Thursday, May 10, 2007

Building the sod house

Opseth's first house on the homestead was made of sod. Hannah and Andreas did not take the claim until 1892. It is entirely possible they loaned a sod cutter from their neighbor, Thornus Mellem. Marshall County was flat and swampy, there were no hills to protect their structure. It would be built on the open prairie; exposed to the harsh weather. They arrived in the summer, they may have made some sort of a lean to sleep and protect them from rain.

The idea was to break enough ground for the house and yard. This would hinder snakes, mice, and insects from entering the house.
A sod cutter was also called a breaking plow, was pulled by horses, mules, or oxen. These plows cut the sod into strips 12-inches wide and 4-inches thick. Using a spade,the strips were then cut into about 3-foot lengths. If they didn't have a 'sod buster' then each piece was collected using a shovel. Either way, it was hard work! Only enough sod for that day was cut. Any extra sod would dry out, crumple and be worthless. Before the house was finished, Opseth would cut a half mile of sod for just the house! Walk around a city block to give yourself a feel for how long that is!

The best of builders made certain the ground was made level as they began the stacking process. The bricks of sod where staggered; The base was wider to support the bricks above it. All the bricks of sod where placed grass side down, this allowed the roots of the tough prairie grass to grow into the brick above stabilizing the house. If they had lumber, the door frame was put in on the first round. If they could afford a window, it was added as the walls went up. The door and window were pegged into the sod to keep them in place; poles and space was left above them was left to allow for the weight of the walls. It would take two years before the sod settled.

Opseth's would walk sixteen miles to St. Hilaire to get lumber and a window. That was the last stop for the Great Northern Railroad at that time. Roads, if any, were poor. Marshall County was a swamp land before it was drained. Life was always an effort. There are stories shared about how the oxen and wagon would get bogged down and the owner had to untie the oxen from the wagon, empty the wagon, hitch the oxen to pull the wagon out, then reload the wagon.

The roof was next. In a swamp land, there are trees. The straightest of trees were cut and placed on the roof. If the family could afford rolls of tar paper to act as a moisture barrier, that was applied, if not, thinner sod was used as a roof, sod side up. The roof was the most important part. It must be sturdy or it would collapse leaving the family without shelter.

What was Grandma Julia doing while the house was being built? Was she sitting on a tarp to protect her from the dirt? Was her sister, Hilda, at two being lost in the prairie grass? How about Olaf at 10 and Gust at 7, where they snaring rabbits?

Next: Inside the sod house

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