Homesteading on the Prairie

 

Homesteading on the Prairie

By Kathryn Albright
Tales of Courage & Hope

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I have scurried down many rabbit holes in my research so that my books set in western Kansas are historically accurate. Rivers, native fish, agriculture, Native Americans, sod houses, native birds and wildlife, cattle drives and cattle breeding are a handful of these “holes.” The internet is a big help in fact-finding, but my-oh-my do I get lost at times and surface just before it is time to prepare supper for my family!

For my next book in the Oak Grove Series, I’ve had to do some research into homesteading on the prairie.

The early inhabitants of Oak Grove, a fictional town set along the Smoky Hill River, lived in tents made from the canvas of their prairie schooners, but with the Kansas-Pacific Railroad now established all the way to Denver (1878), the small town was growing and wooden structures were springing up as the train brought supplies from the east and wood from the Rocky Mountains. The town prospered with the nearby stockyards that shipped cattle (up from the drives in Texas) to the miners in Colorado and to Chicago.

Railroad land grant Kansas

Homestead Act of 1862

However, some who lived out of town on 160 acres of their own, were farmers who’d come west with nothing but a dream to take advantage of the government’s Homestead Act of 1862. Requirements to own a plot of land by this means included:

  1. Must be at least 21 years of age.
  2. Must be a citizen or an immigrant with the intention of becoming a citizen.
  3. Must pay a filing fee (usually at the Land Office in the nearest town where it was also determined that no one else had claimed that particular parcel of land.)
  4. Must farm the land and live on it for five years before gaining the official deed to the property.
  5. Must build a home within six months. (Requirements in some states included the minimum dimensions of the home, one glass window, and also building a well.)

Homesteading on the Prairie

On the open prairie, it seemed that all weather was extreme. On arriving, many of the “sod busters” began by building a small dugout into the side of hill, just to escape the relentless wind, sun, snow and rain. Since there were no trees or large stones for construction material, the settlers would use their mules, oxen, or horses, and a special plow to cut rectangles of sod, 18” x 24” (weight = 50 pounds) to use as “bricks” for their home. These would be set so that the roots could grow and intermingle into the next row of sod, creating a very strong wall.

The base of a soddie was wide and the walls would then taper inward slightly to allow for settling. Most had a dirt floor, but later a puncheon or plank flooring might be used. On the inside, the walls would be plastered with mud to create a smooth appearance. Open windows were covered with oil cloth. A fireplace for cooking would take up one wall of the house.

The roof caused the most concern in the building process. Wooden poles, laid across the rim of the sod house, were then overlaid with bundles of brush. On top of the brush, more sod blocks were placed. Dirt clods dropping form the roof was a problem as well as other insects and an occasional snake. If the sod became too wet after a hard rain it could cave in. Every few years, depending on the severity of the weather, the roof would have to be replaced. Structures had one to three rooms and were surprisingly very snug and warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

Homesteading on the Prairie

With all the difficulties they had to face, the years of too much or too little rain for their crops, less than 50 percent of homesteaders achieved the five-year requirement and acquired the deed to their land. Those who did not, went back home or traveled further west. Although most homesteaders consisted of a husband and wife and often children, a single woman or widow could also homestead and work to own the land. Once source reported that single and widowed women made up to 12 percent of the men and women homesteading in the Rocky Mountain area.

From 1862 to 1900 over 600,000 claims to homestead were filed. The Homestead Act ended in 1976 for the contiguous 48 states and in 1986 for Alaska.

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Learning these facts helped me form the basis of my fictional character’s life on the prairie. I was worried that the land would not be hers after her husband died, but was gratified to know she could hold on to it and it would be there for her son, and her son’s son if he chose that same life. That is why she fights for it so fiercely. The Prairie Doctor’s Bride, a western historical romance, won’t be available for a few more months, but it is available for pre-order here ~ [  Amazon  ]

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I doubt that I would have lasted six months living in a sod house! The bugs falling from the roof would have been too much for me! What, for you, would have been the most difficult part of life in a soddie?

Comment to be entered into a drawing to receive my latest release ~ Mail-Order Brides of Oak Grove!

Homesteading on the Prairie

 

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Kathryn Albright

Kathryn Albright writes sweet western historical romance. Her award-winning stories celebrate courage and hope with a dash of adventure. She loves hiking and traveling and being caught up in a good story. She lives with her family in the rural Midwest.


45 Comments

  1. Oh, my. I agree bugs falling from the roof would have had me running. But the snakes would have been even worse. I imagine the smell would have bothered me as well.

    I would love to win a copy of your latest release. Thank you for the chance.

    Blessings,
    Cindy W.
    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

    1. Hi Cindy! Yes about the snakes! That would indeed be worse! I wonder if the women became desensitized to them after numerous encounters?

  2. Yup. It would be the bugs that would be the toughest. Especially the bugs falling from the ceiling. Yikes.
    Thanks for the giveaway!

    1. Welcome MH! I can’t imagine cooking with bugs falling into the food as I was preparing it. What those women endured!

  3. The bugs would be a problem and all the dirt. It would never be clean.

    1. Hi Debra,
      I imagined everything would have a coating of dirt until I saw one picture of a soddie that actually looked quite pleasant. It was copyrighted so I couldn’t post it here, but very airy and bright inside. It really surprised me!

