Our forefathers were quite adept at making a home anywhere and out of anything, it seems, particularly those who went west.
Tents were a common sight, especially when new towns were in the making. With canvas sides and roofs, they served the purpose for the mostly male dominated boom towns and, according to Everyday Life in the Wild West, became known as “Hell-on-Wheels” towns, because the businesses and residents could pick up and move quickly. The new AMC series, Hell on Wheels, depicts tent town living along a railroad line. Dodge City, Kansas started out as a tent town as did Denison, Texas when 3000 people moved into town in the first 100 days after the KATY railroad went through the sparse settlment that had been a stop on the Butterfield stage route. Both towns came into being due to tracks being laid. In this photo, note how many lived in this tent and the fact that they had found time to build a barn and windmill but not a home yet.
Having met some Civil War re-enacters recently, they swore that tent living wasn’t all that bad, even in rainy weather. I’ll take them at their word.
Holes dug into a hillside also became homes with a roof of boards at ground level. H.H. Halsell in his book Cowboys and Cattleland describes the dugout he built on the bank of the Cimarron in the winter of 1885-86: “there were two hills with a twenty foot space between. We cut out a dugout in each, facing each other, and covered over the space between; and the north end of this hall was roofed in, so we had two large rooms with a hall between. We lined the dugouts inside with split cedar logs, and this made a very comfortable, warm home.” P. 152
This picture from the Library of Congress collection shows a pretty elaborate dug out home. Note the cow grazing on the “roof.”
Sod homes were prevalent on the prairie in states like Nebraska and the Dakotas where timber was hard to come by. Constructed by cutting long strips of sod (grass) with a breaking plow, the sod was stacked like bricks with walls two to three feet deep. Some people plastered the walls to prevent dirt and bugs from getting into the rbugs from getting into the rooms. Fleas were apparently an annoying problem. The roofs were usually of wood. The floor could be dirt or wood.
In the letters of Mary Oblinger (Library of Congress), a pioneer in Nebraska, she writes that sod houses are superior in many respects stating: “a temporary frame house here is a poor thing a house that is not plastered the wind and dust goes right through and they are very cold. A sod house can be built so they are real nice and comfortable build nice walls and then plaster and lay a floor above and below and then they are nice.”
Log homes were built with trees that had few knot holes and were as straight as possible with little tapering. Cutting careful notches for the logs to fit together (think Lincoln Logs) could minimize the amount of chinking (sticks and rocks) or daubing (mud) needed to fill in the gaps between logs. While probably not intended to last forever, many of them still stand today. The oldest known log cabin is purported to be the C.A. Northnagle house in New Jersey, built in 1685 and still standing.
This picture of the recreated interior of a log cabin home shows sparse living in a small space. The loft provides for sleeping above the dirt floor and, hopefully, away from the insects and critters that could be found at ground level. The small wood table looks like it was used more for meal preparations than for dining. The stools provide for sitting but anyone who has sat on a backless stool for long knows how uncomfortable they can be. And, of course, the small fireplace which provided a place to cook as well as the heat for the small cabin.
So when you are nestled in your nice warm and comparatively spacious house with central heating, think about the settlers who “made due” with what was at hand to build the shelters they could call home.
Anyone ever live in a tent? A Log Cabin? Seen a sod house?—have any desire to?:)
Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Re-ride at the Rodeo, at The Wild Rose Press. Her website is www.annecarrole.com