Little sod house on the prairie

A re-created pioneer home shows that life on the frontier wasn't quite as romantic as we think it was.

A sod house on the western minnesota prairie attracts curiou
The Sod House near Sanborn shows how early settlers lived on the prairie.

Sometimes, it comes as a shock to tourists, especially those who grew up watching the TV show "Little House on the Prairie," that life on the frontier wasn't all that fun.

Twenty miles east of Walnut Grove, the late Stan McCone always told it as it was. A farmer, he'd heard stories about the early sod houses. None remained, so he decided to build one of his own, using an old sod cutter.

"There were 13 sod houses in this neighborhood, and those are just the ones we know about," he said. "But with all those, there's zero recollection of them, and I know why — because of all the buried children alongside them. They had such hardship."

Actually, McCone built two sod houses. The poor man's soddie is small and dark: "I think that's the best exhibit of all," he said. "That's how people lived. You walk in and think, oh, man, how did they raise children here?"

The rich man's soddie, however, has whitewashed walls, paned glass windows and a roof supported by planks and covered with tarpaper under the sod. It would've cost about $50, and the family who built it would've been considered rich.

Stan and his wife, Virginia, ran this soddie as the Sod House Bed-and-Breakfast for many years, but now Virginia keeps it open for tours only.

Diehard Laura Ingalls Wilder fans find their way to it from all over the world. There are two comfortable beds with quilts, an armoire, a rocker and a dining table.

Heat comes from corncobs burnt in the woodstove, light from a kerosene lamp, and plumbing — well, bathroom facilities are in another little house outside. Visitors walk down paths lined with prairie grasses and wildflowers — dame's rocket and beardtongue, ox-eye daisy and black-eyed Susan.

The guests, over the years, added to the McCones' sod-house lore.

"We've heard some real interesting stories; some are mind-boggling," said Stan McCone. "We had one woman from Bakersfield, Calif., tell us about a family who lived in a dugout on Dutch Charley Creek and lost seven children in one winter.

"They had diphtheria, which blocks the air passages. Then the eighth child, a baby, got it, and a neighbor came over and forced a hot stove iron down her throat — and she was the lone survivor.

"I think that's why so little was written down about that era," he says. "It was something you really didn't want to talk about."

Trip Tips: Sod House on the Prairie in southwest Minnesota

Getting there: It's seven miles west of Springfield, just off Minnesota 14.

Touring: It's open April-October for self-guided tours, $4, free for children 6 and under.

Information: Sod House on the Prairie, 507-723-5138.

Events to catch: In Sanborn, Watermelon Days is the last weekend in July.

Nearby attractions: The Jeffers Petroglyphs are nine miles south of Sanborn off U.S. 71. For more, see Written in stone.

For more about Laura Ingalls Wilder sites in Walnut Grove, Minn., and De Smet, S.D., see Laura land and Little pageants on the prairie.

Last updated on February 15, 2021

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