Recollections from a sod house boyhood

2011-10-09T02:00:00Z 2011-10-09T08:35:11Z Recollections from a sod house boyhoodBy JIM OBERFOELL | Sentinel Butte Resident Bismarck Tribune

This memoir comes from an email correspondence I had with Jim Oberfoell of Sentinel Butte, who responded to a column I wrote reflecting on the backbreaking work required to survive as an immigrant farmer on the prairies. His memories about his childhood growing up in a sod house in western North Dakota were both fresh and poignant, so they have been only lightly edited for length and clarity. We thought our readers would enjoy reading them as much as I did.

— Karen Herzog


I live by myself in Sentinel Butte. I came up here in 1992 to take a job as caretaker on the rest areas which were then active on the highway.

I was born in 1925 on a farm about halfway between Scranton and New England. Born in a house Dad had constructed from buffalo grass sod, plowed up with horses, cut into proper lengths with an ax, and built into a house with 3-foot-thick walls. The buffalo grass sod had black, curly roots that formed a near root-robe on the outside of the walls of the house when weathered a little. The house was built on Dad's homestead quarter in 1909. It was very durable because of the root system of the sod.

The grasshoppers flew in in 1934, just like in biblical days. We boys were herding cows, and though some have said the grasshoppers darkened the skies, I am skeptical because I did not see that. But it seemed for several days we would look up towards the sun — that was our clock then — and view the large silver halo around the sun, the grasshoppers' wings. Near sunset they would descend to earth. Hungry from the day's flight, they would climb up on the old split cedar fence posts to get the last rays of sun.They chewed on those fence posts until they had the old wood eaten off. The wooden posts all looked like new.

In 1936, one of the worst years of the "Dirty Thirties," the sod house was getting to be in bad shape, not from the walls washing from rain, but from the roof leaking. Oh, what a pleasant sound to be woken up in the night to the squeaking of casters on beds being pulled out from under leaks, with a splish-splish here and a plunk-plunk there, the leaky roof dripping into pails and kettles.

I was young, but just as hopeful as the adults for rain to make things grow. In those years the splish-splish and the plunk-plunk never lasted long. Soon the clouds would be breaking up again, and the wind — always the wind, except perhaps a few hours when it was changing directions.

Star formations in the sky were my companions. I made up names for them because we had no books and such. Many years later I learned that what to me was a boy with a kite on a string was actually Orion.

We learned to swim — or dog paddle — in the ponds. The native water plant pads floated on the surface, with tiny little fish bobbing among those floating pads. I caught the little fish in my hands when they came to try to drive me away from that floating pad. This was a lifetime ago, 70 to 75 years.

A creek, the north branch of Cedar Creek, ran through our farm. The only income I had until I was 17 was what I could earn trapping along that creek. The traps had to be tended in the mornings before the family got up to do chores. I had to finish with the traps and be back to start the chores with them. And the traps had to be tended every morning, for the sake of any little animals that might be in the traps. It was a family law.

With money from the trapline I bought all my clothes and school necessities. There was not much money left for foolishness.

And, strange as it may seem, running that trapline actually gave me more sympathy and love for our little wild animals instead of less.

Dad had built a setting hen coop right on the ground all lathed over on top so the chickens couldn't get out.

The clucks, or setting hens, would be carried up from the chicken house after dark, put in individual runway pens with some eggs.

I remember an evening while I was doing this, a pair of short-eared owls circled overhead, just little beyond reach, with their raspy calls, wingbeats so slow and leisurely as if each wingbeat was an afterthought. A courting event, no doubt. And the little burrowing owls from down in the pasture were also courting with soft, melodious coo-cooing calls carrying up from the pasture on the warm, humid air. The little burrowing owls that scolded so harshly all day, now cooing their love for each other like doves. With the balmy spring evening, romance was in the air all around.

