Sod houses were the first dwellings for many Nebraska pioneers. Descriptions of these homes can be found in reminiscences written years later, but there are few accounts written at the time the house was being built. One exception was in a diary by Rolf Johnson, a twenty-year-old Swedish emigrant from Illinois, who arrived in Phelps County in March 1876 with his parents, a younger sister, and three younger brothers. The original diary is at the Phelps County Historical Society.
First a plow was used to turn over a ribbon of sod. Rolf described a problem in this initial step. “Had a splendid time trying to break prairie with our oxen! They were unaccustomed to pulling a plow and tried to walk in forty directions at once.” Putting up the walls was not a pleasant task. “Building sod houses, especially when the wind blows, is not quite as pleasant as being out buggy riding with a girl. One’s nose, eyes, mouth, ears, and hair gets full of loose dirt. OK! It’s bad!”
When the building was finished Rolf described the process. “First we broke sod with a breaking plow; this we cut off into bricks which were two feet long, twelve inches wide, and four inches thick; of this we built the walls of the house. In the center of the house is a big crotch; in this and on the end walls rests the ridge pole; next come the rafters, about one and one-half feet apart, which are simply round poles of elm, ash, and cottonwood with the bark on. On top of this is a layer of willows; on top of them a thin layer of sod, and over all about six inches of dirt. We have a cellar and board floor though it is something unusual in a sod house. The house is sixteen by twenty-one feet inside and the walls are two feet thick. . . . On the west side is a door and half a window, on the east a half window, and on the south a whole window.”