Sylvester Rawding sod house, north of Sargent, Custer County, Nebraska, 1886
Solomon D. Butcher, photographer [RG2608.PH1784]
Over the years several myths grew up about Sylvester Rawding and his family. Rawding claimed that the lump visible on his forehead in the photograph was a bullet that struck him while he was a Union soldier in the Civil War, and which had never been removed. Rawding also claimed that his stepson (the tallest of the three boys in the photograph) had evicted him from his farm and forced him to move to an old soldiers’ home in Kansas. He told these stories to a newspaperman in 1897 and this account became the basis for later interpretations of this famous photograph.
Research in Civil War pension records and Nebraska newspapers revealed that neither of Rawding’s tales was true. The lump on his head was a cyst or wen, while Rawding moved to the soldiers’ home by his own choice after a disagreement with his stepson. The story of Sylvester Rawding’s life, along with more information about the photograph, is found in James E. Potter’s article, “A Cow on the Roof and a Bullet in the Head?” from the Spring 2003 issue of Nebraska History Magazine.
Is the cow standing on the roof of this sod house? It depends on whether or not the house was dug into the hillside.
Look at the dirt caked to everyone’s feet. Everyone’s, except the girl’s, however. It is possible her father carried her from the house to the chair for this photograph. On other days, her feet were probably just as dirty as her brothers’.
There is a drop-leaf table under the oilcloth. It is probable that the leaves on this table were normally kept in an up position, causing the crescent outline on the oilcloth.
Advanced digital imaging technology allows us to look at historic photographs with a new light. In seconds, the interior of this sod house comes to life with only a few changes to the shadow and highlight areas of the negative. The information inside the doorway exists on the glass plate negative, but traditional photographic papers cannot reproduce that information. Advanced scanning technology captures that information and makes it available to all of us for the first time since the photograph was taken.