Songs/Poems of Inspiration

Bugs and Fleas

Bugs and Fleas Drawings copied by Robert Kurtz: Roger L. Welsch, Sod Walls: The Story of the Nebraska Sod House, (Broken Bow: Purcells, Inc., 1968), 177

Early pioneers to the Fargo area ran into hardships living on the edge of the Great Plains. They took comfort in the fact that most of their neighbors would come to their aid if need be. They also took comfort in a friendly game of cards, some fiddle, and shot or two of the local drink to calm their souls.  It was never easy for anyone, but to make thing just a little bit better they sang songs and wrote about their experiences in the new land. From North Dakota to Texas, poetry and song ran up and down the Great Plains; some healing, some helping people cope, while others helped people realize they needed to get out . . .get back to civilization . . . back to cities like Fargo.

Some of these folks lived in sod homes and shanties out on the plains for different reasons. Some couldn’t afford the milled lumber, while others didn’t have to tools or the know-how to construct a log cabin. There were some who simply wanted to save money and used the soddie as a temporary home. Others deemed the soddie as a proper home, but that is for another day.

The first song is called “Bugs and Fleas” and is focused mostly on the sod home, but could easily be sung for anyone living a tar paper shack or a dig out as well. It is sung by the tune of “The Little Brown Jug.” Give it a try.

Many of these songs could be used to support the efforts of those who were trying to stick it out on the plains while others used them as an excuse to get out! This next poem was used for both.

Starving to Death on a Gov’t Claim”

Starving to Death on a Gov’t Claim

Soddy Rally Song

Soddy Rally Song, Drawing copied by Robert Kurtz: Roger L. Welsch, Sod Walls: The Story of the Nebraska Sod House, (Broken Bow: Purcells, Inc., 1968), 174-176.

Of course, all of the lyrics to these songs could, and were, changed around to accommodate the region and the people. How the songs were sung could also vary greatly. It could be assumed that many pioneers would make up their own versions of a song or a poem the same way many of us do today when we need to pass the time.

The “Soddy Rally Song” was a song that drew fellow sod dwellers together. They may not live in a soddie any more but they all came from the same place. This song is sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

-Robert Kurtz, Digital History 2012

Shanty Claims

Image of a tar paper shack with people in front of it. There are four women, one is holding a pail, another is holding a broom. There are three men, one is crouched down with a small child, and another in seated in a buggy harnessed to a horse. There are six young children, one is seated in a chair, and three are holding onto puppies. Behind the buggy is a sod building.
[rs000832 – North Dakota State Univeristy Archives]

Shanties were the next standard of living for small-scale farmers in the Red River Valley area. Claim shanties were also a new trend in living structures because they were essentially mobile homes. Because of their mobility, settlers would be able to live for an extended period of time to claim land and move to claim more when they had reached the time limit.

Because the railroad reached the settlers on a frequent basic materials such as tar paper, and lumber arrived frequently. These materials were available to the settlers to build claim shanties. This was the beginning of frame shelter building, after sod homes,  in the rural Fargo area. Claim shanty farmers continuously populated the area between 1870-1885.[1]

Shanties were built directly on dirt ground with no foundation. “Shanty walls consisted of studs, horizontal boxing, and a layer of tarpaper held on with lath.”[2] Shanty shacks were a nicer seeming housing structure but were hardly a match for North Dakota weather. The shanties were difficult to keep warm in the winter and acted as hot boxes in the summer. [3]Tar paper was often used on shanty shacks or as temporary structures of their own. It was a waterproof tar/paper mixture that acted as a shelter sealant for shanty structures of simply temporary tar paper shacks. Once shanty farmers earned enough capital in the area they were about to begin constructing wood frame houses.

Jenna Clawson, Digital History


[1]  Dalrymple, John S. “Setting for Dalrymple’s Bonanza”, Oliver Dalrymple and His Bonanza 1984 , p. 129.

[2] Czajka, Christopher. “The Little Old Shanty on the Claim: Creating a Home on the Frontier” Public Prairie. www.pbs.org/wnet/frontierlife/essay4.html

[3] Ibid.

Sod Homes

While large-scale farming was the major goal of the Northern Pacific Railroad and its successors, small scale-farming was in full swing. Immigrants and settlers from other parts of the Eastern United States moved westward to claim land along the Northern Pacific way. Many of the smaller farmers who came to the Red River Valley claimed land and built sod homes. Resources in the Red River Valley were sparse on the open frontier and sod was one of the only readily-available building resources for people, mostly immigrants, with limited income.

Because the first settlers claimed the limited land by the river, the flood of settlers that came later were reliant on the prairie and used sod as their primary building material. Sod houses were built by plowing up segments of prairie held together by the system of roots from the prairie. The roots of grasses and other plants would hold the sod strips together. Through stacking and molding these strips, walls were built up to create a one roomed home. The walls of an average sod home would have been about five feet to seven feet tall. “The first block of sod was laid grass side down…Subsequent blocks were also laid grass side down and the grass acted as a sealant…to seal sod to sod.”[1] Generally, when people were building sod houses they would stick together beams and rails with mud, grass, bison hair, etc., and lay it across the roof before covering it in sod.[2] Many family members could live in one sod home that averaged 12×20 feet in size.[3] In order to expand a sod home after it has been built, lean-tos were often added as extra rooms.[4]

Railroad expansion in this era also meant that more materials arrived daily for settlers in the area. Sod homes were a stable enough structure for families to survive and it was a form of building that was familiar to immigrants and other settlers alike. People began to abandon sod homes, however, for structures such as a claim shanties or tar paper shacks.

– Jenna Clawson, Digital History, 2012


[1] Bachelor, Rosemary. E. “Sod Houses of Pioneers on the Prairie” Suite 101, American History, 2009.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Midwest Historical and Genealogical Register, North Dakota Institute for Regional Studies (NDIRS), Vol. 24, No. 2, 1989.

[4] Bachelor, Rosemary. E. “Sod Houses of Pioneers on the Prairie” Suite 101, American History, 2009.