The Eastern New Mexico News - Serving Clovis, Portales and the Surrounding Communities

By Karl Terry

Prairie dugouts weren't pretty, but got job done


November 19, 2017

Frontier prairie architecture wasn’t too elegant but it was extremely functional.

As I ushered a group of mostly neophyte plainsmen into a replica half-dugout dwelling this week, it was easy for folks to imagine why they wouldn’t want to live there but it took a guy like me that never lived in one but had read and heard a lot about them to explain why they made sense.

I was leading a Leadership Portales group on a historic tour of town for history and heritage month and we visited the replica homestead of the J.G. Greaves family who filed their claim north and west of Kenna. The hardships of the area’s sodbusters is well told in the book “Six Miles to the Windmill,” by Annie King Greaves.

Hundreds of people drive by that replica homestead every day in Portales and these days most don’t even notice it or know that it represents a half-dugout home that was typically the first structure built by settlers moving onto their 160-acre homestead.

There was really no wood on the plains except the occasional bodark tree. So, building a traditional wood-frame home was expensive and hauling the wood with wagon team across the prairie was time consuming. The solution was to take the team and a blade and dig a hole in the ground for a house. The hole was dug about half the depth of the height the room would be and the top of the dwelling was built with a smaller amount of lumber needed.

You walked down steps to get into the house and if it was a nice dugout you had a window or two and maybe the roof was A-framed and you had a loft where the children could sleep. If it wasn’t as nice you had cut sod walls, called a “soddy,” and prairie grass on your roof.

The subterranean dwelling stayed a fairly constant temperature year-round making it tolerable in the summer and easy to heat with buffalo or cow chips in the winter. You also cooked over a stove fired by those manure chips as well. In Greaves’ book she said that a wagonload full of chips would last through a bad three-day winter storm. So they spent a lot of time scouring the prairie for fuel.

With the floors and walls made of dirt, insects, spiders and snakes were a fact of life. Prairie women longed to get out of the dugout and into a regular house. Once they did they often realized things weren’t a lot better. Sure, they had windows and regular doors and more space and all, but the prairie dust and the cold winter wind filtered through the cracks in the old farmhouse walls, making for a never-ending job of cleaning.

But I'm happy as a clam on the land of Uncle Sam

In the little old sod shanty on my claim

— O.E. Murray

Karl Terry writes for Clovis Media Inc. Contact him at:


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