Nebraska History Spring Issue: Part 1 Before 1867

In the latest edition of Nebraska History we are highlighting Nebraska’s history in 150 photos in four parts. In the blog we will be previewing each part, along with adding an interesting photo and caption from each section.

Part 1: Before 1867

Willa Cather once wrote of Nebraska, “There was nothing but land; not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.”

Such was the perspective of settlers who came from Eastern towns and farms, as Cather’s family did when they arrived from Virginia in 1883, overwhelmed by the vastness of unpopulated, treeless space.

But Nebraska was not new country, even then. Imported diseases had devastated Native populations long before the first settlers arrived; the remaining people were restricted to reservations within decades. By Cather’s time, sun-bleached bones spoke of vast and vanished herds of bison that formerly provided a livelihood for generations of people.

Nebraska still looked rough and barely settled when it became a state in 1867, but the fact that it was now perceived as raw material for nation-building shows that a major transformation had already happened, if only in the minds of the state’s new settlers.

 

The picture above shows Nebraska in the 1850s was a territory full of paper towns and paper money. Hard currency was scarce on the frontier, and unregulated “wildcat” banks stepped in to fill an economic need for cash. This 1857 three-dollar bill was real money as long as people had confidence in the DeSoto, Nebraska, bank that printed it. If the bank was suspect, the bill would trade at well below par; when the bank failed later that year, the bill became worthless. The Panic of 1857 wiped out speculative banks and towns alike. NSHS 2565-2

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Timeline Tuesday: The Bachelors’ Protective Union of Kearney

When the Bachelors’ Protective Union gave a gala reception for two of its newly married, former members and their brides in March of 1890, the social club for young, single business and professional men was already well known in Kearney. Formed in November of 1888, the club took for its motto “Divided We Stand, United We Fall,” and held many of its social functions at Kearney’s Midway Hotel. The Kearney Daily Hub said on March 6, 1890:

From the Kearney Daily Hub, September 25, 1889.

    “The brotherhood, as its votaries delight to call it, has become very popular among society lovers, as was very evident last night from the many smiling, happy faces of the tenderer sex. It has been a time honored custom among the bachelors that when one of their members stepped aside to take a peep at the other side of life-the matrimonial side-this breach of faith is punished by visiting upon the offender the punishment of dining and evening [sic] him.”

The gathering was held at Kearney’s Midway Hotel, where the guests were seated at a table forming the letter “U” to designate the matrimonial unions of the two former club members. “Till nearly 11 o’clock the epicures feasted upon raw oysters on the half shell and other delicacies of the season,” after which toasts were made. “Mr. E. Frank Brown extended a hearty ‘Welcome to the Benedicts [a club for married couples],’ in which he said: ‘In welcoming my partners in misery you will pardon me if I recite a little poem.'”

Thankfully, the Hub did not include the poem in its coverage of the happy event. An earlier club banquet for newly married, former members, held in June of 1889, featured an original poem by member Will Hall Poore of the Kearney Enterprise. The seven stanzas appeared in the June 29 issue of the Hub, which reported that the attendees included “about thirty bachelors and their lady friends,” besides the guests of honor.

Solomon D. Butcher depicted the cigar stand inside Kearney’s Midway Hotel, which hosted many social events sponsored by the Bachelors’ Protective Union. NSHS RG2608-2628

The B.P.U., as it was often called, sponsored a variety of social events during its active years in Kearney. The Hub reported on October 4, 1889, that the “jolly lot of young fellows, who do not intend to have their sporting ardor dampened by the threatening rigors of winter, . . . are now considering the possibility of enclosing their tennis grounds . . . and turning it into a skating rink for the winter season.” The proposed rink would feature “dressing rooms, stoves and refreshment bouffes [sic] for hot coffee and light lunches.”   

Despite its popularity the Bachelors’ Protective Union may not have survived past the end of 1891. The Hub noted on January 6, 1892: “The fact that February rounds up this year with twenty-nine days is particularly ominous to old bachelors. And to think that the bachelors’ protective union couldn’t hold together till leap year!”

