Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Home Is Where the Heart Is

by | January 7, 2012 | 14 comments

Tent Home, Library of Congress

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.

Dug Out, Library of Congress

 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 cabins of course come to mind when thinking of the frontier. A small single-room cabin was often built first and then added onto as time and money allowed.  According to Everyday Life in the Wild West, the earliest homes in Texas were “dog-run” or “dog-trot” homes that had two rooms separated by an open space or breezeway. The dogs slept there, in the breezeway, and so did any guest who couldn’t fit in the house. During the summer months the open area had many uses because it was cooler than the interior of the home.”

  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.

Interior of a recreation of a log cabin at Conner Prairie living history museum in Fishers, Indiana. Photo shot by Derek Jensen (Tysto), 2005-September-03


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


  1. Callie Hutton

    The book I released from Soul Mate Publishing in November, A Run For Love, was about the Oklahoma land run of 1889. The town of Guthrie (where the story takes place) had a population of zero when the sun rose that day, and a population of 10,000 when it set. They were all pretty much in tents.

    I camped a long when my kids were younger, and I enjoyed it, but don’t know if these old bones could take it now, though, lol. But home is truly where the heart is. And no matter what it looks like, it’s always good to get there.

  2. Anne Carrole

    Hi Callie. Thanks for stopping in. Imagine going from 0 to 10,000 in a day! And what all those tents must have looked like dotting that prairie. I’ve camped out too–and through a storm. It was definitely an experience. I just remember having to be so careful not to touch any part of the canvass tent or it would leak. And of course, someone did. Maybe that is why I like to hunker down in my house when a storm is brewing. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. Ella Quinn

    Very informative and well written post. I recently saw the program “Hell on Wheels.” I’m with you when it comes to living in a tent.

  4. Kirsten Arnold

    Great post, Anne. I always admired those early pioneers who lived in a sod house. I’d feel like something was crawling on me all the time, and I’d most likely be right. :o)

  5. Anne Carole

    Hi Ellie–thanks for stopping by. 🙂 I just can not imagine living day to day in a tent which is why I can’t help admire those who did.

  6. Anne Carole

    Hi Kirsten–thanks for dropping by! I’d have the same reaction to a sod house. Just reading about the fleas had me itching! I can only wonder at what else was living in those walls.

  7. Anne Carole

    Hi Susan–thanks so much for coming by. I was wondering if you had lived in a tent since I know you’ve participated in re-enactments. I admire the fact you’ve tried it! Glad to know you can bring a sleeping bag and use modern day bathroom facilities!:)

  8. derekd

    As a kid, we went tent camping a ton. As I grew up, my summer jobs during college were at summer camps. Lots of tents and sleeping outdoors with kids. I backpacked and camped for years until I hit my early 30’s and started having kids. Slept in the heat, and in the low 20’s with snow on the ground in tents.

    It’s all about having the right equipment to make it as comfortable as possible. A buddy of mine and his wife lived in a tepee for the better part of a year while their house was being built in Colorado. Fire pit in the middle and good construction, a tepee is quite comfortable. It’s amazing what you can get used to. Currently, I’m used to my tempur-pedic bed. The idea of sod houses, lean-tos, and tents no longer appeals.

  9. Ally Broadfield

    The Dallas Arboretum has a tepee, a covered wagon, and a sod house in it’s Texas Pioneer Adventure. Even in the 100+ degree heat of summer, it’s cool and damp inside, but I can’t imagine living in there in the winter. I’ve tent camped during several crazy weather events, including a snow storm on Lake Superior in August, but 5-6 nights is about my limit.

  10. Susan Macatee

    I’ve never had to live in a tent, but have stayed the weekend in a floorless, canvas tent for Civil War reenactments. We laid canvas to cover the floor, with a small wool rug over top to keep any mud out and make the tent warmer.

    On the cold nights, I snuggled into a modern sleeping bag on my narrow cot and, although I could barely roll over in my thermal layered clothes, I didn’t freeze.

    Of course we had the luxury of being able to use a modern bathroom, a few yards away, to relieve ourselves and they had sinks with at least cold running water.

    Definitely would never want to have to live in a tent for longer than a weekend.

    I’ve been watching the new show “Hell On Wheels” and the tents really do bring to mind being at a Civil War reenactment.

  11. Linda Broday

    Very interesting blog, Anne. Our ancestors really were ingenious when it came to providing a home. They used whatever was available and was glad to get it. Although I can’t remember it, I was born in a tent in the 1940’s in New Mexico and lived there until I was around three years old. It was the only thing my parents could afford. We were so poor the church mice looked wealthy.

    • Anne Carole

      Linda, thank you so much for stopping by. And thanks for sharing–proves your parents were pioneer stock and shared the same frontier spirit as those who went West. Home truly is where the heart is.

  12. Anne Carole

    Derekd, your example proves people are resourceful about making a home. I’ve heard teepees could be downright cozy but never tried one.

    Ally, if I ever get to Dallas, I’ll have to check out that exhibit. And camping during a snow storm–you are a hardier soul than me!:)

  13. Monique Parrett

    Yikes living in tents, sod homes and the like doesn’t sound very ideal. The log cabin provided it meets today’s modern standards maybe, but dirt floors and insects I could forego. I’m grateful to our ancestors for being strong to carve out an existence in these harsh conditions to evolve us to where we are today with modernized conveniences. I’ll keep my tent living to one nighters on a camping trip maybe. Great info in the blog



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