Thursday, October 11, 2018

Steps, Missteps, and Next Steps

In 1862, the Homestead Act was passed, and many hopeful settlers began arriving in Nebraska from points east - and from foreign countries. For a $10 filing fee, any homesteader over the age of 21 could claim a quarter-section of land. After living on the claim for five years, and making improvements, the homesteader became the proud (or not) owner of 160 acres. Since there were few trees or stones available, the building material for homes was, of necessity,  the tough prairie sod, cut into blocks that were held together by a mat of grass roots. As time passed and more settlers arrived in Nebraska to build sod homes, the construction techniques were improved through shared experience.

The homesteaders who will live in my sod house have arrived in Nebraska in 1886, with only their most necessary household goods and tools packed in a covered wagon. There are sufficient railway lines now to enable them to order goods from back east - but the cost is prohibitive, and much time must be allowed to receive a shipment of supplies. For my homesteaders, as for most, "making do or doing without" is the usual way of life on the prairie.

After selecting the best possible building site - near a creek for a water supply, within a day's wagon trip to the nearest settlement, and only an hour's walk to a neighboring homestead - my pioneers are eager to begin cutting sod and building their new home on the treeless plains. 


The first step in constructing the soddy was to purchase a 4' by 4' piece of pressed wood (or something like pressed wood) from which to cut the base board for the house and its surrounding yard.

The cut board measures 28 inches by 36 inches. I've drawn the outline of the 2 1/2 inch thick walls on the board. You can also see the window and door placement and the red dots where I will drive in the nails that support the styrofoam walls.

Nails have been driven through the board from the underside so that the points project upward and can easily penetrate the styrofoam walls.

 I cut the three main walls and the low back wall from a 1 1/2 inch thick sheet of styrofoam.

(That's Robert's second homemade kayak on the right; it's a 17-foot beauty made from thin strips of walnut, western cedar, and Alaskan cedar. Robert used a kit from Redfish Kayak in Port Townsend, WA.) I could build one too, but styrofoam doesn't take too readily to the water.

What a fast and easy little structure; the dry fit didn't take long! This is the "inner core" structure. Rather than lay sod blocks for the entire structure, I will lay the blocks as an outer wall, creating only the illusion of two thicknesses of sod blocks, which would have been the Real Life construction technique. The interior measures 14 inches by 18 inches with an exterior measurement of 19 inches by 23 inches.

I've cut the door and window openings. Because of the thickness of the sod walls, very little light could enter a soddy, so the homesteader would put in as many windows as he could afford. My homesteader chose two large windows and two smaller ones; but he had to sacrifice having a wood floor and a wood roof. A sod roof and a dirt floor seemed a better choice than living in perpetual darkness. (I may have unduly influenced his decision, since I like a LOT of light in my home!)

The interior walls of a sod house were scraped with a sharp spade after construction to make them as smooth as possible, but after the sod had settled for a while, lumps and bumps inevitably appeared. I used pieces of egg cartons and wine packaging to rough up the walls.

This is the first layer of lumps and bumps. I applied joint compound over the cardboard pieces, but I forgot to take a photo.

The first layer didn't produce quite enough bumps, so I repeated the process...

...and applied more joint compound over the second layer of cardboard.

I smoothed out the joint compound. (But I didn't scrape the walls; I sanded instead.)

The interior walls of many soddies were plastered over with a soupy mixture of yellow clay, ashes, and water, and the walls were sometimes whitewashed as well. But a whitewashed wall couldn't stay white for long because of smoke stains from the cookstove or water stains from a leaky roof. (I will create more stains when the walls are erected and I have an idea of furniture placement, especially the wood cook stove.) 

I painted the exterior walls a dark color so that there would be no white styrofoam showing between the sod blocks.

Ah, the sod blocks! You may remember this Mystery Material from my previous post. I thought it would be the perfect thing for sod blocks, although it was oh so tough and hard to cut. But I optimistically believed that I could cut it with a fine-toothed saw. I couldn't. Not even with a power saw, which only sent black bits flying every which way and made a big mess. I could imagine what an ugly time I would have trying to cut as many sod blocks as I'll need. So - back to my usual stuff - the steadfast styrofoam!

I decided to cut the sod blocks from sheets of 1/2 inch by 12 inch by 36 inch styrofoam. The size is very convenient to work with.

I had discovered, in my experimenting, that the inside cuts of the styrofoam had ALMOST the perfect texture that I needed to replicate sod. After cutting one-inch wide strips of the styrofoam, I enhanced the texture by poking holes in the sod edge with a slightly blunt knife.

Things were moving along well. So well that I grew careless and FORGOT TO FOCUS. I had good intentions of trying out ONE strip of styrofoam to make sure that the spray paint would cover well and DO NO HARM. But instead, I put all the strips - every last one - into a paint box that I rigged up in the garage. And I sprayed the whole kit and caboodle in one fell swoop!

And I did a LOT of harm! The spray paint melted the styrofoam like a hot knife melts butter. And to add to the frustration, the spray paint didn't even cover well! The good thing is that I can still use much of the misshapen mess, because I'll need filler and odd pieces of sod as I build the walls.

So I started over with a new sheet of styrofoam. I hired Leo, my grandson who just celebrated his eleventh birthday, to poke the holes in the edges of the strips this time. (I told him I'd pay him a dime a strip. After a while, he asked how many he'd done. I said, "You've earned $1.60. How many do you think you've finished?" Without any hesitation, he told me he'd finished sixteen. He's quicker than his old granny in the numbers game!)

Strips cut, holes poked. Ready to paint - with acrylic paint and a brush this time!

Painting accomplished and NO HARM done! I've used a mixture of taupe, gray, and tan to achieve the color of old, dried sod.

The styrofoam strips have been cut into three inch pieces - and they're close to turning into sod blocks; I just need to add the prairie grass. This batch of sod blocks will be enough to get me started, but there are many more to come.

I had decided that corn silk would be an ideal material to replicate prairie grass, but I wasn't sure that it would dry to the red-gold color that I needed. But Lori, from "Works In Progress," suggested that I try drying the cornsilk in the oven at a low temperature - and that worked perfectly. Thank you, Lori! I "toasted" the cornsilk for about ten minutes at 250 degrees Fahrenheit ....

...which resulted in just the right color and texture for prairie grass. This big batch of "grass" should be enough to complete the soddy. And yes, we did enjoy eating fresh corn on the cob OFTEN this summer!

I've gotten this far so far, although I should have done more. It's been raining here for about forty days and forty nights, so although outdoor activities have come to a soggy halt and I'm confined indoors, my soddy time has been more limited than it should have been. Somehow various household tasks keep popping up to occupy my days. But I'm sort of on a Sod House roll now, so even if the sun should ever shine again, I'll be forced to neglect all outdoor chores and just concentrate on furthering the soddy construction. I hope that you'll stop by next time and see how (whether) those next steps are progressing.