The first settlers on the Saskatchewan plains were faced with a quandary – there were no large trees that could be cut to build log houses, and lumber yards were usually far away. So they set to work to build their first homes out of the material under their feet – the sod.
This was actually quite a practical choice. This was native grass prairie that had never been cultivated. The dense root structure made sturdy building materials. The sod was cut into strips two feet wide, about six feet long and two to three inches thick and they were laid much as one lays bricks, with alternating joints to tie the structure together. The sod was removed from around the growing house, providing a fire guard to protect against prairie fires.
Poplar poles were cut from nearby ponds or streams and lashed together to make a framework for the roof, which was then covered with sod strips. There was usually one door and two windows cut into the walls and a stovepipe stuck out the roof. The inside walls were often covered with a material like canvas. The result was a cozy home that was well insulated from the winter cold and the summer heat. Sometimes the roof would get saturated from a heavy rainfall and it would be necessary to move the bed and table away from the leaks.
Many a bride spent her first few years in a home such as this until her husband could accumulate enough money to buy lumber to build a wood frame home. No doubt the promise of that soon to be built two-storey home with a proper roof made life in the sod home easier to bear, but those early prairie brides had an amazing ability to adapt to conditions as they were.
Nevertheless, sod homes did present some unexpected challenges. Early one fine summer day a new bride set to work to bake some bread before her husband came home for dinner. She measured the flour and other ingredients, soaked the yeast in water, then mixed it all together and set it aside to rise. But it didn’t rise. She checked it anxiously as the morning hours went by. There was never any change, it sat there in exactly the same shape as when she had first mixed it.
She set about making dinner, without the hoped for bread. She checked it one last time, then, not wanting her husband to know of her failure, she took the bowl outside and with a large spoon dropped a portion of the dough into the gopher holes around the yard. She felt a little solace in knowing that at least she had hidden the evidence.
When her husband came in for dinner, his first words were: “I just saw the most amazing thing. There are big white mushrooms growing out of all the gopher holes in the yard.”
I think it was the sudden flush of red in her cheeks that gave her away. Together they realized that she had done nothing wrong, but it was just too cool in the sod house to activate the yeast. The ground outside had been warmed by the sun and the hidden dough just couldn’t stay hidden.