Official Nebraska Government Website Nebraska State Historical Society

Nebraska Trailblazer #5:
Pioneer reminiscences of early Nebraska homes

Dugout House  |  Log House  |  Log House 2  |  Sod-Dugout House  |  Sod House  |  Sod House 2  |  Frame House  |  Frame House 2

Dugout House
The experience of Elizabeth Thompson Wirt, daughter of York County homesteaders, 1872.

"With the arrival of Mother the dugout became the home of their dreams. When Mrs. Thompson was all set for housekeeping there was the 'four-hole cook-stove' in one corner, the table in the opposite corner. In the other end of the 12x14 foot room were two beds, one above the other, for the children; another for the parents. The chairs were slices of a large cottonwood tree trunk, each set with three legs. All the furniture was the handiwork of Mr. Thompson. The room was warm in winter and comfortably cool in summer."

From Elizabeth Thompson Wirt's account in Cradle Days in York County, pp. 104-105.
978.2994 Al2c 1976

Log House
The experience of Fannie M. Potter, Fort Calhoun, 1856, daughter of Nebraska settlers in the territorial years.

"Well, the house is a hewed log house twelve by twelve on the inside, well chinked and daubed. At a first glance you would think the walls were lathed and plastered, but look a little closer and it is only lined with white muslin. The walls we intend to paper over the muslin this winter, leaving the ceiling white.

A good ingrain carpet covers the rough boards, but they are not rough now, for I scrubbed them smooth before the carpet went down.

The front door faces the east and the Missouri [river]; we have a view of the river from two points. . . .

Next look out of the window and take a view of our glorious corn field, 'Old Muddy' &c. A chair is on each side of the window. Next comes Fan's food chair, which is in the corner; turn to the right and next is a table, . . . then a chair, then a lounge covered with striped green and white furniture calico. . . . Then you turn the [second] corner, a chair, then a door opening into the kitchen, another chair, and you come to the grand stairway, which makes the third corner, then a chair, and the remainder of the south side of the house is filled with books, . . . A bookcase reaching from the ceiling to the floor will not hold them, so the remainder are piled up behind the door, which makes the [fourth] corner and that's all. . . .

You must not slight the kitchen ,. . . it is a little place, twelve feet by eleven, contains a bed for our old Scotchman, a table, cupboard, stove and all the appurtenances thereof, a water bench, flour barrel, and a trap door to get into the cellar, a couple of chairs and several utensils . . . I have a nice cool cellar with shelves all around it upon which stand certain ominous looking jars, covered up tight, but which are found to contain preserves of different kinds, . . .

Now for upstairs . . . it is my bedroom and I sleep just as sweetly in it as though it were a palace. The walls of it are lined with white muslin also. I have two beds in it . . . Both of them have mosquito bars around them and they have been a great source of comfort to us this summer. There are two windows, an east and a west, with oil curtains to them, four trunks and a box to hold bedclothes. We have straw matting on the floor, . . . a couple of chairs and that is all; we have to make our wardrobes on the wall. . . ."

From Mrs. Fannie M. Potter's account in Founders and Patriots, pp. 89-91.

Log House 2
The experience of Mary E. Reynolds, who moved to Fremont in the Nebraska territory, 1857.

"At the close of a long dusty days drive from Omaha, in August 1857, Fremont first appeared to my view. . . . Six or eight log cabins, . . . and about a score of hay stacks; only that and nothing more . . .

Our dwellings were log cabins, a story and a half high; the floors of rough cottonwood boards, put down just as they came from the mill, which shrank so badly in a few weeks after beeing laid, that the space between the boards bade fair to rival the width of the boards themselves. The wind, which blew incessantly, came through the cracks with such force, that in winter time, it was impossible to keep the dwelling warm. Few of us possessed carpets. Those of us who did not used to buy a rush mat, that the squaws made, . . . One winter I covered my floor with buffalo robes; of these every settler had a supply, procuring them from the Indians who lived on the South of the Platte River. . . .

In those days the electric lights were not here, no gas, no kerosene oil even. A good Mother in the East, in packing a box of household articles to send to her newly married daughter added a pair of brass candlesticks, . . . A sister, helping in packing, asked why that was done: The wise Mother replied, 'In all probability, they do not use gas on the great American desert.' With the box came a letter saying, 'Do tell us what you use for light?' The reply went back, 'Candles, and I make them myself-dips.'. . ."

From Mary E. Reynolds' account in "Fremont in 1857." pp. 1-5.

Sod-Dugout House
The experience of Mrs. W. E. Morgan in York County in the 1870s, wife of Pastor Morgan.

"On Monday morning I drove over to our claim to see the house which was to be our residence, for a while at least until we should finish a frame house which my brother had already commenced, and which would be ready for occupancy before cold weather. They told us, though, that Nebraska winters were lovely, and that we had nothing to fear from cold or storms.

