In the early 1900’s, bolstered by the tune of “every man a landlord,” thousands flocked West, hoping to snag a piece of Manifest Destiny and the American dream. Land was cheap, hope was high, and there was nothing standing between a man and his homestead but a few weeks’ travel and a little elbow grease.
And, perhaps, a more than a little bit of ingenuity.
Because, upon arriving in the Promised Plains, settlers did indeed find wide open skies, acres of grassland, and…not much else. Sure, there was water to drink (at first) and land to plant (eventually), but immigrants arriving with their wagons and families in tow had a more immediate, pressing problem:
How in the world were they supposed to build shelter on a land with no trees?
No trees meant no lumber. No lumber meant no frame. No frame meant no house.
Building supplies had to be trucked in from bigger cities, leading to inflated pricing that few could afford. Even for those who could manage, the incessant prairie wind often knocked down half-built houses before they could be completed. Construction workers on the Plains had a motto: “Build quick or not at all.”
It should have been enough to send most dreamers packing. But, instead, another type of shelter arouse, one that, though humble, became a testament to the early settlers creativity, stubbornness, and grit:
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
A dugout was exactly what it sounded like: a home dug into the lee side of a hill. Although styles of dugouts differed from family to family, the basic layout remained the same. The bulk of the house was situated underground, the roof above covered with a layer of sod or, if the family could afford it, planks lined with black tar paper. The wall (or walls depending on the exact layout of the dugout) were also made of plank boards or sod. If a family was lucky, the wall would contain a window; most, however, did not, leaving the living area dark even at mid-day, lit by kerosene lamp only upon the upmost necessity.
Inside, the floor was dirt, sprinkled with water every so often to keep it hard and keep down the dust. The interior walls were lined with newspaper, pasted on or pinned up with small sharpened sticks to keep the dirt from crumbling onto the floor. At usually less than 350 square feet, dugouts were one room divided into two parts, one half containing the stove and table, i.e. the “living” area; the other holding beds, cots, and pallets for sleeping. Some families used wooden planks to hang curtains or sheets, creating “bedrooms,” one for the parents, another for the children.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress
There was no electricity. There was no water. There was no heat or air conditioning. Toilets were outside, an outhouse for the fortunate ones, a literal hole in the ground for the not-so-fortunate. Water had to be carted inside daily, extracted from a well by hand or by windmill. Either way, the pumps broke constantly and replacement parts were hard to find. Heat was provided by cow chips (hardened poop, to you city slickers) warmed in a stove, filling the home with the ever-present stench of manure. In the summer, although cooler than the air above, the dugout still sweltered in 100* temperatures. Even pouring water on the roof, which many believed would soak into the soil and, in turn, cool the structure, didn’t help–it only turned the dugout into a sauna.
Humans weren’t the only ones making their homes under the prairie soil, though. Every spring, families had to pour boiling hot water on the walls to kill the freshly hatched bugs living in the dirt walls. Children had to regularly check their beds for black widows, tarantulas, and centipedes before crawling inside, and the stillness of night made the scratches of insects inside the newspapered walls echo. Snakes, including rattlers, were common visitors, too.
The goal was to eventually save up enough money to build a framed house, one with windows and multiple rooms, shingles on the roof and a thick wooden door that faced south, preferably, to keep out the bitter north wind. But, as the Great Depression blanketed the region and the dusters began to swirl, the dream of a wooden house faded with the dying wheat. Only the wealthiest could afford one, the trim and electricity of these homes now a status symbol most gave up trying to attain. Instead, farmers hunkered inside their holes, stuffing rags into wall cracks, gluing strips of flour paste-covered paper around the door, and hanging damp bed sheets over the walls and windows.
In the end, though, dust was the great equalizer. Both dugouts and frame houses alike were buried, battered, and ultimately abandoned. Very few remnants of these early shelters remain, but those that do remind of us of the tenacity and creativity of these early settlers, who refused to let a little something like a lack of trees spoil their quest for the American dream.