Saturday, September 28, 2019

The Forgotten Door

I always knew, of course, that the Nebraska Sod House would need a front door, but somehow both Will and I kept forgetting to build one. Now, the need for a door is definitely at hand, and it's high time to get busy making one. Some homesteaders, in a hurry to move into their soddy, simply hung a piece of canvas to cover the doorway, but Will wanted something sturdier than canvas for Ruby's door. By "borrowing" some boards from the wagon that had brought them across the prairie and using some scrap wood from packing crates that he had dismantled, Will managed to assemble enough wood to build a "real" door for the soddy.

This is my rough sketch of a segment of the door's interior side. The homemade latch was commonly used on the prairie. A short wooden bar was fastened loosely to the door at one end, and the other end dropped into a notched wooden block fastened to the wall or door frame. The door could be unlatched from the outside by pulling on a leather thong fastened to the bar and hanging out through a hole a few inches above the bar - thus, a latchstring hanging out became a symbol of prairie hospitality. If no company was wanted, the settler locked up by pulling in the latchstring. 

The simple door is made by using three boards and adding stabilizing cross pieces.

The wooden latch bar has been attached, and the notched block is fastened to a sturdy board.

The exterior of the door has a wooden handle that I cut from a scrap piece of window frame that I found in my stash. It was exactly what I was looking for!

I stained both sides of the door to achieve the look of old wagon wood. When the door was finished, Will applied a generous coating of oil.

 Will fashioned door hinges from pieces of leather that he keeps for mending harness. After he sells his corn crop, perhaps he'll be able to afford iron hinges. 

 For now, the stiff and sturdy leather works just fine. The latch bar and the latchstring have been attached, and the door is ready to hang in the door frame.

The latchstring is out on the exterior side of the door.

 The board with the notched wooden block is attached to the door frame. Because the door is set at the outside of the deep doorway, the notched block couldn't be attached to the interior wall of the house.

 The soddy has a working door!

Welcome! Come on in - the latchstring is always out!

At last, Will and Ruby have a strong door that will add to the coziness of their snug sod house. With the arrival of autumn and harvest time, they're starting to also look ahead to months of a harsh prairie winter. The door will be much appreciated when the north wind begins to howl across the plains.

Monday, September 16, 2019

"Landscaping" the Sod House

Progress on the Nebraska Sod House is being made, although slowly and not very steadily - rather by fits and starts. The soddy itself is finished, (complete with roof) and all that remains to be done is the landscaping of the exterior. I use the word "landscaping" loosely, so please erase from your mind visions of pretty  flower beds and green grass and brick paths. This prairie land is harsh, prairie life is hard, and often there are only enough hours in the day to take care of the bare necessities of living.

One of these necessities is fuel to cook the meals and heat the home. There is no firewood to be found on these treeless plains. Cornstalks are one source of fuel; twists of hay or dried grasses are another, as are dried sunflowers. But the most abundant and readily available fuel is spread widely over the prairie, free for the taking, contributed first by the great herds of buffalo that once roamed the plains, and later by the great herds of cattle driven up from Texas through the plains of Nebraska.

Gathering this plentiful, miraculous fuel in the form of dried buffalo or cow chips is one of Ruby's daily chores. She needs to collect not only a daily supply, but must also gather enough to stockpile a supply for the winter, when the prairie - and the fuel - will be covered with snow. When Ruby and Will first arrived in Nebraska and began setting up their home, Ruby, a little fastidious and unused to such a chore, made sure that she wore sturdy gloves as she started on her daily fuel-gathering rounds. Now, after several months of soddy life, she thinks nothing of gathering cow chips or stoking the stove with her bare hands!


I decided that the best way to make cow chips would be to use Sculpey, an oven-baked clay that is one of my favorite materials.

I softened the clay by kneading it, then pinched off small bits to flatten into the cow chips. I used a variety of metal tools to make a sort of spiral design in the clay.

The first batch of cow chips is ready to bake...

...and ready to paint

The undersides of the chips have been painted.

I applied several coats of paint using different colors of paint. For the final coat, I mixed bits of a grass-like material into the paint to add some texture. One batch is finished.

And a second batch is all done, for a total of 62 chips.

This pile of sun-dried cow chips, stacked outside the soddy, should keep the home fires burning for a few days!

Another obvious necessity of daily life, of course, is food. Ruby and Will are growing their own vegetables, and wild fruit can be found in the thickets of plum trees and sand cherry bushes scattered across the plains. Will hunts for rabbits, prairie chickens, and pheasant, and on two occasions has brought home an elk, sharing the meat with his neighbors. He learned that a fine tradition has been established among the homesteaders. Although no one can tell him for sure how the tradition originated, it dictates that he display the elk antlers on his property, perhaps beside his soddy or even in easy view on the roof. Women make use of the antlers to lay out the weekly wash to dry, and children often use the stacks of antlers as their playground. Even though Will doesn't have a large stack of antlers, as do some of his neighbors, he has proudly placed them near the soddy, in sight of any passing traveler.


