Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Getting Settled in the Soddy

In my last post, I left you looking at a barely-begun roof (and a finally-finished floor) because I had realized that I needed to finish the interior before the roof was put in place. There wouldn't have been much working space with the roof blocking my movements and my visibility. There were, as it turned out, quite a few interior tasks that I could have completed with the roof on, but I was on a roll, and it seemed too complicated to have to separate the before-roof tasks from the after-roof ones. So I did the whole thing. 

There were a lot of things to finish and a lot of photographs to take - way too many for a single post - so I've decided to divide the completed interior into two or three separate parts. This post will include some basic necessities for making a home as comfortable as possible in spite of many inconveniences. I hope you'll sympathize with my young homesteaders as they settle into their (roofless) sod home.

Basic Necessities for the Soddy

Will and Ruby Dawson came to Nebraska's treeless plains from Indiana, where they were married less than a year ago. Will had always worked on his father's farm, along with his three brothers, but Ruby and Will decided after their marriage that they wanted to make a fresh and independent start in a new territory. They packed their meager belongings, mostly cast-offs and hand-me-downs from family members, into a wagon covered with canvas and pulled by oxen and began their new adventure. They arrived in Custer County, Nebraska, in late spring, 1886, just in time to build their one-room sod house before Will began the spring plowing of his new land. While Will worked long hours on the land, Ruby's days were occupied with the task of creating a homey, comfortable ambience within the soddie's confining walls. 

Ruby considers her stove the most important item among her household goods. When she and Will camped in their wagon while the soddy was being built, the stove was moved off the wagon so that she could prepare meals; that was so much easier than cooking over a campfire!

When Ruby began to unpack some of the wooden crates that contained their hand-me-down accumulation of kitchen goods, she realized that she had nowhere to store any of these things. (The cornbread and the eggs weren't in the packing crate - they're fresh!)

Will found time to take apart one of their large wooden packing crates, carefully straightening the nails so that he could use them again in the construction of a crude shelf unit. 

The shelves provided space for all the items, and Ruby could see all her kitchen equipment at a glance. Wooden packing crates served a major role in equipping a sod house for daily life. They were used for many housekeeping items: stools, cupboards, storage bins, tables, benches, and shelves, to name a few uses.

The next consideration was a comfortable bed for a good night's rest. Will and Ruby had spent their first nights in the soddy on a feather mattress laid over a sheet of canvas on the soddy's dirt floor. They both woke every morning feeling much older than their years. They had heard that many new homesteaders built their bed frame in a corner of their soddy so that two walls could support two sides of the bed, saving both materials and labor. But Ruby begged for a "real" bed, free-standing away from the wall, and Will was happy to oblige. He had set aside a willow pole that wasn't needed for the soddy's construction; he thought the pole would be adequate to build a simple bed.

A length of rope from their supplies was used to weave a sturdy base for the feather mattress that had made the journey with them.

Ruby and Will feel fortunate to have a feather mattress; many settlers had to make do with a mattress ticking stuffed with corn husks or prairie grass.

Before leaving Indiana, Ruby had spent many hours piecing together a quilt top to use in her new home on the prairie. She wanted the brightest colors that she could find for the top and used a cheery red for the backing. She knew, from the many "homesteading" stories that she had heard, that her new home would be small and dark and colorless. She was determined to remedy that sad fact.   

I had to help Ruby a little with the quilt; I added a sheet of foil between the quilt top and the red backing, just to add shape and flexibility. Ruby was surprised by this unusual technique, but she allowed me to have my way.

To save time, because there was so much to be done to prepare for the long trip, Ruby decided to "tie" the quilt rather than take the time necessary for the usual quilting stitches.

Ruby and Will are happy with their colorful quilt and comfortable bed - and very thankful to no longer wake up with aching backs.

Ruby's mother had insisted that room be found on the wagon for a "civilized" dining set. Although the table and chairs were old, Ruby was happy to have them. Personally, I thought that all the pieces would benefit from a slight "makeover," and I took it upon myself to put a darker stain on the chairs and to sand and re-stain the table top. I thought it a great improvement. Ruby hasn't expressed an opinion.

The makeover is underway on one of the chairs. After the first coat of stain, I could see a big difference, so I proceeded with impunity.

This piece was in my stash, and I thought it could provide useful storage space and also a work surface for Ruby, but the two different levels on top seemed to present a problem.

I built up a uniform top and cut the legs down to make the work surface a more comfortable height.

I added some color, but after being well used for many years and stored in an attic for many more, this cabinet is showing its age. Ruby was thrilled to have the cabinet added to their few pieces of furniture, and Will obligingly made room for it as they packed their wagon.

Ruby and Will possess only a few items of clothing. but they needed a safe place to store them in their new home, away from moths and mice, spiders and snakes, and water from a leaky roof. Robert volunteered to put together a trunk that I wanted to give to Will and Ruby. The trunk was in kit form, and Robert knows how I feel about trying to make anything from a kit. (I feel like I'm working a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle wearing a blindfold.)

Robert wasn't entirely happy with the final results, but I had told him that I wanted the trunk to look well traveled and well worn, so he worked toward that end, and I was pleased with his efforts.

The trunk was ready in time to be packed and loaded onto the wagon.

The wagon was becoming crowded; Will's farming implements took up much of the space. But he knew how important Ruby's sewing machine was to her and how useful it would be as she worked to create a cheerful home in Nebraska.

