The fate of Ruth Black’s “soddy”

1905?Another of the finds that my cousin Sharon Black sent along to me earlier this week is a newspaper account of Ruth Black’s old sod house. I had heard tales of the old sod house from my grandparents, Vernon and Dorothy Black, and I have several artifacts from the sod house that they brought back with them from various trips to Kansas in the 1950s through 1970s.

It’s always been a hope of mine to one day see the old sod house, but as I don’t know of any living person who’s been inside the old sod house, or even knows where the sod house is, l figured that the old family house has long since returned to the earth. The following transcription of a 1932 newspaper article that Sharon sent to me appears to support this unfortunate conclusion.

What follows is a transcription of an article entitled “Dentonia Still has a Pioneer Sod House,” from the April 14, 1932, edition of The Burr Oak Herald.

Have all the early day sod houses disappeared from the hills and vales of Jewell county? Mighty near, but not quite, for one of these quaint structures still stands in the little town of Dentonia, in the southwest part of the county that is, part of it still stands, for one wall and most of the roof have succumbed to the ravages of wind and rain and Kansas winters.

But once—and not so long ago—this house was used as a dwelling, and inside its homely interior was a home which was the pride of its mistress and the envy of the countryside.

Built during the closing years of the last century by Frank Black, Dentonia blacksmith, the house was occupied by himself and his mother. The interior, which was divided into two rooms, was covered with oilcloth so that none of the dirt with which the walls were built found its way into the rooms. These rooms were then decorated and furnished as tastefully as any modern home.

The elderly Mrs. Black was, the old-timers recall, an aristocratic lady, and her humble surrounding could not quell the inherent desire for a beautiful home. The yard surrounding the house she transformed into a veritable fairyland of flowers, whose beauty and variety beggared description.

But all that is now history. The good lady has passed away, and the son now lives in another town. The sod house has not been occupied for the past dozen years, the last occupants being Jim McCorkle and family. During the epidemic of influenza in wartime, the McCorkels and another family lived in this two-room house, and every member of the two families had the disease—which, unknown as it was at that time, was a terrible disease indeed. All members of these families pulled through, though by a narrow margin.

Of the house, enough remains to give a clear idea of the construction used in this type. Sod, cut into comparatively small bricks, formed the walls, and inside of which were first plastered [with] magnesia, and later with concrete. The roof was built of rough boards covered with straw, which in turn was coated with this same magnesia which the walls were plastered. The house had only one door, but several windows. The present owner is Mrs. Bessie Gladwell, whose home is on a farm north of Dentonia.

Now there remain but the three walls and small parts of the roof, bearing mute testimony to the years that they have seen—years of prosperity and adversity, of floods and of drought, of the lives of those whom its walls have sheltered. Pigs roam at large through the yard once filled with fragrance and beauty of the flowers; and still, despite the ravages of the swine and the folks who have dug up plants by the dozen to transplant at their own homes, one still sees an occasional flower rearing its head among the weeds.

Two additional documents, also sent by Sharon, give clues as to the location of the old sod house. The first is a plat from 1884 that shows the location of Lewis Black’s land, and the second is a wide shot of the location of the sod house.
Odessa township PlatWith the plat, I was able to precisely locate the parcel of land on which the sod house was built, as well as ascertain its approximate location within that parcel.
Odessa township Plat detail

Lewis Black owned 160 acres of land in the northwest quarter of Section 34 of Township 4 South, Range 10 West of the sixth principal meridian. As of 1884, there was a single structure on his land, in the northwestern corner, which was adjacent to a grove or orchard of approximately 10 acres.

I was able to precisely locate Lewis Black’s 160-acre parcel, thanks to the Public Land Survey System overlays in Google Earth that were made possible by the fine folks at Earth Point. The red-tinted area on the aerial photo below is the precise location of Lewis Black’s 160 acres. The approximate location of his house and the old Dentonia post office are also shown.
Location of Lewis Black landThe aerial photo below is a closer view of Lewis Black’s land. His house (presumably the old sod house) is located somewhere in the northwest corner of his property.
Sod house location detail 1If we take a closer look at the northeast corner of the property, there do not appear to be any rectangular structures still standing.

Let’s turn to the second document that may help identify the location of Ruth Black’s old sod house—a photocopy of a photograph that shows the sod house in a wider view:
Sod house vistaRuth’s sod house was larger than most (14 x 16 feet being typical). Taking a look at photos of two of the sides of the sod house, I’d estimate that it measured about 20 by 25–30 feet.

In the photo of the sod house’s location that Sharon sent me, it appears that the sod house was situated roughly perpendicular to the road, and was set back about three house lengths from the near edge of the road. If the house was 25–30 feet long, it would have been set back about 75–90 feet from the roadside.

sod house location detailTurning back to the modern aerial imagery for the area of Ruth’s old sod house, let’s look for the ruins of a rectangular structure with its long axis running north-to-south, measuring about 20 x 25–30 feet, and set back about 75–90 feet from the edge of the road. Based on the general location of the lone structure on the plat map, I had originally expected the sod house to be close to the large, irregular feature (dry pond?) near the center of the aerial image below. That feature, however, was set back about 500 feet from the roadside, so I needed to look much closer to the road’s edge.

Sod house location detail 2Looking closer to the road, I found a rectangular feature in the area marked with the red square (below):
Sod house location detail 3Here’s a closer look at the rectangular structure I found:
Sod house location detail 4This rectangular ruin is set back 87 feet from the edge of the road, and is perpendicular to the road. The main structure measures about 24 feet by 28 feet, and there are other linear features that may represent old fence lines, garden beds, an outhouse, and/or other outbuildings to the south of the main structure.

These ruins meet all the criteria I set forth for the location, size, and orientation of the sod house, so I feel pretty confident that this is, indeed, what remains of the sod house that Frank Black built for his mother Ruth Black.

According to the photos of the sod house that I presented above, the door to the sod house was on the south side of the house (compare the location of the two-story white frame house in the photo of Frank and Ruth in front of the sod house with the location of the same house in the wide view of the house that Sharon sent). From the description of the interior of the house provided in the article at the beginning of this post, as well as Winnie Bonecutter’s recollection of the house that I shared in my previous post, I knew that the interior of the house consisted of two rooms: a sleeping area and a general living area. I had assumed that the front door opened onto the larger living area, and that the smaller sleeping quarters were positioned away from the front door, against the back wall of the house.

Looking at the outlines of the ruins, however, it’s clear that the interior of the sod house wasn’t laid out as I had imagined. Instead of having the bedroom run width-wise along the back (north) wall with a centrally placed interior door, the bedroom appears to have run length-wise along the east wall, with an interior door positioned at the very front of the house, adjacent to the front door.

floorplan of sod house

Presumably there would have been windows on the western and northern walls as well (the 1932 article talks of “several windows”), but I have not yet seen a clear photograph of either of those walls.

Well, didn’t this turn out to be an exciting post? A few hours ago, I set out with the hope of finding some possible locations for the old sod house, but now I’ve just finished recreating the floor plan of the old sod house based on the still-visible ruins of the old house!

If you have anything to add to the story of Ruth Black’s old sod house, or if you know of additional photos of the sod house, please leave a comment below.

One thought on “The fate of Ruth Black’s “soddy”

  1. I stumbled onto your site this morning having googled “Horan.” The family which you have documented, William and Margaret Patterson Horan, are my great-grandparents, their daughter “Maggie” being my dad’s mom. It was enlightening to see them living at Byron…I always had them at New Richland. But this stuff goes on forever, doesn’t it. Enjoyed mucking about on your blog—Mike Morrissey

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