After long and careful thought and numerous mind changes, I decided that pipe cleaners would be my best choice for antler material.

I cut the pipe cleaners into pieces about 3" lengths - or shorter - and wrapped them snugly with floral stem tape.

By twisting the long and short lengths together, I achieved a very rough depiction of antlers.

I wrapped more floral stem tape around the twists and joins, stabilizing with glue. After the glue dried, I applied several coats of clear matte nail polish, trying to achieve a bone-like finish.

For a finishing touch, I added some taupe paint to reduce the whiteness of the "bone."

Now Will can display his hunting prowess in keeping with the prairie tradition.


I have to share these photos of the cactus plants on the soddy's roof. I had dug up the pieces of cacti on our Sandhills property, snipped off the tiniest bits, sliced off the ends, trimmed the thorns, dried them, sprayed with a dried-flower preservative, and glued them firmly onto the styrofoam "sod blocks" on the soddy roof, where the pieces nest in the "prairie grass" of roasted corn silk. And, as you can see, after ALL THAT, these tiny bits of cacti are still putting out new growth! How do they do that? Where will it end?

SO - work proceeds on the soddy's exterior landscaping, making use of the natural prairie that extends almost to the front door. Speaking of doors, I keep forgetting to build that front door! What must Ruby and Will think of my laxity? I think a door must surely be the NEXT THING to happen! I hope you'll stop in for my next post and see whether my prediction comes true.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

The Roof Grows On

I just realized that it's been almost two months since my last blog post! I left Will and Ruby Dawson feeling settled and at home in their sod house on the treeless plains of Nebraska; they weren't nearly as concerned as I was that the soddy didn't have a roof! The only excuse I have for such a long delay in putting a roof over their heads is that - it's summertime!

However, the sod house roof is finally - really and truly - finished! But I had two additional steps to complete before I actually started building the roof. One step was a minor, straight-forward one that I had simply overlooked until the last minute. The second step was another of those cart-before-the-horse things that should have been the very last thing to be done AFTER the roof was on, except that I couldn't do it with the roof in place! But it did get done, in a topsy-turvy way, and finally I could proceed to build the roof. 


I almost overlooked the absence of this top wall that connects the 
back side walls! The roof wouldn't have much of a resting place without it.

I cut additional styrofoam "sod" blocks for the underneath side of the top wall and glued them in place...

...then added cornsilk "prairie grass." The wall piece was put in place with the grass side facing down, because this would have been part of the (implied) solid back wall, which I left open for viewing purposes.


 With admirable foresight, Ruby packed several bolts of muslin fabric to be used for various purposes in the sod house, including as a protective layer for the ceiling. Sod house ceilings were rarely left open to the beams or rafters; rather, muslin sheets or yards of muslin fabric were tacked to the beams, providing a screen to block the view of the roofing materials. The light covering also made the interior look brighter and airier, but its main purpose was to keep dirt, sticks, bugs, mice, snakes, and other critters from dropping down into the soup kettle. (Or down one's neck!)

Will and Ruby took on this awkward task together and have finished covering the back side of the ceiling. The muslin was tacked up loosely, because after a few months - or sometimes weeks - the muslin will accumulate its fill of undesirable elements, including globs of mud from rain showers, and will need to be taken down, laundered, and replaced. That is Ruby's most dreaded chore.

The job is half-way finished. 

And all done! (Until the next time.)

Ruby thinks that the soddy's interior looks much cheerier with the muslin in place. If only it weren't such a trying task! But some homesteaders, lacking muslin, tacked up canvas, (usually from their wagon cover) cheesecloth, or heavy brown paper. Those would have been even more awkward to work with, so Ruby knows that this job could be much harder.


Will used a "pole and brush" construction method for the roof of the soddy. Over the three cedar roof beams, Will and his neighborly helpers laid willow poles vertically, running from the ridge pole to the wall top. (Keep in mind that the muslin covering shouldn't be in place yet - the roofing materials would be laid over an empty space. Just pretend it isn't there.)

On top of the willow poles, the workers piled a layer of chokecherry branches...

...and chokecherry brush, both being readily available along creek banks.

Will added some dried cedar branches for added strength.

Atop the branches and brush was added a thick layer of wild grasses.

 It was at this point that I realized that the roof had a major problem: the wild prairie grass was piled thickly, as it should be, but the styrofoam "sod" blocks were so lightweight that there was no way they could hold down all that grass! 
Each real life sod block weighed approximately fifty pounds, so the blocks would have pushed the grass down and held it securely beneath that enormous weight.

So all the grass had to be torn away. (Just pretend it's there.)