This piece was almost left behind for lack of space, and Ruby was bravely accepting the loss. But by transferring some of the pieces that could safely be  tied to the sides of the wagon, Will managed to fit it in, to Ruby's great joy. She knew that her new home would be short on comfort, and the rocking chair represented not only comfort, but even a touch of luxury in her simple sod house.

Ruby and Will now have the basic necessities for their home, but there are many smaller, useful items still to be unloaded, unpacked, and arranged in the small room. I'll leave Will to take care of the unloading while Ruby takes care of unpacking and arranging. But I'll return soon to follow their progress. There is much work ahead of them, because making a house into a home requires time and effort - even if it is only a simple sod home.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

A Start and a Finish

It seems that for my last few posts, I've been telling you and telling you that I'm going to build a roof for the Nebraska Sod House - but somehow, from blog post to blog post, that doesn't happen. Well - it's happening now, but only in a very limited way, as you'll see. But it is a start, although the finish isn't quite in sight.


I started by cutting styrofoam pieces for the gable ends, then I cut notches for the placement of the ridge pole and two support beams. The angle of the roof is important. If it's too steep, the sod blocks will slide off; if not steep enough, rain water can't run off, resulting in erosion and eventual collapse of the roof.

After the solid styrofoam gables were in place, I built up the east end gables with sod blocks...

...and finished the west end likewise.

View from the back - or north - side. I've painted the gables a dark brown to hide the white and also to tame the bits of styrofoam that would otherwise fly around.

This is the collection of rot-resistant cedar that I'll use for the roof beams.
These were the straightest and tallest trees that the homesteader could find after searching along several creek banks. 

The poles have been cut to a uniform size for the roof beams. The homesteader always left the cut poles as long as possible; the extra length was convenient for hanging meat, lanterns, etc. 

The ridge pole and two support beams are in place.
Soddies were usually built with one, three, five, or - rarely - seven beams, with three beams being the most common.

Another view.

This photo shows the support posts being cut for the ridge pole. The forked posts were placed underneath the ridge pole at each end of the soddy and prevented the weight of the ridge pole from collapsing the sod blocks on which it rested. Sometimes the notched posts were set outside the house, to save valuable floor space, but some were placed inside, where the posts were useful for hanging pans, coats, photographs, lanterns, etc.

The forked support posts have been cut to fit.

A forked support post is temporarily in place on the west side of the soddy. (I forgot to take a photo before I inserted wood pegs to use for hanging various items.)

The east side forked post is temporarily in position. At this point, I needed to plaster the gable ends, paint and age them - and again, I forgot to take photos!

Both forked support posts are in place, and the gable walls have been finished.

A closer view of one notched post.

And now I've gone about as far as I can go with the roof construction - which isn't very far - until I complete the interior of the soddy. I've realized that although the back opening is large enough to allow a good enough view of the interior, it will be too small to allow for decorating after the roof is on. 


As you may remember from my last blog post, I was not happy with the soddy's dirt floor, but I wasn't sure how to achieve the effect that I hoped for: a hard-packed dirt floor with a scant top layer of loose dirt.  

Blizzards kept blowing across Nebraska, so my chances of access to real dirt were anywhere from nil to zilch. So I started experimenting.

My experiments began with a rummage through the kitchen cupboards. (Robert's kitchen cupboards - but fortunately he wasn't home at the time, so I had free rein. Free but guilty.) I was looking for anything that could provide the right color and texture to simulate dirt. I found some likely spices; a little hot chocolate powder; a bit of espresso. I added some Hobby Town Fine Turf mixture. It all added up to a concoction that was the color of dirt with the aroma of (inedible) food.  

I mixed up paints that came close to the color of the spicy concoction.

The floor needed a rough texture that was more pliable than joint compound, so I tried using torn paper towels with uneven edges. The dark color on one piece of towel is residue from a previous experiment that failed. Just ignore it.

I smeared a lavish layer of matte Mod Podge over the floor...

...and added the pieces of paper toweling and let the floor dry. 

The texture was good - although it's hard to see in this photo - but there were wide gaps that needed better coverage.

I smeared on more Mod Podge and added more paper toweling.

The resulting texture was just right, but there was too much shine, so I repainted with another coat of the acrylic paint mixture to dull it down. (The color in this photo is darker than the real thing.)

I sprinkled on the aromatic "dirt" mixture, and the result was very close to my vision - but not quite. I was willing to wait for a try at real dirt before I settled for this "not quite right" version. If the real dirt wouldn't work, I was going to call it quits. Enough is enough.

Three weeks later - by late March - there had been some mild days, and the snow was gone from the ground, although it was still mostly frozen. I went out on one of the milder days, located a likely spot, and hacked and chopped out a paper cup full of REAL dirt! Now the experiment can continue! I baked the dirt to thaw and dry it, then pulverized it with a wooden mallet, then pressed it through a sifter, and voila! I had a powdery dirt that was just the color and texture that I wanted! 

There was actually very little difference between the spicy concoction and the Real Dirt - but the real dirt had a better texture and better color consistency.

I vacuumed up all the loose "concoction" from the floor, sprayed on an adhesive, and sprinkled on the real dirt, patting it down firmly. And at last (!) I'm satisfied with the soddy's dirt floor. (I know that you probably can't tell much difference from the previous floors; you just need to be here to see firsthand!) And I can still use the spicy concoction for landscaping, so I won't waste all those good things from the kitchen.

So, once again the roof construction must be postponed. But I've experienced much industrious pleasure as I work on the interior of the soddy. My next post will feature some of the ways and means the homesteaders employ in "making do" with whatever is at hand in order to create a home on the "treeless plains."