I found a place about 10x12, half dugout, half sod, a dirt floor, dirt walls, and a shingled roof which slanted to the south. We had two windows, one on the north, which I could only reach by the aid of a chair, the other on the west. Our cabin opened to the south. A sod partition extended

through the building, the east half being used as a stable for the horses and cow. . . .
We bestowed our belongings as compactly as possible, to wit: A cook stove, bed, table, and cooking utensils (which for convenience were stowed under the bed.) The rest, organ, bureau, etc., were put on the north side of the house and protected with an old wagon cover.

The weather continued delightfully warm and balmy, and we were flattering ourselves that our frame house would soon be ready to occupy.

It had been a delightful day in November, . . . The sun had set in a blaze of glory. I woke sometime in the middle of the night to find my bed wet with what felt like snow and the wind was howling as if all the spirits of the storm were turned loose. The morning revealed the fact that our bed was covered with about two inches of snow, our door barricaded by a big drift, and the whirling sleet made it dangerous to venture out. We were in the midst of a genuine Nebraska blizzard. To add to our discomfort we had only green elm to burn and a scanty supply of that. I wrapped the children in blankets and quilts to keep them even moderately warm. . . .

It was, I believe, three days before the storm cleared so that we could get to Beaver Creek, two miles away, and obtain some decent fuel. Meanwhile we whistled to keep our courage up and emulated Mark Tapley, who got jolly in proportion as things grew dark.

We had three blizzards that winter, one after the other, and we began to think that the famous Nebraska winters were a myth. . . .

We gave up all hopes of finishing our house before spring, and settled ourselves to remain all winter in our little dugout with as good grace as possible. . . ."

From Mrs. W. E. Morgan's account in History of York County, pp. 371-372.
978.2994-Se, Vol. 1

Sod House
The experience of Gertrude Sewell Pate, daughter of Red Willow County homesteaders, 1879-1890.

"The walls of our house were plastered and whitewashed. Mother sewed strips of white muslin together (by hand, since there were no sewing machines in those days), which were tacked on the ceiling to keep insects and dirt from falling. It also concealed the unsightly logs, making the room clean, light, and attractive. The fireplace built in the wall added to the cheerfulness of the room. Guests enjoyed it with us many evenings as the wood fire crackled and shone brightly.

The small oval-shaped stove was a combined heater and cook stove. The dish cupboard was made by Mother of boards, and had a board door. A large mirror, a large, sweet-toned striking clock with weights, and a pretty canary bird's singing helped to brighten the home.

For a short time we used floor beds. Straw ticks were filled with straw and placed on the floor in two corners. Wagon-bed sides and end boards were used for the sides and feet of our beds.

Our table was small. We had but few chairs, one a rocking chair.

When company came to our house, we children had to stand up when indoors. This was the necessity at all early settlers homes because of the scarcity of chairs.

We even had to eat dinner standing up and always did we children eat at the second table. But there was always plenty of good food left for us. Father made Flora and me each a little chair out of small tobacco boxes. How proud of them we were. They were painted so beautifully. A small bench held a waterpail and dipper, a washpan and soap. The water never froze in our sod house which was warm in winter and cool in summer.

Grease lamps were in common use. Grease was put in a dish. In it the end of a cloth was put; the other end of the cloth was lighted. The heat drew the grease up into the cloth which lighted the room. Skunk grease was preferable to others since it did not harden.

Some old-time settlers used candles; a few having their own molds with which to mold them.

An essential piece of equipment was a fly swatter. Although we had mosquito netting on our windows, some flies persisted in coming into the house. Not many homesteaders had their windows covered. It was a common sight to see home-makers shooing the flies out of the room by waving a large cloth around the room. Fly swatters were made by folding a newspaper with a few thicknesses over a stick then cutting it into narrow strips as a sort of fringe. This implement was not used to actually swat flies, but was waved gently over the dinner table to keep flies off the food. Since newspapers were so scarce, paper fly swatters were luxuries. Small leafy tree twigs were used."

From Gertrude Sewell Pate's account entitled "Homesteading When I was a Little Girl." pp. 10-12.

Sod House 2
The experience of Hazel (Mrs. Frank) Harris , daughter of Sioux County homesteaders around 1899-1910.

"Our 4-room sod house had muslin tacked to the ceiling logs and whitewashed. Dirt walls were plastered and papered, and floors were pine boards. We had a Garland range, an organ and folding bed in the sitting room, and a woven rag carpet there over straw padding. We used coal-oil lamps, and made our clothes on a treadle Singer sewing machine. For years we had no flies, so didn't need screens, and beef was hung from the windmill tower to dry the outside and preserve the meat. . . .

The baby crawled after a little rattlesnake that came through a floor knothole, and after that all holes were plugged and doors and windows screened. . . ."

