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.