The McCone Sod Houses (Sanborn, Minnesota)
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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..
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
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
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
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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