#OurStories – Homesteading and the Sod Shack – Special Areas Board

#OurStories – Homesteading and the Sod Shack

Adapted from “A Land Reclaimed: The Story of Alberta’s Special Areas” by Jack Gorman. Published for the Special Areas Board, 1988


Now the ceaseless toil of proving up the claim was to begin. With a hand plow and the horses he began breaking the ground but the first sods turned over were fashioned into a sod barn. The sods, about 24 inches long, a foot and a half wide and about five inches deep, were piled one on top of the other in a weaved pattern similar to laying bricks. Many settlers spent the first winter in tents lined with quilts and barded with earth and snow.

Lumber was expensive and scarce. The nearest lumber yard in Stettler was 70 miles away. The prairie was treeless, except for scrub willows along the creek banks. Most of the settlers settled for a sod shack as their first shelter on the homesteads.

The early plows cut a furrow 14 to 16 inches wide. Sods were taken from the dried slough beds. The slough grass made a tough reinforcing fibre and helped in mending the sod together. The sods were cut into two-foot lengths with a sharp spade and loaded on a stone boat.

Construction involved laying the sods two wide and offset one half-length like laying bricks. Every third layer was placed across the two widths to seal the joints and strengthen the wall. The wall was about 32 inches thick. The walls were finished with a sharp spade.

Many of the settlers plastered a mud gumbo mixture on the wall inside and out. The mud hardened like plaster and when it was whitewashed, it made an attractive finish.

Closing in the roof was a process of laying horizontal boards or boughs from the scarce native poplars. Tar paper was laid across the boards and sods on top of the tar paper. Sod construction was used for the first community hall at Youngstown and the first church at Excel near Oyen.

No matter how carefully the roof was finished, the rare heavy rain storms created leaks. The sod shacks were warm in winter and cool in summer. Quebec heathers and Home comfort stoves were used for heating and cooking. Soon after the territory was settled, several small coal mines opened to supply fuel. Settlers also burned buffalo chips which were in plentiful supply


To learn more about the history of the Special Areas, you can visit any District Office to view local area history books and collections.

Many local history books are also available online for viewing at the University of Calgary Archives and Special Collections, located at https://asc.ucalgary.ca/