Since the sod blocks have no weight of their own to hold down the building materials, I needed a firm surface for the blocks to rest on. Firm, but not too straight. A layer of papier mache proved to be the perfect solution. The blocks could be glued on, but the surface was uneven enough to look realistic.

I dipped strips of newspaper in a paste mixture and layered the strips over the brush and branches on the roof. The paste in all the photos is still wet - I can't remember why I was too impatient to let it dry before taking pictures!


I measured, cut, and painted the first batch of sod blocks for the roof. I used approximately 180 blocks for the entire roof.

I first glued an underlayer of low-growing "weeds" to the sod blocks, then added prairie grass made from toasted corn silk. Then I glued each grass-covered sod block in place on the roof.

At first, I glued the grass on so that it stood upright, as it grows, before I realized that after being trampled on, cut into blocks, piled onto a wagon, then manhandled onto the roof, the grass would no longer be standing straight!

I smashed all the grass down and proceeded to glue the remainder on pre-smashed! The odd flag on the back right of the photo is my reminder to put the chimney in place before I sod over its designated space.

The chimney is in place. I had been saving a length of plastic tubing to use for the chimney pipe - but when the time to add the chimney was at hand, the tubing wasn't! I couldn't find it anywhere. Never did. Robert found a piece of light copper tubing in his tool box, and that served very well after I painted it and added a little rust.

This photo shows another problem caused by the lightweight styrofoam "sod" blocks. Ideally, and in real life, the heavy sod would compress all the brush down on to the tops of the walls. Without the great weight, there was no compression - which meant that I later had to do a lot of patch work!

All the sod has been laid on the front side of the roof.

I changed my sod-laying technique for the back side of the roof. I glued the blocks on first and added the prairie grass to the glued-on blocks. Much faster.

The roofing work was brought to a complete halt a few times because I was using cornsilk faster than I could find fresh corn. It was too early in the season to buy local corn, and corn from the supermarkets often had most of the cornsilk cut off. Eventually, I located a vegetable truck on a corner not too far from home where fresh corn from Arkansas was sold, so my supply could be replenished often.

I've begun the patching on the roof edges. Some patching and filling of holes and gaps would have been necessary on a real life soddy, of course, but not to the extent of the patching that I had to do!

I pushed bits and pieces of styrofoam into the gaps all around the roof edges.

All patching has been finished on the roof edges, and I painted the white styrofoam bits before adding prairie grass to the edges of the blocks.

You'll notice that the soddy roof has no eaves. A wide eave would, of course, have helped protect the sod walls from erosion. But on the other hand, a wide eave was an open invitation to the strong prairie winds to catch it like a kite and flip the roof right off the walls. There was no simple way to anchor the roof firmly to the loose sod walls; only the massive weight of the roof held it on.There were a few options to more adequately secure the roof, but those options were expensive, inconvenient, and beyond the means and ability of most homesteaders. Now that the roof is finally on, I certainly don't want it to be carried away by a great prairie wind!


Although soddies were often drab in outward appearance, for many months of the year they could be very attractive. Prairie flowers grew and blossomed on the roof, along with wild grasses - and meadowlarks sang on the roof beams. Often, a homesteader would receive packets of flower seeds from "back home" and broadcast the seeds onto the roof where they sprouted into a variety of colorful blossoms to lend cheer to the soddy. Ruby hasn't received such a gift yet, but she's pleased that some of the many wild prairie flowers and other plants are now growing freely on the roof

Sunflowers were my main priority for the soddy's roof. I found some ready-made ones online, but they weren't quite what I wanted, so I bit the bullet, ordered a kit, and combined elements of the kit with the ready-mades and was very happy with the result.

I forgot to take "after" photos of these re-constructed purple prairie flowers. Maybe you'll see them on the roof!

I picked these pieces of cactus from our Nebraska Sandhills property, snipped off the smallest bits, and let them dry thoroughly before spraying with a fixative. I used the small pieces to make several clusters of prickly pear for the roof. 

I also used dried moss for random weeds; a few stems of some sort of real weed; as well as clusters of green model railroad grass to simulate new prairie grass growth.

These dried flowers from my stash were an afterthought, and I used only a few scattered here and there.

I needed a meadowlark - Nebraska's state bird - and "borrowed" a tiny black and yellow bird from the grandkids' bin of assorted wildlife. I had to give him a longer beak (the tip of a toothpick) make him some wire feet, and give him a meadowlark paint job.

And here he is, singing away on a roof beam and enjoying his own little prairie on the house!

Will and Ruby are thrilled to finally have a roof over their heads - especially a roof that grows its own flowers! Their homey sod house is complete now, (except for a front door!) but work remains to be done in the immediate area around the soddy. I hope Will and Ruby can get the yard in some sort of order before it's time for Will to start harvesting his crops.