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Marker Monday: Sandhill Cranes

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

Location

2000-2026 W Platte River Dr, Doniphan, Hall County, Nebraska; 40.771302, -98.37882

Marker Text

The Big Bend of the Platte River in central Nebraska is one of the most important staging areas for the spring migration of the world’s largest population of sandhill cranes. Throughout history the Platte has also been a corridor of migration for native peoples and Euroamericans. For both cranes and humans, the river has provided water, food, and shelter in a sometimes harsh environment. No one knows when sandhill cranes appeared on the Nebraska landscape. Their remains have been found in nine-million-year-old deposits in western Nebraska and in prehistoric and historic Native American sites throughout the central plains. The journals of explorers and fur traders such as Edwin James (1820), John Townsend (1834), Rufus Sage (1841), and John J. Audubon (1843) mention sandhill cranes they observed while traveling up the Missouri River or along the Platte. Settlement of the Great Plains brought many changes to the Platte. Irrigation reduced its volume, and its shorelines and islands became overgrown when prairie fires and floods were controlled. Only the Big Bend region still provides prime habitat to sustain the annual migration of sandhill cranes.

Further Information

Search results at NebraskaHistory.org.

Shoumatoff, Alex. “500,000 Cranes Are Headed for Nebraska in One of Earth’s Greatest Migrations.” Smithsonian Magazine March 2014. SmithsonianMag.com Web. 24 Nov. 2015.

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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“he will not last.long”

On March 4, 1887, the Nebraska Legislature passed a bill creating a “State Soldiers’ Home,” to be located in Grand Island. Its first Civil War veteran was admitted to the brand new facility in June of 1888. A Nebraska Veterans’ Home continues to serve those who served in Grand Island today.

Records from the Grand Island Veterans’ Home in the NSHS collections tell many stories. Two letters convey the sad tale of James W. Shores, an African-American Spanish American war vet whose ticket from his home in Alliance to the vets’ home in Grand Island came too late.

The first letter from the United Spanish War Veterans State Relief Committee to the commander of the home reveals that since Shores fought in Cuba, not the Philippines, he drew no pension. He was also therefore ineligible for a closer veterans’ facility in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Married with two young children, Shores had spent all his savings on hospital bills. His health was rapidly deteriorating, so the letter asked that the commandant send forms and “please hurry them out, for if something is not done at once, he will not last.long.”

The letter written February 8, 1935, is followed by one five days later.  Despite the prompt response from Grand Island, “the papers did not get here in time to do any good for our Comrade Shores.” He was buried with full military honors in Alliance.The Grand Island Veterans’ Home collection includes 211 boxes and 36 ledgers. They are a small part of the government records preserved by the Nebraska State Historical Society. Discover more about these varied collections here:   http://nebraskahistory.org/lib-arch/research/public/index.shtml

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Flashback Friday: What’s more ghoulish than a historic mask of a long-dead celebrity?

 

Any mask of a long-dead celebrity with wrinkles, tears, missing ears, or discoloration – or at least that’s how the conservators at the NSHS’s Ford Conservation Center feel.

“The large spots of discolored adhesive make it look like he has leprosy or something,” says Rebecca Cashman, Objects Conservator.

Assistant Objects Conservator Rebecca Cashman works on one of the Doane Powell masks. This second round will go on display at the Nebraska History museum later this year. The first set of masks is already on display on the Museum’s first floor.

The objects lab at the Ford Conservation Center in Omaha is currently busy with 30 masks that will soon be part of the “The Strange and Wonderful Masks of Doane Powell” exhibit at the Nebraska History Museum. In March, these masks will replace the first group of treated masks currently on display. That way, the masks aren’t subjected to the rigors of being on display for the entire ten months of the exhibit.
The Doane Powell masks have been a huge group effort for the Ford Center. While each conservator usually works on projects related to his or her specialty (paper, paintings, or objects), the masks each consist of a three-dimensional layered paper substrate with a painted surface and additional elements composed of fabric, plastic, hair, and feathers (to name a few).Everyone has worked together to get these masks ready for display.

Age and improper storage methods have left many of the masks in rough shape. Made primarily in the 1940s and 1950s, Powell’s masks were used in theater productions, circus performances, movies and television, advertising campaigns, magazine illustrations, store window displays, and at social functions.

When the Nebraska native created the masks, he joined multiple layers of wood pulp kraft paper with glue, molding them over a facial sculpture of modeling clay on a rigid base. Each mask he created is one-of-a-kind.