  4. No, I can’t do bugs,inside or out. I would imagine how close the air would be. Bless our early homesteaders and pioneers. I wouldn’t have lasted. Thanks for all the info.

    1. Hi Carol. Thanks for stopping by and joining in! I like to think I would have lasted–but I’m not sure. Guess it’s one of those things–you make it work if you have too. They really were a hardy group of women and men!

  5. The bugs would bug me. But when you said a snake, that would do me in. I also can’t handle dirty places and it sounds like this place would need cleaning constatly.

    1. Hi Janine,
      The constant dirt would bother me too, although I am getting more tolerant of it as I age! I am also slowly getting rid of the knick-knacks around the house that collect dust. There are just too many other things that grab my attention. I don’t want to be cleaning incessantly!

      1. I know how you feel about the knick-knacks. Every time I dust, I think about boxing them all up. But I would feel bad putting them away as most were gifts. It’s a lot of work to clean everything. Plus I tend to drop things lately too.

        1. Oh Janine! I understand! It is the same here. So many of the knick-knacks have a story behind them of where or how I got them.

    2. P.S. Very cute there… “the bugs would bug me.” Gave me a smile 🙂

  6. The bugs and the snakes would give me the creeps. Think of them falling into your bed–ugh!

    1. Hi Estella,
      Wouldn’t that be horrible! How would a person sleep?

  7. What a dreadful way to live! I couldn’t stand the little creepy crawly things….bugs, snakes, etc.

    1. Hi Melanie,
      Thanks for stopping by and chatting! It had to be rough on both the men and the women. It’s amazing any of them succeeded to the point they could build a regular house later on.

  8. I live in SW Kansas and I’ve seen some of these old abandoned sod houses. You’re correct when you say the weather out here is extreme that is an understatement I have seen all kinds of weather and I just cannot imagine living back in those days with really no place to go For safety or not have been any type of warning prior to these events

    1. Hi Tonya,
      That’s right! I remember you mentioning before that you were from western Kansas! Those old sod houses look so forlorn on the prairie in the pictures I researched. For me, here in the Midwest, electricity, air conditioning and a furnace are a NECESSITY!

  9. Bugs would be a real problem for me, not to mention the dirt, I like to keep the house half way clean anyway.

    1. Hi Quilt Lady,
      I’m so glad that you stopped in to chat. Looks like bugs bother a lot of those commenting here. With the well water going to livestock and people, I wonder how careful they were with keeping things clean? I guess it made sense to live near a creek or river and that would help.

  10. Hi Kathryn. I enjoyed reading this post and even though you mentioned bugs and snakes it would be mice and rats that would be my greatest fear. Can’t help it…I hate those meeces to pieces :-).
    Your book sounds delightful and I appreciate the chance to win.
    Thank you and Blessings!
    Connie
    cps1950(at)gmail(dot)com

    1. Hi Connie,
      I got a chuckle out of your “meeces to pieces” quote. Wasn’t that from some cartoon, years ago? A good mouser cat would definitely be worth its weight in gold out on the prairie.

  11. I so love this historical research. I love getting lost in real history. I think I could have weathered the bugs, but the snakes might have had me running — where I don’t know — but I think I would have run.

    A true story: Once on the Lakota reservation at Mission, a friend of mine (female) and I were visiting. She was in a field with a couple of gorgeous, hunky Indian men. She saw a snake and screamed out snake — those big, gorgeous, hunky men ran in every direction away from her. LOL

    She of course tells the tale with much humor.

    1. Hi Karen! That had to be quite a sight–all those men racing away! I know my husband hates snakes and bugs as much as I do. He just has to deal with them because I won’t. He’s a keeper 🙂

  12. The bugs. Definitely the bugs.

    1. Hi Minna,
      Thanks for stopping by and joining in! It sounds like bugs are winning out here as the most disgusting part of life on the prairie.

  13. Yup the bugs would send me running.

    1. Hi Kim,
      The plains states have a lot of spiders and caterpillars and beetles of all types, but I went to a bug museum once (because I have boys 🙂 and I was amazed at some of the bugs that people in Africa and South America have to deal with. I think we have it pretty good here in the Midwest!

  14. bugs, smell, lack of light, no indoor plumbing, etc…

    my grandparents had a basement with a dirt floor. It was a bit of a dugout basement and had a wringer washer. The basement had a dirt-like smell which was better than the moldy smells of other basements, but it’s a scent that sticks with me

    1. Hi Denise,

      How interesting! Isn’t it something how an odor like that can stay with you your entire life? Even perfumes I haven’t smelled in 25 years, I can identify in no time! thanks for your comment!

  15. Bugs would definitely get to me… maybe the smell…

    1. Hi Colleen,

      Thank you for taking the time to stop by and chat. Bugs seem to be the thing most of us dislike here. Kind of crazy how such a little thing can create a feeling of revulsion — but they sure do! I can deal with them outside where they belong…but NOT in the house!

