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The Last Windrow: Early settlers had to be tough

My wife and I just returned from a short camping trip to Winnipeg. We've camped at Birds Hill many times and always find interesting things to do around the Manitoba city.

This year we visited Fort Whyte, a historical depiction of life on the plains both for Indian people and white settlers alike. The facility also offers a great interpretive center, which is worth your time.

One of the displays at Fort Whyte is a sod house. I've never actually been inside a sod house and I was interested in seeing this artifact of plains history. The little house sat in a small grove of aspen trees and blended perfectly with the surrounding landscape. The thin slabs of sod showed bits of grass along the outer edges and the roof was growing a number of plants and green moss was also present.

Once inside the house one immediately was met by the smell of a moist environment. The aroma reminded me of our farm's earthen cellar. There was no mistaking that one was surrounded by soil. The one-room sod home featured no walls and a cook stove sat against one wall.

The space made me wonder how a family would live in such a place, especially a large family. The written description that hung on the wall said that the rooms were usually divided by blankets or tarps to give some privacy to the occupants. There could not have been much of that.

The description also stated that the sod roof usually leaked to some extent after a rain and a number of critters took up residence in the ceiling from time to time. Mice, spiders and sometimes even a prairie garter snake might make an appearance over the bed. A long way from a five-star hotel.

Visiting this sod house brought back a memory of my family's oral history. My great-great-grandparents homesteaded a quarter section of Iowa land in the early 1870s. The story goes that my relatives moved to their homestead from Wisconsin. It seems that the word got around that western Iowa had less rocks and a lot deeper soil fit for farming and many who had settled east chose to venture farther west. It was that push that brought my great-great-grandparents to this part of Iowa.

The story goes that they arrived in Sioux City by horse and wagon. They filed their claim, loaded up the wagon with lumber and headed northeast to what was to become Lincoln Township in Plymouth County, Iowa.

I wondered how they could have survived arriving at their piece of land and survived. They had no roof over their heads, no well for water, no food supply. All they had was a load of lumber, a wagon, a sod breaker plow and a dream of owning their own land.

I learned from my dad that somehow settlers who had preceded this party somehow knew that new folks were coming and they met my family members when they arrived and invited them to stay with them until they could erect a rugged little cabin on the corner of the property.

When I plowed the field where they first built that little cabin I turned up various pieces of pottery, dishes and other pieces that showed human activity.

I thought of that little rugged cabin of my great-great-grandparents amid a sea of tall, waving bluestem grass as I stood in that sod house up in Winnipeg last week. And I thought of how tough one would have to be to endure living in that sod house.

One might expect a thought about whether it was really worth the experience. Especially when a garter snake dangled down from the ceiling over your bed at midnight.

See you next time. Okay?

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