Gothenburg Sod House Museum
The barn shaped Gothenburg Sod House Museum is dedicated to the sod house settlers of the pioneer era. The high-plains of Kansas and Nebraska are home to many sod houses. Immigrants moving west settled long the Oregon Trail and were enticed by promise of free land by the Homesteading Act. Money was slim and so was the availability of lumber. Resourceful pioneers made use of what they had.
Sod houses or Soddies were constructed with turf from the land; top soil mixed with prairie grasses. Builders would cut the turf with a spade, If they were lucky they would use a grasshopper- a tool used to cut turf. Four inch thick sod bricks were cut 12″ x 24″ and stacked on the wall in a running-bond formation. Walls were sometimes fortified with bricks or rocks in the corners. The “Nebraskan Marble” was a unlimited building material. Lumber was expensive and usually came from the surrounding railroad towns. Windows and doors were brought in this way.
The sod houses proved to be a good way to provide shelter. The thick walls created a impenetrable protection from winds. The temperature was cool in the summer and warm in the winters, an attribute of the high thermal mass. Many of the walls were covered with a plaster inside and out. They plastered for durability and aesthetic reasons using clay and ash; sand and mortar; and some whitewashed with burnt limestone and sand.
Soddies were resistant to fire like most earthen architecture. Some were built into south-facing hills and others were free standing. The roofs were created with wood beams covered with sod. The best roofs were shingled. The ones with out shingles would leak- sometimes for days after the rain.
Many of the sod houses were given up for more conventional wood framed housing. Once they could afford the wood they left behind the sod dwellings. What they probably didn’t realize in this trade is a that they were giving up the airtight, high thermal mass buildings for a drafty, expensive and hard to heat house.