This museum is found in the only extant original sod house in Oklahoma. Built by a homesteader, it gives a glimpse of what Plains living was like in the late nineteenth century. The Sod House Museum contains a display of contemporary implements and furniture typical of 1907, the year that Oklahoma achieved statehood.
Sod House Museum
Rural Route 3
Aline, OK 73716
ph.: (580) 463-2441
The sod house is an enduring part of American heritage and a unique component of architecture during the westward expansion of the United States into the Great Plains. Solomon Butcher emigrated to Nebraska but found photography more to his liking than farming. He made a name and career for himself by recording the sodbusters, sod houses, and daily life on homesteaders’ farms. His remarkable images immortalized the innovative building methods, adaptations, and ingenious forms that were incorporated into the structures built by the farmers who settled and struggled to live on the Great Plains.
The best lands were occupied early, leaving most to deal with the lack of timber and trees elsewhere. The only remaining available building material was sod. It was easy to use and durable. The sod house, despite its problems, was warm in winter and cool in summer. During some periods of extreme weather or fire, only those living in sod houses would survive. The sod house protected early American settlers and made life on the Great Plains possible.
When the first of modern Americans made their way out of the eastern woodlands and onto the empty Great Plains, they encountered endless seas of waving grass with little in the way of useful building materials in evidence. The prairies of the Midwest had few wooded areas and streams, or protected areas. The land was easy to travel across, the soil was fertile and free of rocks, stumps, and seedlings, and the vista was unlimited, but housing materials were nearly absent, and the weather was very harsh.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, giving eligible U.S. citizens 160 acres of free land out west in return for a ten-dollar filing fee. This land was in the Great Plains, sometimes referred to as the “Great American Desert,” a misnomer for the fertile but treeless region in the middle of the north American continent.
Settlers at first trickled into the area, intimidated by the native peoples who were willing to protect their territories, until the military removed most of the Indians to reservations by 1890. After the Civil War, from 1865, nearly fifty thousand African Americans, called “Exodusters,” contributed to the increased flow of the human river. Once the railroads were completed, the Indians subdued, and the buffalo destroyed, the flow of the river became a vast tide that washed across the continent, made up of immigrants, emigrants, and all types of people from all over the world.
The continuing exodus of homesteading farmers pushed west by the expansionist powers of Manifest Destiny, were called “sodbusters.” They faced, on arrival, land receiving only twenty inches of rain a year, tortured by extreme temperatures and natural disasters, and nearly lacking trees, wood, water, and fuel. They responded to the brutal environmental demands by building houses from the earth itself. Sod houses, or “soddies” as they were often called, are a reflection of the persistence and hardiness of the American pioneers.
Such houses had been in use by plains Indian tribes, such as the Mandan, who may have provided settlers with examples of effective housing adaptations, for many thousands of years. The use of subterranean and freestanding dwellings covered with earth has been a universal human response to difficult and demanding environmental conditions since prehistoric times. It was natural to use the earth, as it was the only building material available.
Sod houses were a demonstration of the incredible creativity and resilience of the people who settled the Great Plains states, such as Oklahoma, Nebraska, and the Dakotas. They were inexpensive, easy to build, often well crafted, very durable, and built well into the twentieth century, when wooden frame houses began to dominate the midwestern landscape.
The sodbusters responded to their unique situation and demanding environment by constructing their houses of sod. Sod is a mixture of soil and grass held together by an intricate root system that makes it both strong and flexible. When farmers broke the sod with the recently developed John Deere grasshopper plow, the soil turned over in long strips about eighteen inches wide and four inches thick, which were then chopped into three- to four-foot lengths and stacked after the fashion of bricks into walls, sometimes three or four bricks deep. The “bricks” were stacked with the root systems facing up. As the roots grew into the bricks above, the layers of bricks were locked more firmly together. Such walls, built properly, could endure for many years.
The interior floor was patted down until it was nearly rock hard. Sod brick walls were built, doors and windows of oil paper or glass were added, then the interior was divided into rooms using tarps, blankets or other materials, usually brought along by the family from the east. A layer of mud or clay could be spread over the interior walls like plaster and whitewashed, or even covered with newspaper or wallpaper to lighten and brighten the subterranean interior. Heat was easily provided by a small wood- or dung-burning stove.
