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They Called Them 'Sodbusters'


About six kilometers from the tiny town of Comstock, Nebraska, population 60, stands a remarkable house, built in 1900. It's made of what's called Nebraska marble. This material, quarried right out back in river bottomlands, is not stone at all. It is old-fashioned Great Plains sod: tufts of coarse, bluestem grass, clumped in rich soil and held together by an intricate web of roots.

Lacking enough trees for wood to build a house, homesteader William Ryan Dowse improvised. He sliced long, deep strips of sod with what was called a grasshopper breaking plow, cut them into slices about 75 centimeters long, and stacked them, grass-side down, in rows that became the walls of his prairie home.

Precious wooden boards were laid across them to form joists and the outline of an attic. More sod was arranged atop the roof paper, and openings were cut for windows and doors. Finally, cloth was hung below the ceiling to catch most of the dirt that kept falling from the ceiling onto the family below.

The Dowses moved away, and for a time the soddy, as such houses were called, stood empty. Like thousands of other soddies abandoned by families driven out by locusts, prairie fires, blizzards, droughts, epidemics, Indian attacks, and homesickness – the Dowses' empty home would have disintegrated had not neighbors and a descendant of Bill Dowse decided to restore the place.

One of the jobs was a complete replastering, using old-time material made from sand, clay, and hog's hair.

Today, travelers heading for Nebraska's sandhills may spot a simple, handmade sign that points down a road to William Dowse's soddy. To borrow the title of a famous American children's book, it is a classic example of a Little House on the Prairie.

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