Kenneth Be, painting conservator at the Ford Center, is shown with a John Falter painting.

As a result, conserving these objects requires a one-of-a-kind approach to clean and repair each mask.

“There are about 70 masks and they’re not all painted with the same media,” Cashman says. She picks up a mask of early 20th century entertainer Sophie Tucker and points to Sophie’s lips.

“In some cases we think actual makeup, like lipstick, was used to color some of the lips. ,” Cashman says. “We have to be very careful.”

At the beginning of the project, Cashman carried out extensive testing on a group of masks to gain a sense of cleaning methods and repair materials that could be safely used to treat them without interfering with the original materials. Lab technicians Megan Griffiths and Vonnda Shaw, along with paper conservator Hilary LeFevere have all helped treat the masks, which once exhibited faces that were grey from accumulated dirt and grime.

Some of the Powell masks had make up on the interiors from their various wearers, while others were just dirty from repeated use.

Additional testing is carried out on each mask before treatment.  Since the masks exhibit such a wide array of materials and problems, the treatment for each is individualized.  The conservators have on hand a supply of tested repair materials, such as adhesives and mending materials that are best to help repair tears and add structural soundness.

Paper conservator Hilary LeFevere and conservation technician Megan Griffiths work on paper objects at the Ford Conservation center.

Japanese tissue papers (which have long, intact fibers), cotton bandages, wax resins, wheat starch paste, and adhesives dripped into tears with syringes are just a few of the materials the conservators have used to stabilize the masks. Some of these materials are for mending, some are for adhering, and some, like the cotton bandages, are for reshaping the heads during humidification).

Other repair methods involve carefully exposing the mask to controlled humidity

“Sometimes you have to put the mask in a humidification chamber in order to make the paper components pliable enough to reshape them,” Cashman says. “But you don’t want the paper turning to mush, and you have to pay close attention to what is happening to the paint layer above, which reacts differently to moisture than the paint.  I was really excited when I was able to successfully humidify politician Grover Whalen’s flattened head and reshape it so that it actually resembled him.  “Sometimes I’ve had little chunks completely fall off,” Shaw says. “But I can put them back on because I’ve documented everything, and I know where they go.”(We should probably mention somewhere that Vonnda has repaired more masks than anyone for this project!)

Handling is a major cause of damage to the masks, so Shaw designed special supports for each mask that would minimize this risk.  The supports can be used during treatment, transportation, storage, and while the object is on display.  They consist of an inert foam head with a flexible “pillow” to support the internal cavities of the facial features.

Shaw says she spends about two and half to three hours on masks in good shape. That time also includes the time it takes to write reports and photograph her progress.

Masks in poor shape can take five to eleven hours to clean and repair.

“A mask of General MacArthur took a long time because he had a hat that was completely damaged,” Cashman says.

“Elsie the Cow took closer to eleven hours because one of her horns were damaged and her horns were partially detached,” Shaw says.

Cashman works on a Doane Powell mask at the Ford Conservation Center.

Cashman hovers over the “unidentified man” mask again (whose head is spotted overall from discolored adhesive) and turns him with a fastidious touch.

hovers over the “unidentified man” mask again (whose head is spotted overall from discolored adhesive) and turns him with a fastidious touch.
Cashman hovers over the “unidentified man” mask again (whose head is spotted overall from discolored adhesive) and turns him with a fastidious touch.

“The mask is losing its original hair, and the adhesive has discolored over time,” Cashman says. “We need to figure out the best way to read here the hair to head using materials that won’t affect the original paint.  There is a particular heat-activated adhesive I think may work, but we need to make sure exposure to low heat from a tacking iron won’t damage the hair. We have to think about things like that.”

Tacking irons are small, hand-held heating elements, and they are yet another tool the part-chemist, part-artist, part-therapist conservators use to repair and conserve the hundreds of items trusted to their care.

Conservators at the Ford Center serve the conservation needs of both the NSHS and private clients. Those private clients include individuals, art museums, and history museums.

“We don’t discriminate,” Cashman says. “A lot of clients bring in things that are important to their family that might not have a lot of market value but have a great deal of sentimental value.”

Conservators and technicians in the objects lab will move on to other projects now that the Doane Powell mask project is winding down.

Cashman sums up the main mission of the project succinctly.

