Friday, March 3, 2017

The Ould Sod...House

Full disclosure. The blog post I intended to write didn't work out.

This being a month dear to the Irish, I was going to write about the deadliest gunslinger you probably never heard of. Irish-born James Leavy (sometimes spelled Levy), a man so skilled with the gun that other gunslingers of the day, such as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, tipped their Stetsons to him.

James Leavy was born in Dublin to Jewish parents. He was known as the "Jewish Cowboy." Right there he sounds like a pretty interesting character one would want to write about. It's said he fought and survived sixteen gunfights, including one where he was shot in the face. Eventually, he did meet his end by the gun in 1882 Tucson, where he was ambushed.

In my western, Margarita and the Hired Gun, the hero is an Irish immigrant who becomes a reluctant hired gun due to his mad skills with the pistol. When I heard of Leavy, I thought I'd met my hero incarnate. I put a pin in the article I first saw about him, thinking he'd make an interesting topic to come back to. And then I had a busy month.

 When I finally got around to researching him this week, I found sod all. There's not even a sodding photograph of him--being shot in the face may have left him camera-shy.

If a photograph of James Leavy existed, this is right where I'd put it

 Such scant information disappointed me. James Leavy was a boring old sod--at least on paper. He may have had a colorful life, but if he did nobody was taking notes. I don't think the reader would give a sod about the few things I found out about him. So, sod off idea to write about James Leavy.  I had to find a new topic fast. Sod's law I pick a boring gunslinger. What to write about?

sod it, sod it... SOD! Sod Houses!

So, sod houses. I've always been fascinated by houses built in strange places or out of strange material since I was a kid. When I was in grade school a bunch of us got together daily in a vacant lot, and armed with shovels, we dug a large underground clubhouse. We carved tables and benches into the walls and hung out there every day...until the fire department came and caved in the whole thing before our horrified eyes (my father and grandfather were on the fire department, by the way).

In 1862 the Homestead Act was passed and so began the great Westward Expansion. For the cost of a filing fee, anyone could stake out 160 acres. All the new landowner had to do was farm and live on the land for five years and it was his or hers (twelve percent of homesteaders in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North, and South Dakota were single women). People came from all over the world to grab their piece of America. What a deal!

Except conditions on the prairies were extreme. Summers where the temperatures could reach 120 degrees. Winters so cold your livestock might die because their breath froze in their noses. Then there were the tornadoes, droughts, rain storms, and swarms of grasshoppers. Grass so tall mothers feared losing their children in the Sea of Grass.

And the treeless plains were not that giving. There was hardly a stick or stone to build a house, and did I mention the other requirement was that the homesteader had six months to build a house? What to do?

The Chrisman sisters in front of their sod house. How did they and their voluminous dresses fit into that little house? And how did they manage to look so clean?

Early homesteaders followed the example of the Native Americans, who built their lodge houses out of sod. Special blades were fitted to plows to rip off the top layer of ground. The roots of the grasses were so deep, they made a loud ripping noise when pulled from the earth.

The blocks of sod, called "Nebraska marble," were then cut into bricks to build walls. If the sod dried, it would crumble and be impossible to work with, so the homesteader could only dig up as much sod as he (or she) could work with. The moist bricks were stacked on one another so the roots continued to grow into the layer beneath it giving added strength to the structure. The typical dwelling constructed would be a simple one-room house.  A roof was made by layering branches, straw, and twigs across the top on which more sod was placed.

The sod proved a good insulator, keeping the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer. And a sod house was cheap, costing less than $5 to build. The area of bare earth left around the house once the sod was cleared acted as a protective shield, keeping varmints away from the dwelling.

The downside: the bare-earth practice kept some varmints outside the house, while bringing others in. There are stories of rattlesnakes coming out of their dens in the walls and heading up to the roof to sun themselves during the day. Mice, fleas, snakes, and insects, oh my! One woman "sodbuster" complained that there were so many rats around the house looking for corn, that she had to kick them out of the way each time she left the house.

And if insects and snakes falling on you weren't enough to put you off--and I'm put off at this point already--the sodbuster waged a constant war against dirt, because if you live in a house made of dirt....One settler complained she needed an umbrella in the house to keep dirt from falling on her while she prepared dinner. Canvas could be fixed across the ceiling to combat falling dirt, leaks, and insects. The floor was usually dirt as well, though the walls were often plastered or whitewashed. Sod houses required maintenance, and the threat of a roof collapsing was a reality.

Windows could be installed for an expense, but the sod house was generally a dark, cramped space. Any activity such as sewing, socializing, or other tasks that could be taken outside, were. There wasn't much room for furniture, and so much like my childhood underground fort, tables and beds were carved into the walls.

Note: activity taking place outside the house, rather than inside

Typically, a house made out of sod was seen as a temporary residence. Maybe a family would live in the one room "soddy" for seven years or so until they were able to gather together enough funds to build a wood frame house. But, it could be made more habitable by adding wood slats for flooring and papering the walls.

Interior of a "soddy" whose owner knew how to make  a house a home. If PBS had a series called This Sod House, this house would be a winner.

As cozy as the above picture is, I don't think it represents the norm. Scratching together a day to day existence as a homesteader must have been hard beyond anything most of us today can imagine: the isolation, the grueling work, battling the elements to only face the random follies of nature such as losing your crops to a swarm of grasshoppers as you sit in the comfort of your leaky, varmint-infested sod house.

Less than half the homesteaders withstood the test. I don't know if I would've made it, but it's hard to pit the modern me against a me that had been raised without the comforts I enjoy today such as going out for Sunday brunch, central heating, and Trader Joe's. Still, I like to think I would have been one of the success stories. There are some cheerful accounts from optimistic sodbusters, and I think part of surviving the blows life rains down on you is the attitude you bring into to ring. Anyone who is here on earth today is a survivor in the story of mankind when you think about it. There's been a whole lot of stuff that could have killed off your family line in the preceding centuries, so if you're reading this now, you've passed the test. We all have it in us to endure.

So, what do you think? How would you and your family have fared living in a sod house?


Andrea Downing said...

Oh, Patti, you do make me laugh. On your behalf I have now written to sodding True West magazine to try to find out more about sodding Leavy. As for the sod house, I visited one on the way to Badlands Nat'l Park. Can't say that, even with papering and furniture, it would be somewhere I'd like to live but, hey, having fought scorpions and cockroaches in Nigeria, and mice in NYC, I guess one gets used to just about anything... Thanks for a terrific post.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Thanks, Andi, you and your mice were very much on my mind as I wrote this! Imagine having critters fall out of your ceiling! Great idea about writing to True West magazine. You must let me know if you find out anything more about him. There's got to be a better story than what I was able to find. Thanks for stopping by!

Shanna Hatfield said...

What a great post, Patti. And I would never, ever have survived in a sod house. As a pioneer, pretty sure I had have failed big time.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hi, Shanna, thanks! Those homesteaders who made it through were certainly built of strong stuff. I get cranky and stop to function if I get a little chilled. I can't imagine facing those conditions everyday--worse yet raising children in a one-room sodhouse!
And, by the way, Andrea heard from True West magazine, which provided a few more details than I found one Leavy, but still not much is known of him. The man who answered her said he wrote an article on him and was also frustrated by the lack of photo. Also, he believed as did other writers on the subject Leavy was not even Jewish but some people thought he was because his last name sounded like Levy. Have a great day and thanks for stopping by!