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Homestead History
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K.N. Syverud log house built in 1886 near Osnabrock, North Dakota. Denver Public Library.
s soon as homesteaders saved up enough money, many left their soddies for more pleasant quarters. Others chose to improve their soddies by layering boards on their exteriors, and giving their homes a more "settled" look. Within a few years, most abandoned soddies were completely swallowed up by the plains ... eroded by wind and rain.

When railroads reached the frontier, as they did in Montana in 1880, materials such as lumber, tar paper, and shingles were immediately available to newly arrived homesteaders. The sod house was abandoned in favor of the board-and-batten claim shanty, as it was much easier for settlers to build a frame shelter than to cut sod and stack bricks.

Many settlers draped the ceilings of their sod houses with cheesecloth or muslin to catch falling debris.
Homestead shanties, like log cabins and soddies before them, were usually comprised of one (usually fairly small) room. Shanties were often built directly on the ground, with a dirt floor and no foundation. Shanty walls consisted of studs, horizontal boxing, and a layer of tarpaper held on with lath. On the windswept prairies, ceaseless winds could literally tear the walls from a shanty; if the walls held, poorly anchored shanties toppled over and blew away. Though shanties were more pleasant quarters than soddies in many ways, they were extremely difficult to heat in the winter -- and bake-oven hot in the summer. One Montana settler reported that she could "bake bread in July by placing it next to the steaming tar-paper wall."

Shanties appealed to homesteaders because of their relative portability. When families with adult or nearly adult children made multiple claims in the same area, they would move the shanty around from claim to claim as "proving up" times drew near and visits from Land Office Inspectors became imminent. When settlers married, one homesteader often took their shanty to their spouse's claim to double the size of their home. After "proving up" time, shanties were easily expanded and improved. Many buildings that started out as claim shanties remain in use throughout the plains and prairies to this day.

When Pamelia Dillin Fergus reached Virginia City, Montana in 1864 after crossing the plains in a wagon train with her children, her family immediately moved into a log cabin with a sod roof, which had been constructed by her husband, James. Though the weeks of nerve-wracking travel were over, and she could sleep under a solid roof, Pamelia now faced a new challenge shared by all settlers: turning her rough frontier house into a frontier home.


Works Consulted:

Bierman, Henry. HEADIN' WEST. Unpublished manuscript. Montana Historical Society Archives.

Brown, Dee. THE GENTLE TAMERS. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1981.

Lamar, Howard, ed. THE READER'S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE AMERICAN WEST. New York: Thomas Crowell Company, 1977.

MONTANA IN OUR OWN WORDS. Compiled by the Western Heritage Center and Anneke-Jan Boden. Western Heritage Center, Billings, Montana.

Peavy, Linda, and Smith, Ursula. THE GOLD RUSH WIDOWS OF LITTLE FALLS. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Press, 1990.

---. PIONEER WOMEN. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

PIONEER MEMORIES. By the Pioneer Society of Sweet Grass County, Montana, 1960. From the collection of the Montana Historical Society.

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