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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 as long as Laura wrote. Charles Ingalls’ preeemption claim final proof papers 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 frame 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. There is no mention of a sod dugout in Ingalls’s preemption file. The land is often referred to as the “Ingalls Homestead” site near Walnut Grove; it was not a homestead and Charles Ingalls never filed on it as such. His claim file includes his preemption declaratory statement from the New Ulm land office dated June 26, 1874, agreeing to pay $2.50 per acre; the law gave Ingalls thirty-three months in which to do so.

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 an oiled-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, and Laura’s memory wasn’t accurate. Yeah, that’s a stretch, but you never know.

The image at left is of a United States postage stamp issued in 1962 to commemorate the passage of the Homestead Act.

The Harold Gordon family purchased the land once owned by Charles Ingalls in 1947, the same year Garth Williams made his November visit. 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 Walnut Grove Tribune office to ask where Charles Ingalls’ land was, and the newspaper editor, Everett Lanz, directed him to the Gordon farm, but Lanz no clue about the dugout location. But Walter “Buck” Swoffer (1887-1971) had played in a dugout on the Gordon farm as a boy, and the Gordon farm was the Ingalls preemption claim site. Buck Swoffer was the grandson of Richard Walsh and nephew of Joseph Walsh (Buck’s mother was Richard Walsh’s daughter, Augusta, who died the year Buck was born), and Walsh family members had owned and lived on the former Ingalls land from 1885 until the mid-1920s. Another local resident, Jim Swanson (1928-2007), recalled that the dugout had already collapsed when he was a youngster, suggesting that Laura’s childhood dugout home survived for about fifty years at best. So Williams explored along Plum Creek running through the Gordon land and found what he was convinced was the dugout location, the spot which must have been confirmed by Swoffer and Swanson. All that remained was a deep depression in the west side of a high bank near the creek.

Once it had been located – but primarily after the December 1953 publication of The Horn Book Magazine containing Garth Williams’ account of traveling to the Little House sites in preparation for illustrating the uniform edition of the Little House books that came out that year, a trickle of tourists to the dugout site increased to over ten thousand visits annually in the years after the Little House on the Prairie television first aired. According to Everett Lantz in the October 1, 1975, Sioux Falls Argus Leader and reprinted in many newspapers that year, the chief attractions were the depression in the bank where the dugout had been located, the spring where the Ingallses filled their water bucket, and the big rock where Laura and Mary played. With tourists arriving by the busload, local residents organized a Laura Ingalls Wilder Committee and set up an information center and museum in an old gas station near the Ingallses’ claim.

The photo above shows the sign marking the depression location. It’s interesting to think about the decade between publication of Wilder’s novel in 1937 and Williams’ 1947 visit and wonder if any local residents had read On the Banks of Plum Creek and recognized their Walnut Grove and local Plum Creek and early settlers included by name. Wilder didn’t include the town name in On the Banks of Plum Creek, but she did point out that it was on the railroad west of New Ulm, and the 1939 publication of By the Shores of Silver Lake mentioned Tracy to the town’s west, which surely gave Redwood County readers enough information to figure it out. When was it first mentioned in the Walnut Grove Tribune? I haven’t perused the newspaper microfilm, but if you have, please email and let me know when the “a-ha!” moment was for Walnut Grovers.

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)
     barn (BPC 19)
     ox on the roof (BPC 7; PG)
     shanty / house (SSL 13; TLW 27; PG), see shanty
     stable (BPC 1-2, 27; TLW 27; LTP 7)