  16. Hi, Kathryn! I don’t think I’ve ever read that single women and widows held such a huge presence on their own among the homesteaders. Fascinating. I don’t know how anyone or anything could ever be CLEAN in a freshly raised sod house. Critters can be tossed out, but the dirt would be unending. I don’t mind getting muddy out in the field, so long as I know I get a hot shower in my clean house. Then again, depending on what their circumstances were that brought them west, just having shelter from the outside elements and a place to make a bed, however critter-filled and dirty, was likely a saving grace. I’m definitely thankful to be part of the spoiled lot in our century 🙂

    1. So nice to have you stop by, Stacey! For others here…Stacey is one of the original “Fillies” at Wildflower Junction here at P&P and tells wonderful stories!

      I so agree! We are spoiled with the wonderful advancements of this century. A warm shower or soak in the tub makes everything better!

  17. From what I’ve read from prairie women’s diaries and about American Indian earth-built houses, soddies don’t seem all that different to me than log cabins for safety from bugs and snakes–inside and out! I think dampness would bother me the most in soddies, particularly when it rained. But like everything else it probably depended on how well the soddie was built, plastered, etc., and maintained.

    I already own and have read the thoroughly wonderful and enjoyable “Mail-Order Brides of Oak Grove.” I suggest everyone get a copy! I also read a follow-up book by Lauri Robinson, “Winning the Mail-Order Bride (Oak Grove)” which I also enjoyed, so I’m really looking forward to Kathryn’s “The Prairie Doctor’s Bride” with the re-appearing character of Dr. Nelson Graham. December 19 seems so far away, but Kathryn, your book is on my to-buy list! I hope, I hope, this series goes on for a while.

    1. P.S. I forgot to mention that “Mail-Order Brides of Oak Grove” was one of two books I read first when I got home from a lengthy hospital stay, so it also has special meaning for me for that reason. Thanks, Kathryn, for the wonderful welcome home story!

      1. You are so very welcome, Eliza! It is always a treat to see your comments here. You’ve done so much research that your posts are always knowledgeable about the way things were in the 1800s America.

        Thank you for the kind words about Mail-Order Brides of Oak Grove. It was such a treat to write my half of the book — I just loved the spunk in those two sisters! (The “twin” idea was Laurie’s)

  18. The outhouse – I’ve used them and having to sit while bugs are everywhere…

    1. LOL — Outhouses can be very, very nasty, can’t they? A good friend of mine had a small cabin built way back on her property as a retreat. She has a small outhouse there– with shag pink carpeting and a picture hanging on the wall. Need I say that she is quite a character…

      Thanks for stopping by Catslady!

  19. I’ve read where many people lined their sod house ceilings and walls with cheese cloth or muslin. That should have helped control the dirt falling from the sod. But, those yucky bugs would probably still get in. As for the dirt, some of the wooden houses weren’t much better. The wind would blow dust in no matter what the construction material. Here on the dry side of Washington State it still does!

    1. Hi Alice,
      I read about the lining of the ceiling in a resource or two, so thanks for mentioning it here. Yes — dirt and dust get everywhere, which makes using central air a nice perk as I don’t have to dust nearly as much as when I open up the windows. But fresh air is nice! I hope you are safe from the fires going on in your area! My dh and I are planning a trip to Washington state in about two weeks and hope we don’t run into any difficulty on the way with those fires.

      I appreciate you stopping by and commenting!

  20. I think I could probably deal with the bugs. The dirt would be a nuisance. I have learned we can put up with just about anything if it is necessary. We are all capable of more than we think.
    I have always been terrified of spiders and never appreciated big bugs, especially when they bit, stung, or got on me. Then I went into the Peace Corps and served in the tropics. I thought the bugs and spiders would be a problem, but as it turned out, they weren’t. I would wake up with a spider the size of a tarantula at face level on the wall near my bed. Thank God for mosquito netting. At night when I turned on the light, there were 3 to 4 inch cockroaches all over the wall. One night I found a poisonous 6 inch millipede in the shower with me. You learn to share the space with them. For the most part, you can move faster than they can, plus they are really too big to squash. The only spider I killed was in the middle of my doorway and wouldn’t let me out. When I poked it, it reared up with its 4 front legs, flared its fangs and dripped venom. (Just like the pictures you see of the very poisonous spiders in Australia.) That spider was toast. I still wouldn’t appreciate one crawling on me, but I wouldn’t over react like I used to.

    1. YIKES! What an adventure you had! I cannot imagine it. So you are definitely a testament to what you said: “We are all capable of more than we think.” You are also a testament to the fact that it is possible, with exposure to bugs and spiders, to learn to deal with them on a rational level and to be desensitized.

      I’m so glad that you joined in and shared your thoughts! (I am SO GLAD that I live where I do, too!) Thanks for commenting!

  21. Thank you to everyone who stopped by and commented! My giveaway is now closed and the name drawn from my Stetson 🙂 (with the help of Random.org) is CONNIE SAUNDERS! I hope that you enjoy Mail-Order Brides of Oak Grove, Connie! Please contact me and let me know if you would like an ebook or a print copy!

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