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Unlocking prairie secrets from a sod house

Jackie Sojicko for Harvest Public Media

Ecologists in Nebraska are trying to find out what the Great Plains looked like when homesteaders settled there in the 19thcentury. To do that, they’re working with a team of archaeologists and historians dissecting a sod house, a house built out of bricks cut from dirt.

Larry Estes has had a sod house in his backyard in Gates, Neb., for as long as he can remember. He never really thought anything about it until a year ago when a repairman asked him about it.

"From there on it just mushroomed,” Estes said. “I can’t understand in my own mind why it’s important, but as many people who are here, it must be.”

It’s important because, for a team of scientists from Lincoln, Neb., the sod house represents a snapshot of prairie life from more than a century ago. The scientists want to dissect a whole wall – take it apart and analyze everything inside it in a kind of autopsy.

Late last fall, Estes and others from the Custer County Historical Society tried to separate just one wall from the rest of the house. The whole thing weighed almost two tons. John Carter, a historian with the Nebraska State Historical Society, described moving the wall as, “no small challenge. But you know, we’re inventing this as we go along.”

They got it to work – eventually. It ended up taking about three hours, and a couple of near misses with a tree branch. The wall eventually was placed on the back of a flatbed tractor trailer, packed between two wood pallets and wrapped in plastic like a giant ice cream sandwich.

What dirt can tell us

LuAnn Wandsnider is a professor of archaeology at UNL and one member of the autopsy team. She wants to know if the sod house can tell a more detailed story about homesteaders in Nebraska. We know some things about life at the turn of the 20thcentury, but there’s a lot we don’t know, too.

Credit Courtesy Peter Stegen/Platte Basin Timelapse
The wall, partly unpacked, is stored in a service shed on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. The shed also serves as the laboratory for the autopsy team while they separate the sod bricks.

“It’s a laboratory that we can kind of look to see over the course of hundred years, what happened as people dealt with changing economic situations and as droughts came and affected them,” Wandsnider said.

It could help current farmers on the Plains cope with drought and deal with climate change in the future.

The wall was in storage on UNL’s east campus for most of the winter. In March, Wandsnider and Carter joined Dave Wedin, a grasslands ecologist at UNL’s School of Natural Resources, to start the autopsy.

Even though the wall comes apart pretty easily, the bricks themselves are really sturdy.

“They’re amazing,” Wedin said. “You can still see roots sticking all through it to hold it together.”

The roots are from the prairie grasses that were growing in the dirt before the dirt became building material. The sod is a kind of time capsule from a hundred years ago.

“Lewis and Clark made notes about the prairie but they weren’t quantitative data, they weren’t how much of this species, how much of that species,” Wedin said. “They certainly didn’t measure how much organic matter, what percent carbon the soils had back then when they went through.”

Wedin will use modern techniques to analyze the sod bricks to get the same kind of information we have about the prairie today. Those details might sound trivial, but they can help scientists see how much or how little the prairie has changed in the past century.

Plus, with so much extra sod, they have room to experiment. They’re even watering a section of sod to see if any of the roots can take hold and grow.

"The science tells us, you know, 99.9 percent of seeds are never going to make it a hundred years,” Wedin said. “I’m not sure if it would revolutionize science in any way but it’d be really neat if we could.”

Credit Courtesy Peter Stegen/Platte Basin Timelapse
According to ecologist Dave Wedin, the density of the roots in the sod bricks are what makes the bricks so sturdy, even after 110 years. Wedin tested the integrity of the sod by submerging a block in water - it had yet to dissolve in three weeks.

The intangible results

The autopsy is going to take a long time. The team still has to peel apart the rest of the bricks and divide them up among the labs doing analyses, and there’s still more than half the wall to go through. It will be a while before they get any results. But even though the autopsy is still in its early stages, Wedin said it’s already producing something valuable – collaboration between different kinds of scientists.

“I’ve never actually worked on the same soil samples with an archaeologist or a historian,” Wedin said. “And even some of my colleagues, my entomologist friends and stuff – I’ve never actually worked with them on the same sample on the same place. The interdisciplinary nature of the project, that’s what science should be.”

These findings may only apply to this one specific area of the prairie and to this one specific sod house. But they’re hoping scientists and researchers can copy their techniques with other sod houses to help get a better picture of the past all over the Midwest.

This story first appeared at NET Nebraska.