If walls could talk

Missouri nature reserve creates a sod house to celebrate pioneers and their uniquely American architectural form
Monday, November 29, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:14 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

GRAY SUMMIT — Today’s families might despair in the situation faced by the pioneers on the plains. Maybe families of the late 1800s did too, but they found a solution.

They used the material that was most abundant to them — sod.

If you can’t believe a house can be made of sod, the Shaw Nature Reserve at Gray Summit has something to show you. Earlier this fall, the Reserve staff finished constructing their own sod house on the edge of the tallgrass prairie along the Brush Creek Trail.

The small structure — just 12-by-16 feet — is meant to be an interpretive tool for visitors, said Barb Troutman, who did all of the research for the project and also designed the plans, made up a materials list and recruited volunteers to help.

“It’s to show folks how people lived out West at this time,” she said. “They used what was there.”

Unlike other forms of construction, the sod house is “an American form, through and through,” Welsch writes in the preface of his book.

“While our barns often have European antecedents and log houses clearly stem from Scandinavia, the sod house is indigenous to the American plains. It is a clear display of ingenuity and the folk process,” he said.

“The sod house ... was not only an adequate solution but also a comfortable one. It transcended the level of mere shelter and became a home; in some cases it was as comfortable and clean as the homes the pioneers left in the East — and it was constructed at a fraction of the cost.

“As the sod house developed, it became clear that it could successfully meet the climactic and geographic limitations of the plains,” he said. “Its thick walls and roof provided a perfect insulation against the intense heat of Nebraska summers and the cold of winters.”

The era of the sod house is a narrow time frame, Troutman said. It was after the Civil War when people started moving west, for the most part between 1880 and 1900, she said.

The majority of sod homes were actually built in tallgrass states such as Nebraska and Kansas, said Troutman, explaining that people in Missouri had more access to trees so they built more log homes. But there definitely were some sod homes in the Show-Me State.

“When the Europeans came here, Missouri was 80 percent tallgrass prairies, mostly in the northern and the western parts of the state,” said Troutman.

At Shaw Nature Reserve, there’s over 250 acres of tallgrass prairie, which made a sod house a logical addition to the property. The idea was born out of planning sessions for the reserve’s annual Prairie Day event.

“We talked about doing it back in 2002, but we never did anything with it,” Troutman said. “This year the idea resurfaced, and John (Behrer, director of the reserve) just said to go with it.”

Researching the background and how to build a sod home wasn’t easy, said Troutman. There isn’t much information out there.

The book “Sod Walls” was her best reference. It includes detailed information about preparing the site, laying the walls, framing, roofing and even some diary-like entries of letters people who lived in sod homes sent back east explaining the living conditions.

Reserve staff and volunteers began building the sod house in early August. All but the roof was ready when Prairie Day was held Sept. 11, but the structure was complete in time for their Harvest Festival earlier in October.

Welsch notes in “Sod Walls” that it generally took about a week to build a modest sod home. It took the Nature Reserve staff and volunteers a couple of months because they only were able to work at it sporadically and with varying numbers of helpers.

Because the sod house is located on Brush Creek Trail, it will be in the path of hikers at the Reserve, said Troutman. But the staff is still working on ways to use the new structure in programs or for other events.

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