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Sod Houses on the Prairie

Many people today learned about sod houses when reading Laura Ingalls Wilder's On the Banks of Plum Creek. At the beginning of the book, a covered wagon took Pa, Ma, Mary, Laura, and Carrie away from Indian Territory through Missouri and Iowa. They finally arrived in Minnesota.

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 Pa wanted to farm. He traded animals for the house and land. The family got quite the surprise when they learned the house was underground! It was made entirely of sod. They made the best of the situation and even laughed when something unexpected came through the roof. 

What is a sod house? 

When people wanted to build their first house on the prairie, they didn’t typically use stones or logs to do it. The land was great for farming, but few trees grew there. So, many pioneers used what they had to build homes—sod! The sod included the top layer of soil and even the grass growing in it.

How was a sod house built? 

Many of the pioneer settlers made large, heavy bricks of layers of sod. One brick could weigh about 50 pounds (23 kg). They were about two feet (60 cm) long. The bricks blended together and formed sturdy walls. But these houses’ walls curved instead of being straight up and down. Like an igloo made of snow bricks, sod houses were a bit wider at the bottom so they could hold all the weight of the bricks. Building a house from sod bricks was hard work and time consuming, but it didn’t cost anything.

A public domain image of a sod house in Nebraska.

What kind of sod house did the Ingalls family have? 

Some pioneer settlers used the prairie itself to build a different sort of house. Instead of cutting sod bricks, they dug dirt out of the side of a hill and built some walls of sod bricks and added a roof. This made a dugout house like the Ingallses’ home on Plum Creek in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

The Ingalls's sod house in Walnut Grove no longer stands, though visitors can visit this dugout when they visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum

Visitors tour this sod house built by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Musum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.
Courtesy of Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, Walnut Grove, MN

Often pioneers lived in a sod house or dugout for a short time. When they had time or enough money, they built a home from cut lumber like the Ingalls family.

A house from dirt was better than no house at all. And sod was a great insulator. Sod houses and dugouts were warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Plastered or wallpapered walls in the inside of the house made it feel more like a regular house--though not all "soddies" had these luxuries.

If you like understanding more about the world of Little House, consider my book The Laura Ingalls Wilder Companion: A Chapter-by-Chapter Guide (Chicago Review Press). In addition to 75 activities, it helps readers explore history and think deeply about the Little House books. Check out the reviews and see if it's right for you. 

 Happy Trails! ~ Annette 

 Annette Whipple is a nonfiction children's author. Learn more about her books and presentations at

1 comment

  1. I loved Nellie & her family they truly made the show. I not really a fan of but when you have good characters like Nellie & her mother the show was worth watching. When Nancy came on she made the show worth watching again. You always have to have villains in any show.