The dugout was a makeshift, temporary home and a predecessor of both the sod house and the log and frame house in early Nebraska. Such shelter was more easily made than other homes, according to Everett E. Dick's Conquering the Great American Desert: Nebraska (1975).
The best place to construct such a shelter was in the east side of a slight hill, where the north wind would blow the snow away from the door and the dwelling would have the morning sun to light its dark interior. The settler took his spade and dug a rectangular hole in the hillside. The floor was smoothed with a slight downward slant toward the front to allow any water to drain out. Three sides of the home were made of earth, but the front was built up to form a wall. If possible, logs were used, but if these were unobtainable, a wall was made of sod blocks. In this front wall were the door and perhaps a window. The roof was made of poles, brush, hay, and earth.
The dugout was easily made, cost little, was warm in winter and relatively cool in summer. However, it was dark and dirty, and it was subject to the incursions of insects and animals. The only evidence of such a dwelling was the stove pipe protruding from a small mound.
However, the most serious defect was its location with reference to a stream. For two reasons the dugout was often located on the bank of a ravine: first, water could be conveniently dipped from water holes or a shallow well; and second, it was near the scanty supply of timber. However, there were drawbacks to such a location. Little pools of water were breeding places for mosquitoes in late summer, and stagnant pools covered with green scum formed an uninviting front yard. Flooding was another danger. With a heavy rain the whole valley might become a swollen stream.
If he was prosperous, the settler might soon make an addition to the front of the dugout. If he could find some logs, he made a log room, using the old front of the dugout as one wall. But he frequently had to build the walls and front end of sod blocks. This permitted windows in each side and lighted the home, making it more livable and giving the family the feeling of having come up in the world.
( October 2003 )
Return to Timeline Index