Home, sweet dirt.
October 1940. "Mr. Leatherman, homesteader, coming out of his dugout home at Pie Town, New Mexico."
Photographed by Russell Lee.
Before industry and technology gave us sawmills and frame houses, this is how the average person lived in much of the world. The dugout or pit house, with sod roof, log walls and earthen floor, is among the most ancient of human dwellings -- at some point in history your ancestors lived in one. Especially popular among 19th-century settlers in the Great Plains and deserts of the West and Southwest, where trees and other building materials were scarce, dugouts were warmer in winter and cooler in summer than above-ground structures; just about anywhere in North America the ground temperature three feet down is 55 degrees regardless of the season.
Shelter was the first essential and homesteaders who pioneered were resourceful men. They had brought a few farming tools along and first in importance was the heavy iron breaking plow. Drawn by a team of horses or oxen, this instrument could turn up an eighteen inch ribbon of the thick virgin prairie sod. The strip could then be cut into two foot sections, four to six inches deep, to make an almost perfect building block.
The first – and most desirable – homes were simply small rooms dug into the lee side of a low rolling hill. The walls were built up with sod blocks to a height of seven or eight feet. Holes were left for doors and windows which were usually store-bought and hauled from the nearest town or railroad point. Cottonwood poles laid side by side, then spread with a thick layer of coarse prairie grass to provide insulation and prevent dirt from sifting through, formed the roof. Over this was carefully fitted a double layer of the sod building blocks. The first good rain started this sod to growing and soon the dugout roof was covered with waving grass. The grass almost concealed the roof but did not affect its insulating or protective properties.
The floor of the dugout home was of rough wooden planks if the family could afford to buy them. Otherwise, it was treated as the neighboring Indian squaws treated their tipi floors: Sprinkled with water daily and swept with crude grass brooms until the surface was a hard and smooth as finished concrete.
Walls of the sod houses were lined with newspapers pasted or pinned up with small, sharpened sticks to keep the, dirt from brushing off. Some of the more ambitious families located outcroppings of limestone rock which they burned and mixed with screened sand to make a plaster coating for the walls.
The dugouts were amazingly comfortable homes; cool in summer, snug and easily heated in winter. The thick sod walls and roof made excellent insulation in a day when few knew or appreciated the value of insulation. When properly located on the south side of a low hill, with adequate drainage to provide run-off for rain and melting snow, the dugout was probably as comfortable a home as any our pioneering forefathers ever knew.
Unfortunately, the pioneer dugout had a very short life. It couldn't stand prosperity. With money in the bank, the status symbol was a clap board house and grandma couldn't be satisfied until she had gotten her family out of "that hole in the ground" and into her uninsulated clapboard structure: A house that was stifling hot in the summer and poorly heated in the winter by buffalo chips in the kitchen range or costly storebought coal that had to be hauled from town, carefully hoarded and sparingly doled out.
Prosperity put an end to the dugout in little more than a decade of pioneering, but a few pictures still exist to show how these homes looked and memories and journals of the oldtimers record the dugout's comforts and advantages . . . advantages that are still available to today's pioneers, homesteaders and freedom folk who want to get away from big city congestion and find a quiet, simple life close to the land.
The back yard
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