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The McCone Sod Houses  (Sanborn, Minnesota)

(Reprint from News: August 17, 2001)

August 16, 2001


The next day was sunny and beautiful and I continued heading west across southern Minnesota, driving by countless fields of corn, alfalfa, and soybeans, all quite bucolic and exceptionally scenic.  Shortly after noon as I approached the small town of Sanborn, I pulled off the two-lane highway and drove a mile down a dirt road to visit some sod houses that, according to my AAA TourBook, had been built there recently. 


I'm pretty intrigued with sod houses because my mother once told me that her great-grandparents, who had emigrated from Norway and Germany to the U.S., lived in sod houses in Minnesota and South Dakota in the late 1800s.  I'd seen lots of pictures of sod houses but had never been inside one.


Following the signs, I pulled into the empty driveway of a farmhouse and a pleasant woman named Virginia McCone came out and introduced herself.  She had apparently been baking cinnamon buns because the sweet smell wafted out onto the porch as we talked.  A few minutes later, her genial husband, Stan, emerged from the house and I told them that I was heading to nearby Windom to see what I could learn about my great-great-grandparents who homesteaded near there in the 1800s.  (For information on homesteading, see my page on The 1862 Homestead Act).   


As I learned, Stan and Virginia McCone have farmed on this land for many years and are interested in preserving pioneer heritage so, needless to say, I felt an instant rapport with them.  Sort of like in the movie "Field of Dreams," Stan plowed under part of his cornfield a while ago and planted a tall-grass prairie with grasses that are almost entirely extinct now from Minnesota, thus recreating the landscape of a hundred years ago.  He also built several sod houses on his farm a few years ago, one of which is a cozy Bed-and-Breakfast with wooden floors and a wooden ceiling.


As I walked through the sod houses on the McCone farm, I learned a lot about "soddies," as they were called (not to be confused with Saudis, few of whom, I'm sure, ever homesteaded in Minnesota).  For instance, over a million sod houses once dotted the treeless plains of the Midwest during the late 1800s.  Most homesteaders in this area built sod houses because wood was expensive and scarce, which is hard to imagine today because of all the trees here.  However, there were a lot fewer trees back in those days because of the frequent prairie fires that swept through the area, which today, of course, are suppressed.  


To build a soddy, homesteaders cut three-foot long blocks of sod, then they stacked them on top of each other, placing them upside-down for better cohesion.  Based on most accounts that I've read, sod houses were fairly snug and comfortable, despite their dirt floors.  Indeed, the thick sod walls provided excellent insulation against the bitterly cold Midwestern winters.  The main problem with a soddy was that the roof tended to leak during heavy rainstorms and it was usually dark inside, since window glass was a rare commodity on the frontier.  Another problem was that foreign objects, such as clumps of dirt, strands of grass, or various kinds of insects, tended to drop from the ceiling and land on the occupants heads or onto their plates of lutefisk.  (For those of you non-Norwegians, you can read about this delicacy on my lutefisk page).  Sadly, virtually all the sod houses eventually melted back into the earth and today the only soddies standing are ones such as these that have been reconstructed. 


As I walked through the fascinating McCone sod houses, I envisioned my great-great-grandparents living in sod houses such as these while homesteading near here in the 1800s.  It'll be a while before I complain again about my microwave dinner taking five minutes to cook..


The McCone sod houses and tall-grass prairie were quite fascinating and I spent over an hour here.  If you want a real taste of the pioneer homesteading experience and want to better appreciate the modern conveniences that we all take for granted, drop by the McCone farm near Sanborn, Minnesota.  And don't forget your lutefisk.



Above left:  An old gas station in Minnesota with 15 cent-a-gallon gasoline.  Fill it up!

Above center:   A lot of small towns in the Midwest have quaint, humorous celebrations, like Buttered Corn Day in Sleepy Eye, Minnesota.  But it's August 16-19, so shouldn't it be Buttered Corn DAYS?

Above right:  Stan McCone recently built several sod houses on his farm here, near Sanborn, Minnesota.  They were featured a while ago on the History Channel.  I talked to Stan and his wife, Virginia.  They're both very nice folks and are interested in preserving the pioneering heritage



Above left:  This sod house on the McCone farm is also a Bed-and-Breakfast.  Stan has also restored the prairie here, planting native grasses on several acres.

Above center:   Inside the Bed-and-Breakfast sod house.  It had a large bed, wooden floors, a wooden ceiling, and it actually looks quite comfortable.

Above right:  The inside of another sod house on the McCone farm.  This one has been restored to how it might have looked in the 1800s.  My great-great-grandparents, recently arriving in this area from Germany in the 1870s, probably lived in one like this.



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