“They are caricature masks,” she says. “So they need to look like the person – they just can’t be disfigured or squashed.”

 

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Nebraska’s Statehood

In celebration of Nebraska 150th anniversary of statehood we are providing sources  for more information on Nebraska’s statehood.

January, February, March 2017 Nebraska History Issue (see pages 8 and 9)

Nebraska’s founding documents tell the story of the territory’s controversial transition to statehood 150 years ago. Six page images from the NSHS archives provide a glimpse of Reconstruction-era politics, bitter partisan rivalries, and the struggle for civil rights.

Nebraska Statehood Launched in Troubled Times

On March 1, 1867, President Andrew Johnson reluctantly signed the proclamation declaring Nebraska’s statehood. The signing ended the life of a territory which thirteen years earlier had been organized amid controversy.

Nebraska Statehood and Reconstruction (starts on page 2)

The Nebraska statehood struggle revealed both the character and significance of national Reconstruction policy on the level of local frontier politics. Nebraska’s admission marked the first time that Congress imposed a “condition” upon a new state that impinged upon its acknowledged power to set suffrage qualifications. Nebraska’s entry into the Union in 1867 marked the reassertion of congressional authority over federal dependencies.

Nebraska Prestatehood Legal Materials

The purpose of this work is to provide a resource for identifying and locating prestatehood legal materials in Nebraska. Documents and resources are organized in six categories: historical background, state constitution, judicial branch, legislative branch, executive branch, and municipal documents/county records.

Chronology of Nebraska Statehood (starts on page 2)

A vital part of the history of the United States involves the acquisition of large tracts of land, primarily through purchase and treaty, and the transformation of these areas into states in the Union. The admission of the thirty-seventh state, Nebraska, provides a good example of the state-making process.

Semicentennial of Nebraska

The semicentennial celebration of the admission of Nebraska into the Union took place in 1917 under the auspices of the Nebraska State Historical Society.

Proclamation 164—Admission of Nebraska Into the Union

The official proclamation signed by President Andrew Johnson for  admission of Nebraska into the union.

Nebraska Timeline

This is a brief glimpse into Nebraska’s past. Theis website provides hundreds of small articles about all aspects of Nebraska’s history.

More about Nebraska statehood

When President Andrew Johnson signed the bill making Nebraska a state on March 1, 1867, a fierce struggle was already raging over the location of the new state’s capital. Amid angry charges of lack of legislative representation from those living south of the Platte River, and despite frequent challenges, the seat of Nebraska’s territorial government had remained at Omaha since 1854, the year in which Nebraska Territory was created. Although the then current Omaha capitol building, built in 1857-58, was apparently sturdy enough to house legislative sessions for several years and was well located in relation to Nebraska’s 1867 population, it was still north of the Platte. Forces from the south launched a major verbal and legal initiative to move the seat of government to their part of the state.

Brittany Hamor- Editorial Assistant

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The Legacy of Nebraska Exhibit Opens 6:00 p.m. March 1

Exhibit Opening at Nebraska History Museum

Nebraska will celebrate 150 years of statehood throughout 2017, but the birthday bash at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln starts at 6:00 p.m. Wednesday, March 1.  “The Legacy of Nebraska: Paintings by Todd A. Williams” will open to the public on Statehood Day. Nebraska-born artist Williams spent five years creating paintings that depict historic, geographic, and figurative elements from each of the state’s 93 counties. He worked with historians, sponsors, and leaders in each county to identify significant subjects for the project. Some counties inspired more than one painting. A total of 124 pieces will be on exhibit through June 4 at 131 Centennial Mall North, Lincoln. In addition to the March 1 opening from 6:00-8:00 p.m., the museum will be open late on Friday, March 3 from 4:30-7:00 p.m. as part of Lincoln’s First Friday Gallery Walk. The museum is open daily except state holidays free of charge. Call 402-471-4782 or visit www.nebraskahistory.org for more information. Some of the paintings are available online at www.toddwilliamsfineart.com/legacy-of-nebraska/

Summer Tour

This summer parts of the exhibit will tour to Grand Island’s Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (June 17-August 20), and Omaha’s Gallery 1516 (September 1-October 15). Regional selections will be simultaneously exhibited at Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art, David City; Homestead National Monument of America, Beatrice; Gallery 92 West, Fremont; Dawson County Historical Society Museum, Lexington; and the West Nebraska Art Center, Scottsbluff throughout the rest of 2017.

