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Building homes from the good earth

AS a small child I watched from our covered wagon while our sod house was being built. It was the summer of 1909 that my uncle, Wesley Williams, and other pioneers from North Dakota drove their prairie schooners onto their homesteads 110 miles southeast of Stettler, Alberta, and began building homes from the good earth.

Sod plowed near the edge of a slough was tough. Furrows 16 inches wide and four inches deep were marked off in lengths of 32 inches and chopped apart with an ax. These, laid like brick, produced a wall 32 inches thick.

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Before laying sod for the walls of the house (inside measurements 16 by 44 feet), a cellar was dug, accessible by ladder through a trapdoor in the floor, to provide storage and prevent freezing of provisions.

When it came time to roof the structure, I begged to go along on a trip to the nearby coulee from which our water was hauled and where an abundance of small poplar trees grew. A full load of poplars was brought back and I watched, fascinated, as their green tops dragged the prairie grass all the way home.

These trees were used for rafters, on top of which tar paper was placed and then slabs of sod. After the windows, doors, and flooring we had brought with us were installed, any holes were chocked with mud. Mud was troweled over the interior walls and whitewashed. Only curtains strung on wires divided the rooms. Later, when materials were available, skeleton partitions were erected and covered with cheesecloth and wallpaper, as also were the walls.

Our parlor had allover rag carpeting made of three-foot strips sewn together. Besides weekly sweeping, this needed a cleaning every few years. When I grew old enough to help, I learned what a task it was. Tacks were pulled, carpet hung on the clotheslines and beaten to remove most of the dust, then strips ripped apart and washed. These had to be resewn by hand before relaying.

Our ornate heater sat in the middle of this room and lace curtains hung at the windows. After the windy summer had passed, evenings were spent around the stove, reading by the pretty china coal-oil parlor lamp with its big round wick. In this room, devotions were held each morning before my elders took up their work for the day and I started my two-mile walk to the country schoolhouse, built a year after we arrived.

The short summers brought meadowlarks and other birds, wildflowers and berry picking. However, summer also generated enemies - mosquitoes and flies. Our screen door was but meager protection against these formidable pests.

Winters were beautiful, but difficult. Sod is a fine insulator; when the thermometer registered 40 to 60 degrees below zero, however, and the fire burned out in the kitchen stove at night, the water pail contained solid ice by morning.

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On these nights flatirons were heated and wrapped in flannelette to make our beds cozy.

One thing about winter I thoroughly hated was my long underwear. My aunt ordered it from the catalog, always a size too large so I wouldn't outgrow it before it had served its time.

I would become furious trying to turn back the too-long legs and wrap them around my ankles. These folds could leave no large lumps after I pulled up my long black stockings, or they would interfere with the proper lacing of my high-top shoes. The whole garment was too large until I grew into it, which seldom happened before the suits were worn out, and the following fall I would start all over again with a larger size. The result was that I never really caught up with my underwear.

Whenever a blizzard howled, Aunt Ellen always placed a lighted lamp in the window at night.

I remember once I was awakened by an unusual commotion and found my aunt and uncle thawing a man's feet and hands. The stranger had found our house on his hands and knees after he was thrown from his sled by his team running away. The light in the window had saved a life.

My first Christmas tree was a bare poplar from the coulee. Its limbs were decorated with candles, balls of cotton, and tissue paper - and hanging from its boughs were gingerbread boys and frost cookies. When I saw it that Christmas morning my child's-mind camera clicked and the image was stored in my album of memories.

I had a battered doll with sawdust body and tin head; but she was beautiful when I dressed her in the new clothes my aunt had made with pieces from her scrap-bag.

The house was now warm, and after breakfast I helped carry the potted plants from the cellar and place them on the wide windowsills. Our geraniums, chrysanthemums, and Christmas cactus never failed to gladden the cold winter days.

When looking back on the 12 formative years I lived in that primitive structure and the heritage given me, I realize it was not just a sod house, but a comfortable and cherished home.

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