From Hazel (Mrs. Frank) Harris' account in Sioux County - Memoirs of its Pioneers, pp. 87-88.

Frame House
The experience of Ada Gray (Mrs. George Whitfield) Bemis, early Sutton resident, 1871-74.

"My own first home was of lumber hauled in a wagon from Lincoln, about 12x24 feet. Two rooms, no foundation, with real windows and doors. Made of boards, covered with tar paper and ceiled. Later my husband was in Lincoln and found some wall paper, each roll different. He promptly bought the entire stock and put it on in panels, there not being enough of any one kind to cover a whole side of a room. After that, whenever we had nothing else to do, we made paste of flour and water and covered cracks where it peeled from the boards.

Our furniture was brought from Iowa in a wagon and consisted of a very few pieces of black walnut, the kitchen table . . . I sat up at night to admire the set of corner shelves made by Mr. Bemis to hold my wedding vases, books, and the ever present sea shells, and glass covered wax flowers. He also evolved a clock shelf which he put on the wall so high that each day he must stand on a chair to wind it but while he grumbled throughout the process, he never moved the shelf.

Just once in my life I had made a quilt, a crazy quilt, of small bits of silk, satin and velvet, and this I ripped apart, and cushioned, draped, and covered everything possible with its fragments. The color scheme in our home blended perfectly. We did not pay any bills for electricity or gas the whole time we lived there as our two kerosene lamps and a lantern were ample when supplemented by tallow candles which I molded for emergencies.

We had real floors but the new lumber soon had open cracks between the boards, and after I had seen a snake crawl under the house one day, we covered the floor with straw and then laid a yarn carpet sent from the east by my father.

Later we shipped out my piano and its great square rosewood case filled more room than we could well spare but since when company arrived we filled a tick with straw and slept on the floor, giving the guests the bed in the recess behind the curtains, we did not miss the bed room space, but rather liked the little corner under the piano. Often our hospitality was limited only by the size of our floor space as travelers came driving by, all of whom were welcomed to rest for a day or night. . . .

When the town did not have any kerosene as occasionally happened, and our candles gave out, I put a saucer full of lard on the table, with a stick wound with strips of cotton cloth in it, and this form of indirect lighting was very satisfactory. We set the stick in a piece of dough made of flour and water.

I remember my first dinner party was lighted that way and I felt as you would now if the electric lights went out on your dinner. But, we had on the table a haunch of venison, a plover on each plate, fresh vegetables, dried red raspberry pie and home-made cheese and conversation which rivaled any I have heard lately."

From Ada Gray (Mrs. George Whitfield) Bemis' account in the Nebraska History quarterly, volume 14, pp. 211-218

Frame House 2
The experiences of Allen Reith in 1911-14. He emigrated to Washington County, Nebraska, from Denmark and spent over three years farming.

" . . . It was my good fortune to get a job with a young, progressive farmer where I soon became a member of the family, an older brother to the young children and a younger brother to Edwin and Mary Lund, both in their middle thirties. . . .

Like other farm houses in the area the Lund's house consisted of a kitchen-dining-living room with an enormous coal-wood-corncob-burning stove with a 5-gallon water reservoir; a parlor with an organ, a table and 3-4 wooden chairs, the family bible and a couple of family pictures on the walls. Except on rare occasions, when they had a get-together, the parlor was used only as passageway into a couple of small bedrooms, one of which had a little stove with a long stovepipe out through the ceiling and roof. There was no plumbing whatever. A shelf near the kitchen stove held a bucket of water with a community dipper. . . .

Bathing was generally considered an unnecessary luxury on the farm. Some families used the watering tank for the stock but that was frowned upon by the Lunds. However, this was compensated for by our more frequent washing of work clothes because we had a gasoline engine to run the washing machine. Nobody else had that.

There was a decorative kerosene mantle lamp hanging from the ceiling in the kitchen. Small portable kerosene lamps were used for the other rooms. Regular kerosene farm lanterns were used in barns and corrals and there was seldom a day, even in the summer, that we didn't carry a lantern around.

Nobody in our area had ice. The only refrigeration known was a tank in the well-shed where milk cans were kept in water renewed once a day. But nearly every farm had a storm-cellar which also served as storage for vegetables and home-canned goods.

We had a workshop about 12x20' which had a small bedroom for the hired hand. I was well pleased with that because it game both the family and me a measure of privacy from each other."

From Allen Reith's account entitled "Memories of Allen F. Reith." pp. 8-9.


NSHS Home  |  Search  |  Index  |  Top
Last updated 6 January 1999

For questions or comments on the website itself, email
Nebraska State Historical Society - P.O. Box 82554, 1500 R Street, Lincoln, NE 68501
Nebraska State Government Homepage
 |  Website Policies  |  © 2009 All Rights Reserved