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dug out / dugout

A room dug into the side of a hill or ravine. — Everett Dick, The Sod-House Frontier, 1954

“The dugout was warm and easily heated with twisted hay and the cow had a warm stable with good hay to eat. But after the snow the story was different. Each new storm buried the dugout completely under the snow and made it as dark as Egypt. This could be endured as long as the kerosene lasted but when the trains stopped running and no more kerosene could be had the only source of light was a saucer of grease with a rag in it and this made a smoky and smelly affair and just about gave light enough to make the darkness visible.” – May Wheeler, telling about the Hard Winter of 1880-1881 in Kingsbury County.

Webster’s Dictionary of 1882 defines a dugout as a canoe dug out of a log, and it’s not hard to see how the word came to also describe a room dug out of the side of a hill. The Ingallses dugout home in On the Banks of Plum Creek makes the story memorable for many, although there is no proof that the Ingalls family lived in one. Charles Ingalls’ preeemption claim final proof papers (the land that in error is today called the “Ingalls Homestead” site near Walnut Grove; it was not a homestead, it was a preemption!) provide sworn testimony dated July 7, 1876, that Charles Ingalls settled on the land on May 28, 1874, and that by June 20th or 26th (there is an ink smudge), 1874, the Ingalls family was living in a house 20 by 24 feet and 10 feet high, with a good roof and floor, and that it contained 5 doors and 3 windows. Five doors seems like a lot, but that’s not the point. Nothing about a sod dugout.

Remember that the Harold Gordon family moved to the farm in 1947, the same year Garth Williams visited. According to a 1998 article in Laura’s Plum Creek Newsletter (Volume 2, Number 2), published by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, Williams went to the newspaper office to ask where Charles Ingalls’ land was, and nobody knew. But Walter Swoffer, born in Walnut Grove in 1888, remembered playing in a dugout on the Gordon farm as a boy, and the Gordon farm turned out to be the preemption claim site. A depression was located and identified as the former dugout site, and thousands of tourists visit the attraction annually. The photo above shows the sign marking the depression location.

Perhaps Charles Ingalls didn’t mention the dugout – where the family supposedly lived for almost an entire year – simply because it didn’t qualify as a permanent dwelling, having a dirt floor and paper window. He fudged and said the family was living in a nice wonderful house all along. That’s understandable. Or perhaps the family only lived in the dugout a few weeks, not months, while building the frame house? The other scenario is that perhaps the dugout was located on the homestead claim held by Charles Ingalls on a different quarter section, also with Plum Creek flowing through it, from June 2, 1875, until he relinquished it and filed on the west half as a tree claim on March 1, 1878. Members of the Ingalls family were required by law to occupy this homestead claim for six months each year and in order for it to have remained in Charles Ingalls’ possession and still relocated to Burr Oak, Iowa, the family may have occupied it the required length of time prior to leaving Walnut Grove. The image at left is of a United States postage stamp issued in 1962 to commemorate the passage of the Homestead Act.

Dugout construction. A dugout such as the one described in On the Banks of Plum Creek was a single small room scooped (dug) into the side of a hill, leaving a shell of three dirt walls – sides and back – with no roof. Long strips of sod were plowed nearby, and these strips were then cut into pieces roughly 14 by 24 inches in size (according to Wilder). This sod was laid in courses similar to brick-laying, and made the front wall, with an opening framed in for a door. The navigation button that brought you to this page shows a dugout built into the side of the sand hill on Ingalls Homestead in De Smet; it has a wooden front wall and door. The photo at right shows a dugout literally dug into the flat ground, with walls built up of sod and needing steps down into it from outside. This dugout hardly looks large enough to provide sleeping space for the seven people in the picture, but notice the family’s best clothes, buggy, and cow also in the photograph!


dug out / dugout (BPC 1-2, 4-18, 25, 27; TLW 1; THGY 32; PG)
     shanty / house (SSL 13; TLW 27; PG), see shanty
     stable (TLW 1)