Unbelievable as it might seem, some pioneer settlers liked living in dugouts. Letters and diaries of pioneers recorded that these dwellings were surprisingly comfortable; cool in summer, snug and easily heated in winter. Thick walls and sod roofs supplied good insulation at a time when few people knew the value of insulated homes, and wooden houses lacked in this feature.
Most dugouts consisted of a single room (average 12’ x 12’) dug into the lee side of a low hill. Walls were created by cutting and stacking sod blocks to a height of seven or eight feet. For a roof, cottonwood poles were placed side by side and spread with a thick layer of coarse prairie grass for insulation and to cut down on the dirt that sifted through. Over the grass a double layer of sod building blocks was carefully fitted. The first good rain prompted the sod to grow, and a tall growth of waving prairie grass soon covered the roof, almost concealing it.
Of course, all this waving grass attracted livestock, which could be a real problem. More than one story is told of cows and horses putting a hoof through the roof where a weak spot existed. This happens in my newest e-book, To Have And To Hold, in which the heroine, Tempest Whitney, lives in a dugout. A rainstorm softens the dirt packed over the roof, allowing a cow or mule to damage it further, and right at a key point in the story, the roof caves in.
Rough wooden planks were laid to provide flooring in some dugouts. Dirt floors were sprinkled with water daily and swept with crude grass brooms until the surface was as hard and smooth as finished concrete. To help keep dirt out, walls and ceilings were lined with newspapers and pinned in place with small, sharpened sticks. Ambitious families located outcroppings of limestone rock which they burned and mixed with sand to provide a plaster coating for the walls—a vast improvement over untreated walls that could not keep out all the dirt, or insects.
Dugouts housed families well into the twentieth century. My paternal grandparents moved from Kansas to the Oklahoma panhandle in 1916 and lived in a dugout until a house could be built. My mother’s folks did the same thing a bit later. Mother was the eldest of twelve. Her father was a great farm worker much in demand by other farmers. Unluckily, Grandfather didn’t want to work for someone else; he wanted to farm his own land. But without someone to tell him what to do, he failed dismally. The family lived frequently with other family members or inhabited abandoned homes, including several dugouts.
Mother told me numerous tales of life in such dwellings and didn’t seem terribly enamored of them. I used a few of her stories in To Have And To Hold, due to be released on January 24th. One tale has to do with 7” long centipedes that found their way down onto the newspaper tacked onto the ceiling. The sound of their feet scratching on the paper drove Grandfather crazy. Mother’s complaint, besides the dirt, was snakes. She hated being asked to fetch wood because too often a resident rattler would be hiding inside the wood box. Of course, snakes liked nice warm beds too, and the pallets laid on the floor where the children slept were very convenient. Frankly, I’m glad it was my mother and not me who had these experiences.
Have any of your grandparents or great-grandparents lived in a dugout?
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Charlene first serious writing attempt came in 1980 when she awoke one morning from an unusually vivid and compelling dream. Deciding that dream needed to be made into a book, she dug out an old portable typewriter and went to work. That book never sold, but her second one, Tender Touch, became a Golden Heart finalist and earned her an agent. Soon after, she signed a three book contract with Kensington Books. Five of Charlene’s western historical romances were published between 1994 and 1999: Taming Jenna, Tender Touch (1994 Golden Heart Finalist under the title Brianna), Forever Mine (1996 Romantic Times Magazine Reviewer’s Choice Award Nominee and Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist), To Have and To Hold Affaire de Coeur Reader/Writer Poll finalist); and writing as Rachel Summers, The Scent of Roses. Forever Mine and Tender Touch are available as e-books and after January 24, To Have and To Hold will be as well. When not writing, Charlene loves to travel, crochet, needlepoint, research genealogy, scrapbook, and dye Ukrainian eggs.
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