The Myth of Living in Simpler Times: Life in a Soddy

Originally Published March 5, 2013

A common theme of late – and during any tough economic times – is a longing to live in simpler times. Except the concept of simpler times is actually a myth. As you go back through history; the 1930s and 1940s, the late 1800s, you find that life was a great deal of work that our technological advances have made easier, especially in the realm of house chores. But it is idealized as people are starting to do what is called “urban homesteading”; growing their own gardens, raising chickens, turkeys, rabbits, even goats, sheep and potbelly pigs in the suburbs for food, being conscious of water use, homeschooling and even limiting their use of technology. What is not realized by a lot of these people is the sheer amount of work there is to being part of a “simpler time”.
The daily chores of living and survival were at times, insurmountable. For each 100 settlers that came Westward in search of a different life, as many as 30% gave up and returned to Eastern cities and civilized areas. The basic chores for men and women in Colorado were nearly identical to those in every part of the country, but each place had their own unique obstacles to overcome.
One of the biggest issues faced by people in the plains of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas was the sheer openness of the space. Agoraphobia – not yet called that – afflicted many a housewife and settler, some so severely that they had to return to the East. Coming out of a still heavily forested area, or a heavily populated city, coping with being alone with just a spouse or spouse and children all day in a vast open place created a fear that was hard to overcome.
For those who managed to overcome it, there was the hard work of creating your new homestead. You tried to move there early enough in the year to start your first crops, and building a permanent house was secondary. Breaking the prairie sod for the first time was daunting for many would be Western farmers; plows were broken, horses were found to be inadequate to the task because the prairie grass was so tall (Taller than a man), so deeply rooted to resist the winds all year round and winter snows, it made it tough to get a plow or shovel into the ground. A wise farmer went to the nearest town and rented or borrowed oxen and a heavy plow suited to cut the prairie grass. Rocks, as in any farm field across the country, were the second obstacle, and we put aside to help build fences or building foundations. Even then, a realistic farmer only managed to plow and plant a small portion of his owned acres that first year.
A soddy was a common plains first house, so called because it was built of bricks made from that first turning of the soil as the farm was set up. The thick roots held it together, and they pieces were cut uniformly with a sharp knife, and stacked just like any brick building would be made. Windows were scarce unless you brought them with you from back East, so a soddy most often had only a door, and was rather small and low. Some were dug down into the ground and had a leveled off dirt floor, giving a bit more space. The roof was often made of the canvas from the wagon cover, held in place along the edges with more pieces of sod or rocks. If there were enough trees nearby, a series of small ones were cut to make a roof lattice, then covered with more pieces of sod. The small size made it common for a great deal of daily life to happen outdoors; the major benefit of a soddy was they were easy to keep warm and cozy during the winter.

But here is where the chores begin. Trying to keep a soddy clean was a near impossible chore. If your roof was sodded, dirt and bugs fell from the ceiling; many a homesteader’s wife would buy some inexpensive muslin or sacking the first chance she got and put it up on the ceiling to keep the bugs and dirt out of things. The first area covered was usually over the bed. A habit started then that some of us may have seen our own grandmothers do – sweeping the hardpacked earth in front of the door to keep the area a bit cleaner.

Otherwise, the days were marked by what chores were done on that day. One day of the week was for bread making, another for laundry, and so forth. The daily chores of making meals either over an open fire, or if better off than most, over a cook stove, taking care of the livestock – feeding chickens, gathering eggs, milking cows, feeding pigs – tending your own vegetable garden, preserving foods when they became ripe, drying meat from hunts, making herbal remedies and soap, mending clothes as well as making new clothes, fetching water, gathering fire wood or cow chips, and schooling the children often took up the whole day. Children did help with a number of the normal chores, but the time can be broken down to show how much work went into each task.

