Frontier Tears: Could I have made it as a pioneer?

Like many before me, my love affair with the American frontier started when I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. The whole thing just seemed so romantic: bold settlers squatting on land to claim it as their own, enduring harsh conditions with that signature pioneer fortitude, giving birth on a dirt floor with no heat while Pa was out getting mauled by the deer he was trying to kill so that his family could survive on dried jerky.

Sign me up. That is my jam. I’d be thriving, not just surviving, in my little house in the big woods.

My dreams were put to the test in third grade when we had to craft a replica of a covered wagon as a homework assignment. I had played The Oregon Trail enough in computer class to know you can’t just slap some scotch tape on construction paper and expect to sprint across the fruited plains all hunky-dory.

I paper machéd that little Conestoga into a sturdy working vehicle, found some My Little Pony horses to pull it, packed up Barbie’s suitcases in the back with her dishes and household goods, and hitched my dreams to the Wild West. In my own personal version of American exceptionalism, I was destined for success as a homesteading pioneer woman.  I didn’t choose the #PioneerLife; the #PioneerLife chose me.

I have since gotten a degree in American history and learned a few more details about the darker side of Westward expansion. And yet there is still a part of me that is unwilling to let go of this dream. I realized this when I recently saw an ad looking for someone to help the Prairie Museum of Art & History go through historical records collected by the Sons and Daughters of the Soddies:

The collection contains over 10,000 records documenting the lives of people who were born in, lived in or worked in a sod house.

I clicked that link like it was an evite to Chrissy Teigen’s baby shower and immediately texted my dad about it, who quickly crushed my dreams by reminding me that a) I already had a full-time job and b) I live in Boston.

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In case you died of cholera before making it to the Land of Milk and Honey, let me paint you a picture of a soddie.  Sod houses were one of the most common structures on the frontier, made of the top layer of dirt – essentially bricks of mud and grass. The prairie obviously had loads more dirt than settlers knew what to do with, and not much else in the way of building materials, so they worked with what they had. They called these sod bricks “Nebraska Marble,” showing that behind every grouchy pioneer woman face was a killer sense of humor.

After they saved more money, settlers would trade up from soddies to shanties. This became more common in the late 19th century after the construction of the railroad brought a broader variety of building materials to the West.

I admit I am partially wooed by these little sod houses because they seem a little sad, and the name soddies sounds kind of like saddies which puts a cute spin on it. Also, back in fantasyland, I feel like I am part of a team now. Myself and the other homesteaders – we’re the Soddies! We dig our homes in the side of hills! We weave doors out of prairie grass! We maximize our one-room houses to make room for a butter churn and grain stores – have you seen the way I load a dishwasher? We shan’t need a shantie!

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Here’s what PBS’s Frontier House reveals about soddies in particular: that since the walls were made of dirt, it was basically oozing with bugs, mice and “assorted other varmints and vermin.”

This is new and pertinent information.

Dirt would fall on your face all night while you slept in an eerie prototype of a grave. When it rained, the roof would leak and often collapse, and the floor would become a mud pit.

Oh. I didn’t quite realize… I see. When did you say the wagon trail is leaving for the West? I might have double booked.

Did I hear correctly? It sounded like you said “every afternoon, the rattlesnakes would come out of their hidden dens in the walls and roof.”

Oh my. No, I’m not sure where my Soddies jersey is. I appear to have lost it.

What’s that? Make sure to build a fence around your soddie, “to protect it from being destroyed by cattle who would otherwise rub their rear ends on it.”

Yeah, that’s gonna be a dealbreaker for me. I’m out. Sorry. Nothing I can do. Unpacking my wagon. Have so much fun though! Sooo jealous! You’re soo brave! Send me a postcard once you establish a town and invent the Pony Express!

Don’t get me wrong – I still hold a reverence for the brave women and men who risked their lives to explore further west. But I also hold a reverence for things like electricity, pasteurized milk, and homes that cows haven’t put their butts on.

I’ll see Laura Ingalls Wilder once she makes it to Jackson Hole.

 

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