We kept three young milk cows so we had milk and cream. The bulls in this neighborhood of small herds mostly all went, so those three cows were milked for two years straight without calving because there were no bulls around. But we raised chickens and turkeys. Dad got seed and feed loans from the government and worked off those feed and seed loans hand digging around a burning coal vein. I have been told he was the only person in the community who paid them back.

That year, 1936, Dad decided the soddy had to be torn down and replaced with a "new" home before winter. There were many vacant farmsteads then. People had already left in droves.

It was late in the summer when Dad decided what he had to do.

We boys had already pulled the field corn by the roots for feed for the three milk cows. The prized herd of Holsteins had gone to the government in 1934 — $20 for the best of the cows, down to nothing for the calves. The government came out and killed our little pigs, all except what we wanted to keep for our own use. There was so little feed of any kind in the country. Russian thistles grew in a stunted mat that some tried to cut for hay. Dad never did. It was not successful as feed.

So, after the corn was all pulled Dad put us boys to tearing down a couple of barns he had acquired from abandoned farms.

He had a car shed he was proud of, solid, built of good lumber some year that had warranted the cost. While we boys were tearing down the old barns, Dad got a neighbor to help, pulled the car shed into place for the beginning of our "new" home.

I so clearly remember the moving of that car shed. Dad on the old Cross Motor Case tractor, the front wheels trying to lift off the ground, a neighbor walking alongside holding the governors open a little wider than they were meant to be, giving it a little more power by cheating.

The house was barely framed when there was an opportunity for Dad to get work on a WPA project graveling U.S. 85 many miles west of us. We had no clock. Dad would watch for the stars to get to a certain position in the sky, then get up, eat some breakfast, take the lunch Mom had prepared for him, walk two miles to catch a ride to this WPA job with a neighbor.

After the day's work on WPA graveling the highway with horses and wagons, Dad would come home, light the kerosene lantern. With that light he would work on the house until he had to get some sleep for the next day. He did have the outside of the house boarded up before the snow came. He asked for no help from anyone except us boys.

Now I marvel, how could Mom and Dad have handled such hardships, and still have an objective outlook? But they survived and did see times get much better.

Dad's orchard that had just started to bear when the drought killed it all, was replanted when the rains started to come again.  And again, was just starting to bear when Dad died.

The sod house was where the first services for the Pierce Congregational Church were held. We had some pictures taken in 1936 before the soddy was torn down. The house that replaced the old soddy is also gone now.

Time does not stand still.

(Reach reporter Karen Herzog at 250-8267 or


Copyright 2015 Bismarck Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(13) Comments

  1. Report Abuse
    - October 10, 2011 4:16 pm
    What a great story. My parents were about 12 years older--born in 1912 and 1913. My father grew up on the ranch my grandfather began in 1900---pre-homestead days.

    The depression shaped my parents lives until they day they died. It was a topic of conversation among their age group. Added to that the war. These 2 events became the universe that revolved around them. How they handled the "hard times", how FDR gave the country faith that they would endure.

    When I was a kid and asked them questions about the depression, they had no better answers than did my teachers or the textbooks. They viewed the CCC and WPA sd Godsends as no work was available.

    They understood that everyone was in the same boat and everyone put their shoulder to the wheel. They knew that the survival of our country was at stake.

    It is unfortunate that we still know little about the cause or the cure for the Depression. Citizen1945 has his own version of the facts and his political ideology shapes the facts as he sees them.

    It is true that most of the programs simply did not deliver what the "experts" believed. The pay at CCC and WPA was about 50% of what was needed to move the economy. About $60 per month when about $120 was needed. That is why the Depression lingered on and on. One group of men funded by Sears presented the data to prove what was needed in 1937, 1938, 1939, 1940, and 1941. No one listened. The politics of the day, like now were in charge. On Dec. 8, 1941, they listened and by Jan. 1942, the War Stabilization Act with the Steagall Amendment attached was passed and signed. That Act created the income to fight the war with a minimum of debt and the subsequent prosperity that followed, not because of the war, but the proper monetary policy to create the income to fight it. It was in force until 1952. We had 4 post war balance budgets and incredible prosperity with little government involvement. The issue of race was not yet dealt with but the economy worked.

