A log house with a sod roof, ca. 1939. (National Archives)
From Soddy to Suburb
By Wilma Gundy
The home I first remember, from the age of 3 in 1931, was a sod house on the arid, treeless plains of eastern Colorado. It was near Shaw, a combination grocery, gas station, and post office. It’s sometimes shown on modern maps, so my husband Lloyd and I went searching for it in 2003. Where my memory saw a grocery store, only meadowlarks sat atop tall grass.
In the old soddy, there was no gas or electricity. Instead of turning on a switch to get heat, we rustled kindling, sticks of wood from orange crates, corn cobs, or cow chips to start a fire in the stove. With a bit more money, we had lignite coal. Without electric lights, we used kerosene lamps and lanterns. A daily job for us girls was to wash the glass globes atop the lamps, as inevitably someone would turn the wick too high at night, trying to get a bit more light, and the wick would smoke, blackening the globe with an oily residue.
After a meal, Mom wanted no part of the cleanup, so we girls “rid off the table” and washed the dishes. To wash and rinse the dishes, we trudged to the well to carry water to the kitchen, heat it on the stove, then slosh it into the dishpan, into which we dropped slivers of homemade soap. To make our soap, we placed lye, hog fat, and water in a huge, black kettle over an open fire in the yard and boiled it until it was the right consistency. Then it was poured into a large pan to mold. When it was cooled, we cut it into rectangles.
Laundry for a large family like ours took 2 days to wash, dry, and iron. Monday was always wash day. To start the process, we’d bucket several pails of water from the storage barrel by the windmill, put it in a large copper boiler, and heat it on the wood stove. When clouds of steam started to come from it, Mother would have me put slivers of soap into the hot water so they would dissolve. The lye soap’s sharp, stinging scent always burned my nose.
After placing the soiled clothes in the hot soapy water, I would get the tromper and stomp them—up and down, up and down, with the tromper making a sucking sound, like galoshes being pulled out of mud. After the garments were tromped, Mother lifted the clothes out of the boiling water with a long broom handle and placed them in an aluminum tub of cold water to rinse them.
After she’d hand-wrung the water out of them, I’d peg them with wooden clothespins to dry outdoors on a wire line stretched between two wooden poles. Often we had to scramble to get wash off the line before it was completely dry because the wind blew in a duststorm or a thunderstorm quickly developed with slashing rain and hail.
We had no phone in the sod house. When we moved to a house in Genoa, we had a phone mounted on the wall with a receiver that hung on a hook on the side. We shared the phone line with other neighbors, and when Central rang our phone, one long and four short rings, no one else was to answer or listen, but it was pretty generally assumed people eavesdropped, or “rubbernecked,” on one another’s calls. It was a far cry from the cell phones today that fit into the palm of your hand, take pictures, send text messages, and access the Internet.
Transportation then was on horseback, in a horse drawn wagon, or by truck. We kids often rode in the bed of the truck. Later, we had a car that we had to crank to start and constantly refill the radiator with water, lest it overheat. The running boards provided a place for us kids to hang onto the side of the car and ride.
Space does not permit me to detail all the innovations in my lifetime. Changes in medicine, food preparation, and entertainment are astounding. Some changes leave me shaking my head in bewilderment. The negative impact they have on some of our mores makes me sad. Still, my friends and I discuss how fortunate we are to live at a time when we experience marvels we could never have dreamed of as children . . . in our soddy.
Wilma Gundy, a retired high school teacher and counselor, lives in Arvada, Colorado. This article was included to highlight the changes that occurred in one person’s life, as well as to reflect the nation’s overall changes, from 1931 to the present.