• Looking up at the Gateway Arch


    National Expansion Memorial Missouri


"The houses on the Divide were small and were usually tucked away in low places; you did not see them until you came directly upon them. Most of them were built of the sod itself, and were only the unescapable ground in another form. The roads were but faint tracks in the grass, and the fields were scarcely noticeable. The record of the plow was insignificant, like the feeble scratches on stone left by prehistoric races, so indeterminite that they may, after all, be only the markings of glaciers, and not a record of human strivings."
- Willa Cather, O Pioneers

The farmers of Westward expansion, more specifically the Great Plains, were lured to the land when President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862. This act promised heads of households, or people 21 years or older who were U. S. Citizens or showed that intent, 160 acres of land for a $10.00 filing fee. The U.S. hoped to encourage settlement on the "Great American Desert," a term mistakenly applied to the Great Plains due to its lack of trees and the myth that trees showed fertility of the land.

These farmers, "sodbusters" as they were called, were met with lack of adequate housing, water, and fuel and had to tackle extreme environmental conditions. Characteristically perseverant people, they made the land productive and built their sod houses or "soddies" from it. The sod house is uniquely American and reflects the never-say-die attitude of these farmers.

The lack of trees on the Great Plains dictated a unique solution to the problems of constructing a house. A sod house consisted of sod and grass with intricate root systems cut into three-foot slabs (like building blocks) that were layered into building the walls of a one room home with a door and window. Some sod houses were built into the side of a hill, while others were freestanding. The soddie was characteristically dirty and a home for bugs, mice and snakes. Some soddies were more elaborate, with glass windows and wooden doors, or perhaps had more than one room. Sod houses were used as dwellings well into the twentieth century, when wooden frame homes replaced them throughout the Great Plains.

Farmers had difficulty growing crops, but with the invention of dry farming and improved machinery they sometimes made a profit. Life was hard for these men and women. The loneliness, poor weather conditions, and lack of money drove many back to the East. For others this was the promise of land ownership they dreamed about for their entire lifetime, and giving up was not an option.

The Exodusters, a large, spontaneous migration of African-Americans, were also beckoned to start a new life on the Great Plains after the Civil War. They were not specifically led by a charismatic leader, but a rather by a small group of men who encouraged movement to Kansas. By 1880 the black population in Kansas increased from 16,000 to 43,000. It was thought that Paradise could be found in Kansas, the place where John Brown, the famous abolitionist, had lived. Nicodemus, an all-black settlement in Kansas, became a thriving community until a financial depression hit the nation, poor weather conditions hurt farming, and a white-run railroad intentionally chose not to pass through the town but six miles to its south. Nicodemus fell into financial ruin and today houses but fifty inhabitants.

Financial despair was the norm for Great Plains farmers for a variety of reasons. When the railroads bought land they sold it to farmers on time payments, promising better land than the farmer could buy elsewhere. If the crops did not grow, the farmers were unable to pay and their land was foreclosed upon by the railroad. Secondly, blights of grasshoppers and locusts caused catastrophes of biblical proportions to the crops. Descriptions included seeing a cloud of smoke coming closer and closer, blotting out the sun like an eclipse, until the farmer could see that in reality it was not smoke but grasshoppers. The crackling and snapping of corn and other crops was heard as they ate. When they left there was nothing left but stripped ears of corn.

The majority of farms were created between the 1860s and the 1880s. Many images of sod houses and farms were immortalized by photographers of the time. Solomon D. Butcher was an emigrant to Nebraska who did not care for farming, but discovered photography and made a name for himself as a frontier photographer. Through photos by people like Butcher, Americans of modern times can appreciate the struggle the Plains farmers endured to find their American Dream.

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