    It has the natural consequence of reducing the demand for debt and the banking/financial community could not stand that and killed the goose that was laying the golden egg. We have increased our public and private debt every year since.

    It seems to me that if any problem is to be solved, it is imperative that we look back in time and find similar circumstances and what worked and what did not. The record here is crystal clear. Like in the Depression, ideology is running Washington and we are destroying our nation in the process. In the Depression, a few dedicated men refused to accept the advice of the "experts" and sought answers elsewhere. They indeed saved our nation. We can do that again if we find the will.

    As an aside, Sears utilized the knowledge that they gained from the study to build more retail when all the experts said the we would have a post war recession or worse. Sears knew that that was impossible. They became the largest retailer in the world partly because they used the knowledge to plan a course for profitability based upon the earned income of average AMericans.

    Food for thought.
  2. aceinthehole
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    aceinthehole - October 10, 2011 1:30 pm
    Great STORY curious to know whatever happened to the land and the farm? Are they still in the family
  3. Not to be used
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    Not to be used - October 10, 2011 10:17 am
    Halatbis said: "My grandfather and family homesteaded a parcel of land in Sheridan County (then McLean County) and built a sod house about 1904. My father said he and his older sister and brother helped by mixing straw with clay and water and trampling the mix by barefoot; then the mix was put into rectangular molds and then unblocked to cure in the open air. The sod bricks were then used to build the house by using a clay mortar to stick the bricks together.They lived in this sod house with parents and four siblings for several years."

    That's pretty cool! Not to take away from it, I think it's great, but it was not a sod house. It was an adobe house made with adobe bricks. Our ancestors deserve a lot of respect for the work they put in to make a future for their children.
  4. justthinking
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    justthinking - October 10, 2011 8:29 am
    This should be a required read for all schools to remind the younger generation of what life was like not that many years prior. It would probably be hard for them to comprehend, but they need to be 'enlightened'. The sacrifices the homesteaders made and the hard life they had paved the way for us. It just infuriates me when I hear my grandkids 'fuss' when they have to load the dishwasher or pick up their toys.
  5. Halatbis
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    Halatbis - October 10, 2011 7:58 am
    My grandfather and family homesteaded a parcel of land in Sheridan County (then McLean County) and built a sod house about 1904. My father said he and his older sister and brother helped by mixing straw with clay and water and trampling the mix by barefoot; then the mix was put into rectangular molds and then unblocked to cure in the open air. The sod bricks were then used to build the house by using a clay mortar to stick the bricks together.
    They lived in this sod house with parents and four siblings for several years.
  6. Artist1
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    Artist1 - October 10, 2011 5:12 am
    My mom and dad purchased a "hobby farm" back in 1982, kind of a weekend retreat. There was a sod house out there with the thickness that Mr. Oberfoell speaks of, I use to joke with my parents that "Custer probably had coffee here"! I have a framed oak picture of the farmstead hanging in my home. Mr. Oberfoell's story brings fond memories.
  7. Citizen1945
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    Citizen1945 - October 09, 2011 3:24 pm
    A great story which illustrates the problems with an overbearing government. Those years mark a nationwide crisis caused completely by the government. The solutions presented by FDR were failures and actually caused more harm to small farmers and businessmen than if they had done nothing at all. The story illustrates subtly the point of a far reaching federal government which ignores state and individual rights, a point often lost to our younger generations and the fool hardy who are among them.

    “The prized herd of Holsteins had gone to the government in 1934” A nationwide destruction of crops, livestock, and wealth which actually started in 1933 with the Agricultural Adjustment Act(AAA, 1936). The federal government decided what you needed, what you would grow, and when you had enough. I still find it unbelievable that FDR is proclaimed to be a good president when by his own signature, he signed the death warrant for so many starving people in the U.S. Those very livestock and crops could have been used for people in need Although the family in the story was paid for some of their losses, the fact is many people were not.

