The Saga of the Soddie

At the twilight of the nineteenth century, American Indians already occupying the northern plains had countless generations of experience in enduring harsh winters. Meanwhile, early homesteaders still had much to learn about life on the open prairie. One lesson was quickly realized: tar paper shacks were not going to cut it. For these "honyockers," the availability and affordability of sod, paired with a lack of additional building materials, spurred the rise of earth shelters.

Those who eked out an existence on the prairie during the homesteading era were at the whim of Mother Nature, as readers are reminded in the winter issue of South Dakota History. The article, “It’s Weathered Many a Storm: The Enduring Sod House in Northwestern South Dakota” by Molly P. Rozum, illuminates the saga of the “soddie” in West River country through personal interviews, research, and photographs.

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Sod is often thought of as a crude medium for house building, but its beauty lies in its simplicity and strength, rather than its style. An added bonus of the soddie was its ability to withstand the elements, from blizzards to wildfires, as well as to keep the temperature comfortable within the shelter during all seasons. From buckling walls to uninvited pests, the soddie also had its drawbacks. Many made plans to move out of these temporary homes as soon as possible, while others stayed permanently and lovingly modernized their sod spaces with electricity, plumbing, and wallpaper. 

Fortunately, a few of these dwellings have survived to see this century. Yet, more often than not, all that remains of the soddie is its story. Perhaps the memories captured in South Dakota History will inspire a greater awareness of these frontier homes and, we hope, will encourage others to share a few memories of their own.

—Amy C. Kucera


“Honyocker” is a slang term for a farming homesteader. Federal Writers’ Project, Works Progress Administration, A South Dakota Guide (Pierre: South Dakota Historical Society Press, 2005), p. 4.

Featured Image: South Dakota State Historical Society, Digital Archives