Nebraska Sesquicentennial Legacy Program

“The Legacy of Nebraska” was named a Legacy Program by the Nebraska Sesquicentennial Commission. It is part of a larger educational project that includes an art book (available at www.ne150.org). A documentary, “Painting Nebraska’s Legacy,” premieres at 7 p.m. CST, Monday, March 6 on NET television. The complete program schedule is at www.netNebraskaka.org/television.

The project is made possible by support of the Friends of the Nebraska 150 Sesquicentennial, Omaha Steaks, the Nebraska Arts Council and the Nebraska Cultural Endowment, Humanities Nebraska, Nelson Family Foundation, Richard Brooke Foundation, Windgate Foundation, First National Bank of Omaha, Cornerstone Bank, and the Nebraska State Historical Society.

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Timeline Tuesday: Sleighing Fun

John Nelson’s photograph of his sister, Hannah Nelson, and his niece, Alice Nelson Dahlesten, in a horse-drawn sleigh, about 1916-18. RG3542-6

When pioneer Nebraskans wanted to get somewhere in a hurry, they waited for snow. When it snowed, sleighs appeared, adding ease and pleasure to winter travel. “The most pleasant of anticipations fill our hearts when we hear the merry jingle of sleighbells,” said the Lincoln Evening News on December 11, 1897, “or when someone tells us that the ice is thick enough to hold a horse.”

A horse-drawn sleigh, its bed partially filled with hay, was a luxurious conveyance. The jingle of the bells and the laughter of the occupants could be heard for a long distance over the empty prairie on a crisp, still night. Many early newspapers in the files of the Nebraska State Historical Society frequently mentioned sleighing parties in their columns. The Nebraska Advertiser of Brownville on January 31, 1861, described several:

“On Saturday evening, a half dozen sleigh loads of ‘young folks’ went from this city to Rock Port; stopping at Cook’s Hotel. They partook of an excellent supper, after which, together with their friends of that place, they ‘all joined hands and circled round,’ until the ‘wee hours’ admonished them to ‘go home with the girls in the morning.’

“The same evening, a host of pleasure seekers from our sister city of Nemaha, came up to this place, and put up at the Brownville House, where they were treated in Doctor Macks’ best style. They were accompanied by Dye’s Brass Band, and favored our citizens with some of their excellent music. After supper, and a couple hours’ dance, off they went, band playing.”

By December 11, 1897, the Lincoln News reported that sleighing was possible in Lincoln for only a brief period just after a snowfall “owing partly to the high winds which drift the snow and largely to the fact that our city is rapidly assuming a metropolitan aspect which precludes the leaving of much snow on the streets for any length of time. There was a time in this city within the memory of man when a sleigh could be used all winter on any of the principal streets [and] thoroughfares. But the constantly increasing street traffic has changed all this, until now, instead of a beautiful roadway of snow, we have streets filled with slush.”

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Marker Monday: Axtell, (Kearney County) Nebraska

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

Location

301-399 Main St, Axtell, Kearney County, Nebraska

View this marker’s location 40.478801, -99.12689

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

Marker Text

Swedish immigrants began homesteading Mirage Township, Kearney County, in 1873. By 1876 these families had formed the Swedish Lutheran Church (Bethany Lutheran), the first church in Kearney County. The tempo of settlement increased with the coming of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad in 1883. Tradition says Axtell was named after the engineer of the first train to pass though the village. Axtell was incorporated December 14, 1885. Cooperative effort resulted in the establishment of three Axtell institutions. A mutual insurance company was founded April 19, 1885, to cover losses from fire, hail, wind, and theft. Pastor K. G. William Dahl, deeply concerned that people “remember them that are in bonds,” received community support in establishing Bethphage Mission February 19, 1913. The first reorganized school district in Nebraska, R-1, was ratified in a special election May 6, 1952, by the residents of Axtell and thirteen surrounding school districts. In the early 1900s Axtell was known as “Windmill Town” because of its many windmills. International renown was brought to Axtell in 1964 and in 1968 by Gary Anderson, who won Olympic Medals in rifle marksmanship.

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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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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