    This was a power grab designed from the outset to destroy the wealth of families. The AAA was combined with going off the gold standard and forcing people to sell gold and reduced prices. It insured the banks and livestock/crop conglomerates that it created would continue to be favorable to their campaigns. It insured that small farmers would remain small and under government control. The AAA was actually struck down by the Supreme Court in United States v. Butler. Unfortunately the lack of a gold standard remains.

    "Congress has no power to enforce its commands on the farmer to the ends sought by the Agricultural Adjustment Act. It must follow that it may not indirectly accomplish those ends by taxing and spending to purchase compliance. The Constitution and the entire plan of our government negative any such use of the power to tax and to spend as the act undertakes to authorize. It does not help to declare that local conditions throughout the nation have created a situation of national concern, for this is but to say that, whenever there is a widespread similarity of local conditions, Congress may ignore constitutional limitations upon its own powers and usurp those reserved to the states. If, in lieu of compulsory regulation of subjects within the states' reserved jurisdiction, which is prohibited, the Congress could invoke the taxing and spending power as a means to accomplish the same end, clause 1 of § 8 of Article I would become the instrument for total subversion of the governmental powers reserved to the individual states."

    Justice Pierce Butler
    United States v. Butler
    U.S. Supreme Court
    January 6, 1936

    FDR threw a tantrum that his power was questioned and actually asked Congress to pack the court with people favorable to his position, that is to add more justices such that the it would not be struck down again. A complete power grab not seen again until our current President. The similarities between the two are striking. Both are utter failures.

    An interesting related article…
  8. Artist1
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    Artist1 - October 09, 2011 10:14 am
    A beautiful, well written read! I agree with all of the previous posts and with you Karen. It would be lovely to have this story in book form along with photos and stories and photos from other Pioneers. What a remarkable man with the gift of sharing history in a captivating way. Thank you Mr. Oberfoell, you are an inspiration to us and the TRUE Pride of Dakota...May God keep you in His care.
  9. OMG
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    OMG - October 09, 2011 8:03 am
    Awesome story! Thank you so much!!
  10. DakotaPlainsman
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    DakotaPlainsman - October 09, 2011 7:35 am
    Thank you Mr. Oberfoell for telling this story. I was raised near Wing and heard similar stories for neighbors and relatives. History is an unrenewable resource. Jim, you have made a great contribution by writing it down. Thanks also to the Bismarck Tribune for publishing this first hand account. May God bless the Pioneers.
  11. road trip ready
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    road trip ready - October 09, 2011 7:26 am
    Pioneer Trails Regional Museum in Bowman Nd, Built in 2006 a sod house on the Museum property from Native Prarie Sod harvested North of Scranton. The Sod came from a Homesteaded property and the structure was completed to help Commerate the pioneer Sprit for the 2007 Centenial of Bowman. The Local Nursing Home shuttled Residents back and forth to visit and watch the museum Volunteers construct this part of local heritage.
    During the construction Seniors would share there stories of early pioneer life in Western ND just like todays article..One has to admire the strength and courage of those pioneers.
  12. Energy Efficiency
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    Energy Efficiency - October 08, 2011 9:41 pm
    Great story! A wonderful piece of N.D. history. My Great Grandfather also pioneered this state and built and lived in a sod house, and raised a family, for many years before erecting a stick house. He came from Norway in 1883 when he was 16 years old and died in 1960.
  13. HappyCamper1
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    HappyCamper1 - October 08, 2011 8:56 pm
    What a Great History Lesson. An Honest History of one person that was so true of so many families on the Prairie.

    Thank you Bismarck Tribune for telling the story of one person's life and makes me realize how fortunate/lucky we now have it.
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