Lumber for Buildings on a Treeless Prairie

Terry, Montana is 160 miles south of where our farm was.

The site where Terry is located was first called Joubert’s Landing, in recognition of the man who built a supply point along the Yellowstone River for freighters traveling from BismarckDakota Territory, to Miles CityMontana Territory. When the Northern Pacific Railway‘s transcontinental rail line arrived in 1881, the town was renamed for Alfred Howe Terry,[6] a General in the Union Army who commanded an 1876 expedition in connection with George Armstrong Custer’s campaign against Native Americans,[7]specifically in the west.,_Montana

wash house pine logs terryTerry had ground water (which we didn’t have) and some big trees near the Yellowstone river (which we didn’t have) that made some log houses possible. The planting of Terry’s first tree, however, was still documented for the history books.

The town was located just south of the Yellowstone River midway between the larger towns of Miles City and Glendive…Seen from a distance in 1893, it looked like a mirage on the dusty treeless plain. Sagebrush and cactus were its only vegetation. The first tree in Terry—a wild plum—would be planted later that year.

What was not apparent to the eye was the resource that gave Terry its life: its ample underground water supply. In an area where water was scarce and almost undrinkable (like 160 miles further north!) due to alkali salts, this was no small matter. (from Photographing Montana, Donna M. Lucey)

And consider these descriptions of developments further south in Hamilton County, Nebraska, where the commercial wagon trails were operating as early as 1847.

wash house 5A well-traveled freighting road was established between the Missouri River…along the south bank of the Platte River, to Fort Kearney…a heavy freighting business was done over this road from about 1852 to 1860. It was called the Ox-Bow Trail…The great freighting firm of Russell, Majors and Waddell used this road in 1858 and 1859 for the transportation of thousands of wagon loads of freight to Utah. (The Way was Long, Denny Enderle & Diann Jensen, 1999)

They had commercial wagon activity in Nebraska but there weren’t many trees around there either—so when they didn’t have time or inclination to wait for lumber to arrive on the wagons, they built buildings out of straw bales.

Advantages of straw-bale construction over conventional building systems include the renewable nature of straw, cost, easy availability, naturally fire-retardant and high insulation value. Disadvantages include susceptibility to rot, difficulty of obtaining insurance coverage, and high space requirements for the straw itself.

One-story building with flat roof, large steeple

<—- Pilgrim Holiness Church in Arthur, Nebraska

Straw-bale construction was greatly facilitated by the mechanical hay baler, which was invented in the 1850s and was widespread by the 1890s.  It proved particularly useful in theNebraska Sandhills. Pioneers seeking land under the 1862 Homestead Act and the 1904 Kinkaid Act found a dearth of trees over much of Nebraska. In many parts of the state, the soil was suitable for dugouts and sod houses. However, in the Sandhills, the soil generally made poor construction sod;  in the few places where suitable sod could be found, it was more valuable for agriculture than as a building material.

The third documented use of hay bales in construction in Nebraska was a schoolhouse built in 1901 or 1902. Unfenced and unprotected by stucco or plaster, it was reported in 1902 as having been eaten by cows. To combat this, builders began plastering their bale structures; if cement or lime stucco was unavailable, locally obtained “gumbo mud” was employed.  Between 1896 and 1945, an estimated 70 straw-bale buildings, including houses, farm buildings, churches, schools, offices, and grocery stores had been built in the Sandhills. In 1999, 2173 surviving bale buildings were reported in Arthur and Logan Counties, including the 1928 Pilgrim Holiness Church in the village of Arthur, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Once I started thinking about the problem of getting decent lumber in the early 1900s, I wanted to understand whether the problem presented itself differently in other pioneer communities.

I thought it was worth thinking about what was required of those who chose to fight their way into a future on the prairie—a prairie that didn’t offer materials for building buildings—a prairie that stretched from the Canadian latitudes to the Texas-Mexico border.

The prairie included parts of ColoradoKansasMontanaNebraskaNew MexicoNorth DakotaOklahomaSouth DakotaTexas, and Wyoming, and the Canadian provinces of AlbertaManitoba and Saskatchewan. It was big. It was very big.

Considering the times, it was actually pretty upscale to build even the outbuildings out of—lumber!

wash house 3The wash house on our farm was one of our many outbuildings. It was well designed for a variety of purposes that morphed over the years, constructed with good quality milled lumber from far away which had arrived at the nearest rail head and was hauled to the farm in a horse drawn wagon.

These outbuildings were built to last, and they did. This wash house was well-roofed and sat between the cave (underground vegetable storage—a root cellar with doorway of standard size and cement steps eight feet into the earth) and the outhouse. The wash house had two windows, a big wooden door with a huge hook that closed it tightly from the outside, a wooden floor, a well-shingled roof and exterior walls which were also covered with thick shingles, keeping the wood dry and saving the paint for more important buildings both little (outhouses) and big (barns and houses).

wash house1The original use of the wash house was, obviously, a place to wash clothes. Pre-electricity (1949 or so), the gas-engine washing machine was there. After electricity came in, the wash house became a place for storage, playing house and watching the dynamite thunderstorms, sitting in safety with the door open, enjoying the sound and the fury.

Playing house in the wash house was a perfect illustration of practicing being grownup, and might include staying there overnight, all of twenty feet from the back door of the house, especially if my cousin could come over and spend the night.

An old double bed was stored there so we would drag blankets and pillows out and create our temporary home. Once things were dark and quiet in the house (although Mom would always leave the light on at the back steps in case we changed our minds about our level of courage in the middle of the night and wanted the option of coming inside to go to my bedroom), we would scare ourselves in the silence as we listened for the sounds of things that were never out there. It was a fact, though, that badgers and coyotes were part of the night in our pastures, so once darkness descended, we didn’t go out of the wash house. For anything.

washing house 2Practicing being a grownup was pretty much what childhood was about. It would have been considered strange for childhood to be thought of as a destination, or even as a place to linger; but it was a perfectly respectable way station en route to actually being grown up, and most of our play reflected that.

Now because finished lumber was highly valued and difficult to obtain in the early years, it was also re-used. When some building had outlived its original purpose and either fell down or was taken down, the old square nails were pulled out and the lumber carefully stacked, anticipating the day when the farmer would go to the lumber pile to locate the perfect piece for some new project he was working on or some pig fence he was repairing.

wash hoouselkjBits of lumber were specifically not used for bonfires or weinie roasts, both of which we enjoyed whenever we had the chance. The wood for such entertainment came from dead branches that were broken off the standing trees in the coulees. It could be burned with a comfortable conscience since it hadn’t been laboriously obtained.

wash house987Neither the size or quality of those trees was suitable for log buildings or for milling, but the dead branches were perfect for roasting hot dogs (stuck on to the end of a skinny, sharp branch selected for the purpose) and marshmallows on a summer evening or winter afternoon.

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