amateur theatrical entitled Beauty and the Beast. Small-town opera houses hosted such entertainments frequently, but the unique feature of this particular play was the inclusion of the young Willa Cather among the cast. Donning suit, top hat, and wax mustache, Cather played Beauty’s merchant father to a large and appreciative crowd.

The Red Cloud Chief on February 10, 1888, described the play, given “for the benefit of the indigent poor of this city. . . . The young folks who took part in the comedy were in training for about two weeks, under the management of Mr. W. F. O’Brien and Mrs. Sill, and to say that they merit great praise in the matter would be putting it in a light form. Every thing seemed to be perfect, and the various parts taken by the young ladies were rendered with that ease and perfection that only characterizes the most perfect training at the hands of the instructors and the adaptation of each part best suited to the individual who would be most apt to go through with it without failure.

“For instance Willa Cather took the part of ‘The Merchant’and carried it through with such grace and ease that she called forth the admiration of the entire audience. It was a difficult part and well rendered.

“Mary Miner as ‘Chimpanze’ a prince transformed into a beast, was an excellent character, and as she appeared upon the stage representing a bear, it was the signal for a general uproar of applause. If she had been ‘old bruin’ himself she could not have acted her part better. Nellie West as ‘Goblin Page’ performed her part of ‘Attendant on Beast’ with perfect composure and good judgment.

“Minnie McAvoy and Trix Mizer as first and second daughters of Merchant, rendered their several parts to the utter satisfaction of the audience, who applauded them frequently. Margaret Miner as third and favorite daughter of Merchant, played her part splendidly and without fault and came in for her share of applause.

“Pearl Skeen as ‘Little Fairy’ acted her part charmingly, and looked a veritable fairy from fairy land as she tripped lightly to sweet strains of the piano in the mazy waltz. Nellie McBride as ‘The Fairy Aunt of Chimpanze’ rendered her part without a fault.”

The Chief noted that In Want of a Servant was afterward presented.

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Marker Monday: Prisoners of War in Dundy County

Welcome to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers.

Location

Nebraska 61, Benkelman, Dundy County, Nebraska

View this marker’s location 40.183812, -101.5308

View a map of all Nebraska historical markers, Browse Historical Marker Map

Marker Text

In May 1944 German prisoners of war from Camp Atlanta, Nebraska, were sent to a side camp near here to help area farmers complete the 1943 corn harvest. Seven farmers employed forty-four Germans, who harvested some ten thousand bushels of corn. Six tarpapered frame buildings, enclosed by a fence, housed the prisoners; a nearby windmill served as a guard tower. The Germans returned to Camp Atlanta on June 30, 1944, and the buildings were sold in February 1945.

Further Information

A branch camp of the Atlanta Prisoner of War Camp was located in Benkelman during World War II. Over 300,000 Axis prisoners of war were held in America during World War II. In accordance with the Geneva Convention, these prisoners were often hired out to local farmers and businesses to replace the labor positions vacated by the war effort. To make working away from camp easier, branch camps were established around the base camps. Prisoners would be transferred from the base camp to the branch camp, where local employers would seek them out for different projects. Branch camps were usually located in existing structures. Rumors began to circulate in 1944 that a POW camp would be built near Benkelman. In May of that year, a camp was constructed. This camp served as a branch camp for the Atlanta base camp. Unlike most branch camps, it was constructed out of new material instead of repurposing old structures. The camp was welcome in Benkelman since the labor supply was so low the 1943 harvest hadn’t even been completed yet. It was constructed in a remote area away from the town and consisted of six buildings surrounded by a fence. A windmill was used as a guard tower. Within two months, the POWs helped harvest 10,000 bushels of wheat. Only 44 prisoners were assigned to the camp, and only 7 farmers used their labor. All the prisoners and guards left on June 30, 1944. The camp was evaluated later to see if it would be suitable for workers during the fall and winter harvest. Since it didn’t have any heating units, it was not used again. It was officially closed on January 26, 1945, and all the structures and property of the camp were sold. It was used for a shorter period of time than any other POW camp – Thompson, Glenn. Prisoners on the Plains: The German POW Camp at Atlanta. Holdrege: Phelps County Historical Society. 1993.

Nebraska Marker Project

The Nebraska Marker Project is for the repainting, repair and in some cases, replacement of state historical markers throughout the state. Nebraska’s markers share our exciting history for generations to come. Please consider donating by visiting the Nebraska Marker Project webpage at http://nshsf.org/the-nebraska-marker-project/.

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On This Day: Welcoming Displaced Persons

Governor Val Peterson, center, reviewing relief plans during the blizzard of 1949.

