Recollections from a Sod House Boyhood

By Jim Oberfoell

Edited by Karen Herzog

Oberfoell, Jim. "Recollections from a Sod House Boyhood." Bismarck Tribune, Edited by Karen Herzog, 9 October 2011.

I live by myself in Sentinel Butte. I came up here in 1992 to take a job as caretaker on the rest areas which were then active on the highway.

I was born in 1925 on a farm about halfway between Scranton and New England. Born in a house Dad had constructed from buffalo grass sod, plowed up with horses, cut into proper lengths with an ax, and built into a house with 3-foot-thick walls. The buffalo grass sod had black, curly roots that formed a near root-robe on the outside of the walls of the house when weathered a little. The house was built on Dad's homestead quarter in 1909. It was very durable because of the root system of the sod.

The grasshoppers flew in in 1934, just like in biblical days. We boys were herding cows, and though some have said the grasshoppers darkened the skies, I am skeptical because I did not see that. But it seemed for several days we would look up towards the sun — that was our clock then — and view the large silver halo around the sun, the grasshoppers' wings. Near sunset they would descend to earth. Hungry from the day's flight, they would climb up on the old split cedar fence posts to get the last rays of sun.They chewed on those fence posts until they had the old wood eaten off. The wooden posts all looked like new.

In 1936, one of the worst years of the "Dirty Thirties," the sod house was getting to be in bad shape, not from the walls washing from rain, but from the roof leaking. Oh, what a pleasant sound to be woken up in the night to the squeaking of casters on beds being pulled out from under leaks, with a splish-splish here and a plunk-plunk there, the leaky roof dripping into pails and kettles.

I was young, but just as hopeful as the adults for rain to make things grow. In those years the splish-splish and the plunk-plunk never lasted long. Soon the clouds would be breaking up again, and the wind — always the wind, except perhaps a few hours when it was changing directions.

Star formations in the sky were my companions. I made up names for them because we had no books and such. Many years later I learned that what to me was a boy with a kite on a string was actually Orion.

We learned to swim — or dog paddle — in the ponds. The native water plant pads floated on the surface, with tiny little fish bobbing among those floating pads. I caught the little fish in my hands when they came to try to drive me away from that floating pad. This was a lifetime ago, 70 to 75 years.

A creek, the north branch of Cedar Creek, ran through our farm. The only income I had until I was 17 was what I could earn trapping along that creek. The traps had to be tended in the mornings before the family got up to do chores. I had to finish with the traps and be back to start the chores with them. And the traps had to be tended every morning, for the sake of any little animals that might be in the traps. It was a family law.

With money from the trapline I bought all my clothes and school necessities. There was not much money left for foolishness.

And, strange as it may seem, running that trapline actually gave me more sympathy and love for our little wild animals instead of less.

Dad had built a setting hen coop right on the ground all lathed over on top so the chickens couldn't get out.

The clucks, or setting hens, would be carried up from the chicken house after dark, put in individual runway pens with some eggs.

I remember an evening while I was doing this, a pair of short-eared owls circled overhead, just little beyond reach, with their raspy calls, wingbeats so slow and leisurely as if each wingbeat was an afterthought. A courting event, no doubt. And the little burrowing owls from down in the pasture were also courting with soft, melodious coo-cooing calls carrying up from the pasture on the warm, humid air. The little burrowing owls that scolded so harshly all day, now cooing their love for each other like doves. With the balmy spring evening, romance was in the air all around.

We kept three young milk cows so we had milk and cream. The bulls in this neighborhood of small herds mostly all went, so those three cows were milked for two years straight without calving because there were no bulls around. But we raised chickens and turkeys. Dad got seed and feed loans from the government and worked off those feed and seed loans hand digging around a burning coal vein. I have been told he was the only person in the community who paid them back.

That year, 1936, Dad decided the soddy had to be torn down and replaced with a "new" home before winter. There were many vacant farmsteads then. People had already left in droves.

It was late in the summer when Dad decided what he had to do.

We boys had already pulled the field corn by the roots for feed for the three milk cows. The prized herd of Holsteins had gone to the government in 1934 — $20 for the best of the cows, down to nothing for the calves. The government came out and killed our little pigs, all except what we wanted to keep for our own use. There was so little feed of any kind in the country. Russian thistles grew in a stunted mat that some tried to cut for hay. Dad never did. It was not successful as feed.

So, after the corn was all pulled Dad put us boys to tearing down a couple of barns he had acquired from abandoned farms.

He had a car shed he was proud of, solid, built of good lumber some year that had warranted the cost. While we boys were tearing down the old barns, Dad got a neighbor to help, pulled the car shed into place for the beginning of our "new" home.

I so clearly remember the moving of that car shed. Dad on the old Cross Motor Case tractor, the front wheels trying to lift off the ground, a neighbor walking alongside holding the governors open a little wider than they were meant to be, giving it a little more power by cheating.

The house was barely framed when there was an opportunity for Dad to get work on a WPA project graveling U.S. 85 many miles west of us. We had no clock. Dad would watch for the stars to get to a certain position in the sky, then get up, eat some breakfast, take the lunch Mom had prepared for him, walk two miles to catch a ride to this WPA job with a neighbor.

After the day's work on WPA graveling the highway with horses and wagons, Dad would come home, light the kerosene lantern. With that light he would work on the house until he had to get some sleep for the next day. He did have the outside of the house boarded up before the snow came. He asked for no help from anyone except us boys.

Now I marvel, how could Mom and Dad have handled such hardships, and still have an objective outlook? But they survived and did see times get much better.

Dad's orchard that had just started to bear when the drought killed it all, was replanted when the rains started to come again.  And again, was just starting to bear when Dad died.

The sod house was where the first services for the Pierce Congregational Church were held. We had some pictures taken in 1936 before the soddy was torn down. The house that replaced the old soddy is also gone now.

Time does not stand still.

Oberfoell Family Photo: Jim Oberfoell's family standing in front of their sod house before it was torn down in 1936. From left, Pete, Ben, Grace, John, Jim, Dora, and Joe. Not pictured are two older brothers who had already left home.
Oberfoell Kids Riding Cows: Jim Oberfoell, second from right, and his siblings ride cows on their family farm. 
John Oberfoell Tractor: Jim Oberfoell's father, John, with his first tractor in 1909. "The steam engines were short-lived on the prairie, replaced by internal combustion engines. In 1909 (Dad) was doing some custom breaking with it that summer, and got over west to where my mother, a single girl then, was homesteading. She got him to break some land for her, as required to prove up on a homestead. That is how they met. Mother never did prove up. They got married instead. She relinquished her rights. We still have Dad's homestead in the family, along with a number of other additions," Oberfoell said.

Reprinted with permission from The Bismarck Tribune.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller