October 29, 2022 | Last updated May 30, 2023

Flashback Friday: A Time Capsule Made of Sod

The NSHS recently assembled a team of scientists, historians, and local volunteers to salvage a sod house wall for study. The remnant of a 1903 Custer County sod house has been transported to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where biologists hope it will reveal details of prairie life more than a century ago.

The story begins two years ago when Custer County residents Larry and Karla Estes contacted NSHS archeologists about the ruins of a sod house on their farm. The dilapidated soddie was beyond saving and eroding rapidly, and it lay in the main view from their new home. They wanted to tidy up the site, but wondered if anything could be learned by studying the sod house before it was gone.

NSHS archeologists dispatched Nancy Carlson of Genoa to survey the site. Her survey raised substantial interest. Like all sod houses, this 110-year-old structure was not just built on the landscape, but was built from it as well. We know that the grasslands of Nebraska have evolved over the past century, but exactly how are they different now? Those sod bricks are time capsules full of seeds and other organic material that biologists could use to profile the plants and other life forms that were flourishing a century ago. We next called on Chuck Butterfield, a range management specialist and botanist at Chadron State College. He suggested we sandwich a four-by-eight-foot chunk of the wall between two sheets of heavy plywood and haul it back to Lincoln for study.

Easier said than done, we thought. It would involve delicately cutting and moving a massive wall of earth while holding it together in one piece. If it fell apart, the sample would be contaminated. But Larry Estes had already worked out a solution. He had a stout forklift and some plywood. He would buy some threaded stock to serve as through bolts, and make a special bit to drill a hole through both sod and plywood. After bolting them together, he could then lift this 2,200 lb. sandwich with his forklift and load it onto a trailer. He made it sound so easy.

We soon realized that we had underestimated the enthusiasm of local residents for preserving this piece of their heritage. The circle of volunteers expanded quickly. Dee Adams of Merna, president of the NSHS board, also serves with the Custer County Historical Society. Adams contacted Mike Evans, a seed dealer with a passion for history. Evans suggested that we stretch-wrap the sod wall. He donated the stretch wrap and volunteered to help with the work. Meanwhile, Dee’s husband, Kevin “Kooch” Dauel, offered to bring the wall to Lincoln. Dauel works with Vermeer High Plains, an equipment dealer with its main office in Lincoln, so he regularly makes runs between Broken Bow and the Capital City.

On a very pleasant November day a crowd converged on the Estes place, including NSHS staff and a video crew from UNL’s Platte Basin Timelapse project. But most important was a cadre of eight Custer County volunteers who did the work of cutting, drilling , wrapping, and sandwiching the wall. Larry Estes then nudged his forklift up against the bundled section, and volunteers looped a rope over the top, wrapping the rope’s other end around a stout tree. This allowed them to lay the section onto a pallet while controlling its fall. It went over slow and easy. From there Estes hauled the section to Dauel’s waiting trailer for the ride to Lincoln.

The sod wall now resides at UNL’s East Campus, where Dave Wedin and his colleagues are studying it. Wedin is a professor of plant and ecosystems ecology at UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

The wall will also help those of us who study the human activities. We’ll learn about sod house architecture by seeing just how the sod bricks are laid up and how, or if, they are bonded with some sort of mortar. Dr. LuAnn Wandsnider, chair of UNL’s Department of Anthropology, is leading this effort. Along with colleagues and students, Wandsnider has done archeological sampling and mapping of the house’s original site. Her team is planning an oral history program in Custer County, and will help survey other extant sod houses. Likewise, the State Historic Preservation Office (part of the NSHS) is considering a project to carefully record standing sod houses, adding to the extensive sod house research the NSHS has conducted over the years.

How will all of these efforts tie together? The partners are just now formulating solid research questions, but the overarching question is how do human beings relate to the environment in which they live? Let’s look at but one example.

Consider the question, “Where did sod houses go?” They were common a century ago, but then people stopped building them, even though they were cheap, energy efficient, and could be modernized like a frame house. NSHS architectural historian David Murphy thinks that we simply exhausted the sod resource.

That sounds impossible at first—how could you exhaust the grass in Nebraska, of all places? But Murphy points out that grassroots only weave themselves together into sod in certain locations. Usually grass grows in clumps that are useless for making good sod bricks. He believes settlers used most of the sod-producing spots and then planted them with crops.

The work of soil scientists and biologists should produce a very clear idea of just what it took to create the historic sod, which we can then compare with a wide array of resources that examine what soil and grasses look like today.

Best yet, this work is not going to be locked up in laboratories and placed on those legendary dusty shelves in museums. The information that comes out of all of this work will be quickly shared with the public. Our partners, including the UNL Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Platte Basin Timelapse Project, NET, Homestead National Monument, and the Custer County Historical Society, will help bring this research to the public in the form of exhibits and programming. And of course the NSHS will be sharing the story in print, in exhibits, and online. The NSHS’s Second Story Radio has already produced an audio program; listen to the podcast at secondstoryradio.tumblr.com (scroll down to Episode 5).

Daniel and Arvilla Lewis sod house, Custer County, 1886. An example of what sod houses in Custer County would look like at the time.

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