Sod house on the prairie: Hunter man's mother was girl in iconic homestead photo
HUNTER, N.D. — Growing up, Donald Aune would hear stories from his mother about the sod house she lived in as a child in the late 1800s near Milton, N.D.
She talked about how cozy it was despite the harsh prairie winters and how hard it was to keep clean; it was made of dirt, he said. And she talked about snakes.
"Sometimes the snakes would be hanging in there," he said. "Wasn't that many, I don't think. They would crawl in."
One day, a man with a camera stopped by to document the house and the family — Aune's grandparents John and Marget Bakken and their two children at the time, Matilda and Eddie. "Tilda," in her pale dress, was Aune's mother and probably about 4 years old.
To many Americans the house has become a symbol of the Homestead Act that opened up land in the West for thousands of pioneers like the Bakken family. The photo, by John McCarthy of Milton, was later used by a Treasury Department artist in a 1962 U.S. postage stamp commemorating the centennial of the law. Norway would use the same photo for a 1975 stamp honoring Norwegian-American emigrants.
A reproduction of the photo is on display at the Fargodome, which 93-year-old Aune recently got to see. But, for Aune, who now lives in Hunter, the Bakkens' story didn't start with that sod house on the prairie and it didn't end there either.
Sod houses were once common starter homes for settlers staking their claims. The Homestead Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln, gave away as much as 160 acres to each family that lived continuously on the land for at least five years.
Aune still has a copy of Homestead Certificate No. 6678 that his grandfather received Feb. 12, 1903, after he completed his residency. It bears President Theodore Roosevelt's name.
Sod, blocks of soil held together by roots, was a cheap, readily available building material on the Great Plains where trees were rare and railroads that could haul in lumber weren't always available, according to Tom Isern, a history professor at North Dakota State University. They were especially common in Nebraska and Kansas where settlers arrived long before railroads. In North Dakota, where settlers usually arrived just before or even with railroads, many preferred cheap wooden sheds to sod perhaps because they were faster to build.
Once settlers became owners of the land and could use it as collateral for a bank loan, Isern said they would replace their sod houses with wooden frame houses.
John Bakken was born in 1871 to Norwegian parents in Benson, Minn., about 80 miles southeast of Wahpeton. When he was 9, his family moved to Milton, 65 miles northwest of Grand Forks.
"They dug a hole in the side of the hill, and he laid trees and covered it with straw and hay on top," Aune said, describing a sod dugout. "That was their first winter."
Dugouts were even more primitive than sod houses, being generally small because digging is hard labor and hard to keep dry because of groundwater, according to Allen G. Noble, a retired geography professor at the University of Akron (Ohio). Most settlers would have preferred at least a sod house.
According to Aune, his grandfather's family eventually rented homes in Milton, a town built along the railroad tracks, and John Bakken found work as a drayman, a kind of delivery man, and farm hand.
It wasn't until 1896, three years after he married a Norwegian immigrant named Marget, that he would homestead. By then much of the good land had already been taken, which is why he could only claim 80 acres in Silvesta Township, 10 miles south of Milton, according to Aune. Bakken probably could have found better land farther west where fewer settlers had laid claim, but his family was in the area.
This may be when that starter sod house was built. McCarthy took a photo of it in 1898.
The photo shows Bakken standing to the side and looking toward his house. His wife stands at the door holding a washtub. Tilda and her brother both wear dresses. Some historians thought there were two girls, but Aune said it was common for little boys to wear dresses probably because they didn't cost as much as pants. A curious dog sniffs at the wall, where roots could be seen sticking out.
"My mother remembered it real good when they took that picture because she said she remembered that little dog," Aune said, correcting historians' assumption it was a family dog. "That was his dog, the photographer's."
When the Homestead Act stamp came out in 1962, the artist had left out the kids and the dog. Isern and Aune said it might have been because stamps at the time weren't allowed to portray living people. Marget Bakken had died in 1948, but John Bakken would live until 1965.
"I think they have to be dead 10 years before they put them on the stamp and here my granddad went to the post office and here he saw this stamp," Aune said.
A bigger house
Most settlers never saw sod houses as permanent homes, just enough to get them through their residency, according to Noble. The average life of a sod house was six to seven years.
Yet the Bakken family lived in theirs, according to Aune, until they built their frame house in 1905, nearly a decade after they first homesteaded, with lumber John Bakken hauled in by horse from the train station in Milton. Bakken had chosen to build a frame barn first. But, as if to compensate, the frame house was a big one with four bedrooms and an indoor bathroom.
It still stands to this day having recently been reshingled. Aune's son, Steve, lives in it, and they farm the same land their forefathers farmed. Aune said he basically grew up in that house and asked his uncle Marvin Bakken to sell it to him when the latter decided to sell.
Of the sod house, nothing remains.
Aune said his grandfather showed him the spot where it once stood, but that's all he knows. "We farmed right over it."