Heritage Trail: Sod Houses

The sod house epitomizes the myth of pioneer struggle.

The fact is, however, it was used much less often than shacks or log cabins as temporary shelter for people trying to establish themselves in a new land.

And, as historian Don Wetherall writes in his book Homes in Alberta, the sod house provided good shelter. It was warm in winter, cool in summer, and easy to build.

Well, a strip of sod about four inches thick was cut with a plough, and the grass was left on the sod to hold it together. And these slabs of sod were then laid, with the grass side down, to a form a wall about three feet thick. And as the walls rose, space was left for windows and doors, and these were framed-in with wood. And this helped to stabilize the wood, prevent it from shifting. And once the wall was up, a top plate was put on the wall to hold the roof rafters. And the roof was constructed out of lumber, if possible, or sometimes sods were laid across the rafters.

Very often, the interior walls of a sod house were finished with whitewash, or even covered with wallpaper.

This was an important step, because it stopped the insects that were living in the sod from migrating into the warm interior of the house. And a ceiling was also created by hanging cloth from wall to wall, and this also helped to keep the insects out of the interior, or to catch the bits that fell from the sods on the roof.

While the sod house was intended as a temporary shelter, some were rather elaborate, with porches, and wood room dividers. Some settlers lived in these for as long as a decade. Of course, by virtue of its very nature, the sod house was mainly confined to one region of Alberta.

Well, mainly in the open grasslands plains of the south, but there are examples of sod houses being built in the Red Deer area, which is rather puzzling – a puzzling place for them to be built. Most people there were building houses of out milled wood or out of logs. So they’re occurring throughout the settlement areas, but mostly on the grasslands. Historians have established a general rule. If people could get logs within a twelve-mile radius, then that’s what they used, instead of sod.

On the Heritage Trail, I’m Cheryl Croucher.