So you’ve left your home somewhere in the east and staked out your forty acres on the plains. The government is gonna give you a mule. And all of a sudden, you’re a farmer, living off the bounty of the land. Sounds like a great life, right?
What you might not have realized before you got there was that there’s very little building material on the plains. But you’ve got a wife and two kids, some chickens and maybe a goat or a pig, and you just can’t stand around all day out in the open. For one thing, Indians. For another, cattle ranchers. Both are now your natural enemies (not to mention rain, snow, sleet, heat and tornadoes).
One thing raw farmland does have a lot of is dirt. And grass. And that’s what you’ve got to build your house with. If you’re lucky, your field will have lots of medium-sized rocks in it and you can start building with them as a base. Or if you’re really lucky, there’s a hill on your 40 acres that you can burrow into, and then you’ll only have to build the front of a house. (Just don’t forget the chimney pipe!)
Dirt floor’s fine for now, so you’ll start by pacing off a one-room home. And that’s where you start stripping off the grass. You’re gonna want strips about 4” deep and between 2 and 3 feet wide*. It’s gotta be nice and wide because thinner strips wouldn’t be stable when you stack ’em. And that’s just what you do: stack ’em up to make the walls of your house.
Taller grasses can be cut into thatch to make a weather-proof roof (the kids can lash them together), though you’ll have to create some sort of support for it – maybe woven willow branches or the boards from your wagon. Maybe add a window made of oilcloth or canvas. And what you wind up with looks quite a bit like this:
A Little Old Sod Shanty
The best thing about the sod shanty is that it’s pretty well-insulated: it keeps cool in summer and warm in winter (at least compared to the weather outside). The worst thing about it is scent of poverty it gives off. But someday, maybe, when the farming starts to pay off and you have six more kids working the fields – someday you’ll maybe build yourself a real wood cabin.
But for right now, it’s “the little old sod shanty in the west”.
*My note: The strips are very similar to the sod we use today for lawns.