On February 4, 1948, the Honorable Val Peterson, Governor of the State of Nebraska, formed a volunteer committee to study the needs and desires of the citizens of the state on the receiving of displaced persons. After various surveys were sent out and information was gathered from church groups, businesses and private individuals from around the state, the committee was disbanded. Federal legislation passed on June 25, 1948 allowed 205,000 displaced persons and orphans admittance to the U.S. President Harry Truman appointed a commission to oversee this legislation. In June of 1949, Governor Val Peterson announced the appointment of a Nebraska Committee on Resettlement of Displaced Persons. The committee consisted of seven religious leaders from various faiths, headed up by Dr. A.W. Taylor, Director of the Nebraska Council of Churches. The goal of the Committee was to absorb the set number of displaced persons (in 1948 that number was 2,050) over a period of two years, hoping that these people would become self-supporting, loyal citizens, without displacing any present citizen from the standpoint of either employment or housing or both.

Records preserved by the Nebraska State Historical Society include correspondence and application forms from displaced persons and their sponsors in Nebraska, correspondence with other agencies and organizations dealing with displaced persons, and miscellaneous pamphlets, brochures, and newspaper clippings relating to displaced persons, and meeting minutes of the Committee.

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Timeline Tuesday: Coal Thieves

Workers at Honey Creek Coal Mine, Peru, Nebr. RG2304-8-58

The advent of winter at one time prompted many Nebraska householders to lay in a supply of coal. Those who lacked the money sometimes found creative ways to fill the family coal bin. From Lincoln’s Daily State Journal of January 27, 1878: “A successful raid was made upon the coal thieves frequenting the [Lincoln railroad] depot night before last. Ever since last fall our dealers have been missing from one to three tons per night taken from loaded cars standing upon the track.

“The loss was so heavy and the stealing becoming greater and greater, the coal dealers had a meeting a few evenings since and decided to employ three watchmen to watch their property for one night, if the scheme worked, put them on duty from night to night as the occasion demanded. Night before last was their first night on duty and before daylight the next morning four of the thieves were caught in the act with the coal on their backs and some three or four that had visited the cars and were in the act of helping themselves when they discovered the watchman.

“Mr. Gillespie, one of the watchmen, overhauled a Bohemian who was lugging off a chunk that did not weigh less than 200 pounds. Every one that was found with coal, declared that it was their first attempt at stealing. The dealers inform us that at least fifteen families living about the depot have not purchased a pound of coal since last summer, and yet nice little piles may be found in their houses and at the back doors.

“One man who had filled a sack, when stopped, said he had been purchasing his coal from Mr. Shaw. When that gentleman examined his books it was found that the thief had purchased a quarter of a ton last August, and no other dealer in the city had sold him a pound since that time. Those arrested were compelled to return the coal to the car, and their names taken. Yesterday morning they were sent for and all save one put in an appearance, declaring their innocence of habitual stealing and offering to compromise the matter.

“The coal dealers in a body, together with the special watchmen, were guarding their property last night, and we presume will gather in a few more [thieves]. An example, it is thought, will be made of the guilty ones to-morrow.”

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Marker Monday: Blizzard of 1888

Welcome to Marker Monday! Each Monday we will feature one of Nebraska’s hundreds of historical markers. If you’d like to see a specific marker featured, send an email to nshs.it@nebraska.gov.

 blizzardof88

 

Location

2401-2413 Nebraska 41, Milligan, Fillmore County, Nebraska

View this marker’s location 40.510226, -97.38521

Marker Text

One of the most spectacular and harrowing events in the history of the Great Plains was the Blizzard of January 12, 1888. Other storms had produced colder temperatures and greater amounts of snow. It was the combination of gale winds, blinding snow, and rapidly falling temperatures that made the 1888 blizzard so dangerous. The storm’s full fury lasted up to eighteen hours in many parts of Nebraska. Because of the suddenness of its onset, the blizzard caught many children away from in one-room schoolhouses. In an attempt to rescue her two sons, Charles and Thomas, from school Mary Masek of Milligan trekked nearly two miles to the schoolhouse. Finding the building empty, she started for home, but she never reached her destination. She was found frozen to death huddled near a cottonwood tree, only a short distance from a neighbor’s farmhouse. The Blizzard of 1888 created the scene for heroic acts. Mary Masek, like many Nebraskans, fell victim to one of nature’s most violent displays while courageously attempting to save the lives of her children.

Further Information

Search results on NSHS web site for “The Blizzard of 1888”

Nebraska Marker Project

The Nebraska Marker Project is for the repainting, repair and in some cases, replacement of state historical markers throughout the state. Nebraska’s markers share our exciting history for generations to come. Please consider donating by visiting the Nebraska Marker Project webpage at http://nshsf.org/the-nebraska-marker-project/.

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