Cooking a meal – all ingredients from scratch. Even something as simple as a meal of fried potatoes and eggs could take 30 minutes; closer to an hour if it was the first meal of the day and the fire needed to be brought back to life and gotten hot enough to cook on. Soups, roasts, stews were often put on the stove in the morning in order to be done for the evening meal. In some cases, like having a meal of fried chicken, could take even longer, because you had to catch and slaughter the chicken, hang it for a while, pluck it and cut it into the parts we normally associate with fried chicken – legs, thighs, wings, breasts. A quick and competent housewife will make short work of this, but add an hour to the meal making time for the average.

Making bread – This could be an all day affair; most homesteaders baked their entire week’s bread on one day. I have made my own bread; just three loaves takes over three hours. Knowing that many homesteaders had bread with every meal, that’s like 3-4 loaves of bread per person in a household. Baking in a wood stove takes about the same amount of time a modern electric stove would take, but baking in an open fire in a Dutch oven can take double the time. Depending on the number of pans a homesteader had – not many, to be sure – it may mean you bake one loaf at a time. All day chore indeed.

Caring for the chickens/collecting eggs – as a chicken owner myself, this part is rather quick and easy during the warm months. You open the coop, let them out, scatter some grain, and otherwise let the chickens forage for the day. Then go into the coop and get the morning eggs from your morning layers. This is where the children come in. They can collect the eggs, feed the chickens, and stand watch on them. Why are they watching the chickens? The plains are full of animals who like a chicken dinner just as much as the next guy – coyotes, foxes, hawks, and raccoons. They also get the fun of paying attention to a chicken’s egg song, signaling that she has laid and you have to figure out where. A daily Easter egg hunt!

Caring for the rest of the livestock – Milk the cows, put them to pasture, bring them in at night. Feed the pigs, they’ll do the rest. Horses, similar to cows, except you don’t usually try to milk them! All told, and hour or two out of your day.

Laundry – also a whole day chore, depending on the size of the family. It started with a fire built under a large pot in the yard, and after several trips to gather water (from the well if you are lucky, from a nearby creek of you are not), you get that water hot and add soap flakes grated off a bar of soap you made yourself. Then in went all the white clothes – sheets, bath sheets, undergarments – to be stirred, scrubbed, rinsed, and hung to dry. The fire was allowed to die out, and the colored clothing went through the process next. Then the dry clothes were then ironed, everything, even the sheets. A smart homesteader had two irons, so that one could be in the fire or on the stove at all time getting hot with the other was in use. The only saving grace of these times was that most people had a limited supply of clothing; 2- 3 outfits per person, plus underwear.

These are the time consuming, weekly chores. Add in a weekly bath for everyone, usually Saturday nights, and that could take a few hours as well.

Then there were the seasonal chores – planting the garden in the spring, making soap during the summer, gathering plants and herbs for medicinal use and to make things smell and taste good. Late summer brought your harvest from both the garden and the field; a food where dried or canned, and harvesting the field was a full family event. Many areas had a number of farmers and their families coordinating efforts during these times, traveling from farm to farm to help harvest each other’s crops. The women not making the food for everyone also helped out in the fields, as did the older children. The only payment expected was a decent meal at each farm and the expectation you’d go help harvest at their farm.

Winter was the time for repairing farm implements and making new ones, new clothing was made, new stockings, scarves, hats and mitts knitted, and the fancier work of embroidery was often indulged in. A lot of schooling happened during the winter, either at home or at the local school. Schools in farming communities had two sessions – winter and late spring, early summer when the crops had been planted and there was nothing to do but wait.

The sheer amount of chores I’ve described above is not only an example of the everyday work faced by these homesteaders, but an example of easy, prosperous times. The bad times included drought, grasshoppers who ate the crops, wildfires, predators who killed your livestock, injuries and illnesses that took a longer recovery time than those under modern medications, child birth and death, problems with ranchers and Indians and other settlers. The need, in many cases, for a husband to leave to go elsewhere to work after the planting season, so the family had enough money to get by.

Life in a soddy was a different time, but by far from a simpler time.

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