When the first settlers entered the Red River Valley of northern
Dakota they were greeted by a sea of grass, waving in the wind, which
extended across the territory. Although not a tree would obstruct
their view for miles, it also meant that building shelter would not
be easy without logs and lumber. The earliest settlers claimed the
land along the few wooded rivers and streams, which provided timber
for log homes and wood for fuel. But land adjacent to the rivers was
quickly taken, and those who came next had to settle on the treeless
prairie. Lumber was expensive to buy and not readily available. The
prairie did, though, provide an unlimited resource that the settlers
Sod houses began to dot the landscape. The sod squares, cut from
the soil, had long grass roots in them and thus were tough yet flexible.
Not only were the walls constructed of sod, but most roofs as well,
which sometimes led to wet bedding and clothes after a heavy rain.
Only a minimal amount of lumber was needed, for a door and one or
more windows. The sod homes proved to be cool in the hot summer and
warm in the winter. Some whitewashed the interiors to lighten them
up and also covered the outside to protect it from the weather which
was hard on such structures. Many added wooden lean-tos to their sod
houses as entry ways or as additional rooms. As soon as a farm family
could afford it, they purchased lumber to build a frame house, thus
leaving behind a part of the pioneer era.
The Hultstrand collection is rich in images of sod buildings, including
sod houses and barns, as well as sod schools, sod churches, and even
a sod post office and a sod hotel! Through this varied collection, the diversity of styles, of construction techniques, and of modifications shows the ingenuity of the pioneers.