Montgomery Ward was marketing windows and frames for just over one dollar in 1872. Ready-made accessories became popular items as they helped the homesteaders continue to improve their sod houses so as to fulfill the legal requirement that they continue with ongoing improvements to retain title to their land.
Lean-tos, outbuildings, and even barns were built of this versatile material and added onto the house or remained freestanding. In the event of tornado, hail, fire, or grasshopper plague, protection was assured. Some such disasters would strip the land of all exposed plant and animal life. Farmers and their families brought seedlings, animals, tools, and anything else of value into the secure interior until the danger had passed. Fireproof and weatherproof, if not waterproof, the sod house was a perfect expression of early American populist utilitarian architecture.
Some sod houses were freestanding, some were built into the sides of hills or streambeds. Door and window frames were singular or multiple, depending on how well off the owners were. Roofs were made of twigs, thin branches, or whatever supporting material could be found, then piled with straw or grass and covered with a final layer of sod. More fortunate home owners used difficult-to-obtain lumber to build a roof that they could shingle. Such homes were a safe haven and nearly indestructible.
In size, the sod house ranged from a single room of less than one hundred square feet, more like a cave than a house, up to freestanding homes with several rooms and several hundred square feet of living space appropriate for larger families. Sometimes a small house would be home to a large family, and crowding would lead to rapid deterioration of the structure and add-ons being required. If the house was built too high or not deep enough into the ground, if the walls were not even, thick enough, or tapered properly, the structure would be prone to serious problems and would not last very long.
A more durable type involved using sod for the exterior walls, then using a minimal amount of lumber to build a cubic frame on the interior, which could then be covered with fabric or paper. Care had to be taken to avoid putting holes in the walls.
Other types of sod buildings included schools, stores, churches, hotels, and even a post office, built in diverse styles, using a variety of construction techniques and modifications which indicate the importance of the sod house to America’s westward expansion. It was truly shelter from the storms of prairie life.
Sod houses leaked almost continually during the wet seasons. Tarps were hung to catch water and dirt that rained down during storms. Use of the stove during a rainstorm required an umbrella. The continual erosion led some sod houses eventually to collapse. Wet bedding and clothing were common. The interior would often remain humid for many days after a rain, leading to problems with mold and fungus.
As families grew, so did wear and tear on the sod house, leading to its ever-accelerating breakdown. In addition, snakes, mice, and various kinds of bugs lived with their human companions. Fleas, mites, and bedbugs could become intolerable, sometimes forcing a family to build and move into a new sod house. Most families looked forward to the day that they could afford to build a wood frame house and move out of their durable relic.
The Sod House Museum in Aline, Oklahoma, a small farming community in the northwestern part of the state about one hundred miles from Oklahoma City, was established in a prime example of this architectural form and the only remaining original sod house in Oklahoma. The museum provides the opportunity for visitors to walk through history and imagine what life was like on the Great Plains in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. It was built in 1894 by homesteader Marshal McCully, who came to Oklahoma during the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1893. The two-room soddy was used as his family’s home until 1909. McCully put in a wood floor soon after building the house and used special alkali clay as plaster on the inside walls to keep out insects. Covers made of flour sacks protected the house from dirt, debris, snakes, and insects that came from the ceiling.
Since 1963, the home has been owned and preserved by the Oklahoma Historical Society. A short tour of the museum and its exhibits helps visitors understand the hardships and rewards of pioneer families such as the McCullys around the state and the nation. Admission is free, and the museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:00
McAlester, Virginia, and Lee McAlester. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984. Morrison, Hugh. Early American Architecture. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1988. Stratton, Joanna L. “Homes of Puncheon, Homes of Sod.” In Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981. Taylor, Sarah, ed. Exploring Oklahoma with Children! The Essential Parents’ Travel Guide. Rev. ed. Edmond, Okla.: Inprint, 1997. Upton, Dell, and John Michael Vlach, eds. Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986.