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Sod Barns and Mud Houses

from the Nor'Wester Farmer and Miller, July 1890

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1969, Volume 14, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

I was much pleased by the combination of thrift and comfort in the cattle barns of the [Deloraine/Napinka] district. When this country was first settled, and a good while after, money was not abundant and lumber dear and far away. But this difficulty was soon got over. Roomy barns, 30' x 40' inside, with sod walls and roofs, are seen everywhere - two or more perhaps on one farm. If the turf is at all strong a wall of this sort will last half a century, provided it gets justice, and is more snug inside than most of our wooden erections, though after a prolonged drought the roof sods are barely up to the mark as a defence against a heavy rain.

The house I slept in delighted me. It was built of soft mud and hay mixed. When I came into the [Red River] country I waited on the late C. J. Brydges and urged him to give me a lease of a Hudson's Bay lot in the city [Winnipeg] on which I might practically demonstrate how with only his own labor and moderate care a farmer might build a house more snug and comfortable at all seasons than it was ever possible to make it of boarding at any figure within reach of the average settler.

My scheme was to build of mud in which short wiry hay or straw and water should be trodden by oxen being driven over it layer after layer, and then built like the Devonshire cob [1] houses. The outside and inside finish of such a wall would depend upon the skill and time of the builder, but we have not today a wall of any sort that would so successfully resist both cold and heat and wintry winds as this would do, and if lime plastered or clapboard [2] outside it would still be cheaper and better than nine-tenths of the shells that we call farm houses today.

The country is not fully settled yet, and when a man of limited means has to decide between half a dozen good cows and a wooden house that will only very imperfectly defend him from an ordinary cold wind, I want him to look out for a good mud hole, cut off the thick grassy sods to be used in building the first foot or so of the walls, and after that go on with the cob building, while the cows are providing for themselves and their owner, than to go into debt for boards and take chances on paying for them out of his first wheat crop.

The mud house where I slept at Napinka will if a properly projecting roof is kept over it be a house when more showy ones are not fit to live in or burnt down by a prairie fire.

It is the men who have the skill to make something of nothing that are wanted in the Northwest, and who will make a quarter-section pay its way, while the "remittance from home" pioneers spend four days out of six round a billiard table or idly wishing they were there, while their cattle perish of cold or hunger. I saw lately a couple of skeletons flanking right and left the buildings of a farmer of this peculiar variety, all that is now left of a team of horses that most likely died of inflammation contracted while their owner was at the "post office."

R. W. M.

Mud home of a missionary at Janzen (1906).

Sod home, Souris district (1883).

Page revised: 19 July 2009

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