NEWS for North Dakotans
Agriculture Communication, North Dakota State University
7 Morrill Hall, Fargo, ND 58105-5665
April 1, 1999
Tom Isern, Professor of History
North Dakota State University
©1998 Plains Folk
"As far as I'm concerned I was happy there, and I never thought too much about it. We took it for granted."
I had asked Bernice Larson, who raised her family in a sod house in North Dakota's Bowman County in the 1940s and 1950s, what it was like to live in a sod house in the middle of the 20th century. Was this a hardship, I wondered? Did she feel deprived? Evidently not.
Ordinarily we think of sod houses as temporary expedients, dwellings laid up to fill residence requirements for homesteads, then replaced with proper frame houses when railroads and sales of the first crops made lumber available. It's interesting and, I think, significant that some families deliberately chose to remain in their soddies. They bought window glass, laid down wood floors, plastered the interior walls, stuccoed the exterior, and most important, put on a tight roof of wood shakesand then enjoyed the advantages of earthen insulation against the hard elements of the plains.
Bernice Larson was the daughter of homesteaders, Melvin and Jennie Torpen from Wisconsin. She grew up a few miles from her future sod-house home, in a family of three daughters.
"I usually helped my dad milk because the other two girls were in the house," Bernice says. She came to know her future husband, Clark Larson, at local dances held in barns and homes. She married him in 1940. In 1942 they moved onto a rental farmthe residence of which happened to be a sod house previously occupied by the owners.
"It was in fairly good shape," Bernice recalls. The main part of the house comprised three roomsa bedroom on the north side, a dining room on the south side and a living room in the middle. A coal stove in the wall between the living room and the dining room heated the house and also the water for washing. Attached to the west side of the house was a wood-frame addition, which served as the kitchen. Outside the kitchen door was a windmill. Bernice lived in the sod house from 1942 to 1960 and never had running water. She did, however, get electricity in 1950.
Bernice repainted the interior, with the living room receiving a coat of ecru. She made curtains and laid rugs on the living room and bedroom floors. The kitchen floor was linoleum, and that was where people dropped their boots and coats. "Seems like we always found roomI don't know where!"
The house did get a little cramped as the family grew: four children, the oldest born in 1942, the youngest in 1953. This necessitated folding beds in both the living room and the dining room. Eventually the Larsons moved, not only to get a larger house, but also to buy a farm of their own.
In the meantime, Bernice was not a complainer. "Of course the walls weren't really even," she allows, but, " ... it was a warm house. It was very nice because the walls were thick. It was nice and cozy. And I had more company then than I did in later years."
That last sentence is a clue, I think, to why people hold fond memories of sod houses. It may be that sod had its environmental advantages, but recollection of those physical facts is wrapped up with remembrance of the social situation of generations pasta lot of kids around, dances, school events and most of all, gatherings of family and neighbors in the house. "I had so many relations, and we used to get together," Bernice Larson says. "And my neighborswe had good neighbors. A lot of visiting, card playing. They brought all their children."
The sod house where Bernice Larson raised her family and played cards with the neighbors still stands, in good condition, uninhabited.
Source: Tom Isern (701) 231-8339
Editor: Dean Hulse (701) 231-6136