LISTENING 6 “HISTORY CLASS”
Narrator Listen to part of a lecture in a history dass.
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Frontier home design in the United States was greatly influenced by the provisions of the Homestead Act of 1862 The legislation gave settlers the right to open land but mandated that homesteaders build a structure that was at least ten by twelve feet and included at least one glass window, and they had to live on their homestead and improve the land for five years before their claim was recognized. Of course when they first arrived, most homesteaders lived in their wagons or pitched tents until they filed claims and planted crops. And even then, knowing that fully half of the homesteaders wouldn’t make it through the five years required to complete their claims, homesteaders tended to view the construction of their homes as semi permanent dwellings… more likely they’d build something better later or try to improve on what they’d built initially if they made it through the first rive years. So, m addition to the requirements in the Homestead Act, the settlers needed a home that was easy to build, cheap, and maybe even disposable.
Well the log cabin is the construction that comes to mind when we think of Western settlements, but the plains and the prairies had so few trees that log construction was almost impossible. So the sod house was a practical solution for homesteaders on flat, treeless land. So how do you build a sod house?
Well first you wait for a rain that makes the earth soft, then you use a sod cutter to form sod bricks about two or three feet square and a few inches thick Then, you slack the bricks to form walls, and weave branches or twigs and grass into a roof that’s finally covered with sod as well. Now, there were tremendous advantages to this type of construction. In the first place, it was very cheap … there are loumals from the 1800s that document construction prices at about $2.50, and most of that was for the glass window And it took very little time to build, probably a day or two. And the thick walls actually kept the house quite cool in the summer and lairfy warm in the winter If a better home could be built later, the sod house would simply dissolve into the soil. But there were serious disadvantages as well. Even wellbuilt roofs leaked onto the dirt floors, forming mud puddles, and sometimes the roof even collapsed from the water weight. Or. in dry spells, the dirt crumbled from the roof into the homo. Nol to mention the infestations of insects and even snakes that inhabited the dirt walls.
So those settlers who arrived in wooded areas opted to build log cabins instead of sod homes. Like J the sod construction, the log cabin could be built in a few days, using simple tools, often only an axe. But it was much more comfortable There’s evidence that the first log cabins were introduced by Swedish t! settlers as earty as the 1700s but other immigrant settlers quickly adopted the construction. First, you build a foundation of rocks to keep the logs away from dampness that might cause them to rot. Then, you cut down the trees and square off the logs, cutting notches in the top and bottom of each end so they could fit together when they were stacked at the comers and it also had the advantage of assunng structural integrity. And there were several types of notching techniques that were used, depending on the skill of the builder. In any case, with notching, no nails were required and that was good since nails 4) had to be shipped into towns and then transported out to the new settlements But there were gaps in the walls so these had to be filled by a technique called chinking. In chinking, grass, hay, moss and mud were worked into rolls about a foot long and maybe four inches wide and then they were inserted into the cracks between the logs. These rolls were commonly referred to as mud cats and were very effective .n keeping out the cold and keeping in the heat. Of course, the tighter the logs, the lewer chinks were required, and that’s important because the chinks were the weakest part of the cabin, and with the expansion and contraction that resulted from freezing and thawing. weH. chinkmg tended to deteriorate and needed constant maintenance and repair. .. . .
Okay, there was usually a stone or brick fireplace along one wall And the roof was usually made ol wood shinqles. So you can imagine, this was quite an improvement over the sod house. The advan-tages were that the home could be kept dean. Even though the floor was usually dirt or gravel because flat boards were difficult to obtain, it was still an effedive shelter to keep out the rain and dust
Later, at the end of the 1800s, when the railroads brought materials such as asphalt shingles, tar paper, and finished boards to the frontier, the sod house was abandoned for one-room board shanties, covered with tar paper. Whether this was an improvement is subject to debate. For one thing, since they were often built without foundations, the harsh winds of the prairies literally blew the shanties away. Sbll, many settlers considered the shacks preferable to the old soddies even though they weren’t as easy to heat and cool. To go back to the log cabin for a minute, the effect of new construction materials on the log cabin was … aesthetic… as well as practical. The logs were often covered on the outside by finished boards and on the inside with plaster, which gave the cabins a more finished look and improved insulation. And by this time the old one-room ten-by-twelve was also being replaced with larger homes with several rooms. The frontier settlers had weathered the hardships of their first five years, they’d received their claims, and they and their homes were a permanent part of the great western expansion.