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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

TO BUILD A HOUSE II
Adobe Houses

by C. F. Eckhardt
Out west of the Cross Timbers logs large enough to build a log house, in the numbers necessary for a log house, weren't common. In a lot of places rocks were, and more than a few houses were built the same way many rock fences were built-of flat rocks simply stacked together. However, those houses tended to get a mite rickety, you might say. One material that didn't get rickety was adobe.

Indians did not build in adobe. Adobe was brought to the Americas by the Spanish. Adobe is mud brick, made with mud and straw-the same bricks the Hebrews in Egypt were told to make without straw.

Finding the right kind of dirt to make adobe from was sometimes tricky. It needed to be soil with a considerable clay content, and at first it needed to be very dry. It was broken up and all rocks larger than a small English pea had to be picked out by hand. Larger rocks would cause a brick to crack when it was dried.

A pit was dug, and into the pit went the dirt, together with water. This was churned into a thick mud, usually by the family pulling off their shoes-if they had any-and stomping around in it until it was thick and gooey. Then straw was added, and more stomping mixed the straw into the mud.

A mold, usually made of wood, was the basis for making adobe bricks, which were very large-often 2 feet long, 1 feet wide, and a foot thick. The mold was packed firmly with the wet adobe mix, then removed. The bricks were allowed to dry, often for several days, in a shaded area if possible. If they dried in the direct sun they would often split or crack.

Once the bricks were dry and the ground for the house was leveled, construction began. Mortar was wet adobe. Usually lintels and windowframes were made of what wood was available, and the floor, in an early adobe, was usually dirt. Out in far West Texas, they sometimes had 'blood floors.' The clay used to make adobe was mixed with animal blood and packed down on the dirt. Once it dried it was very hard, and with a little effort, could be shined to look as though it was waxed.

On the outside, the house was usually coated with a thin wash of the same clay the adobe was made from, and when that dried it was, if possible, whitewashed. Adobe houses, with their very thick walls and whitewashed exteriors, were cool in the summer, sort of like living in a cave. However, unless there was a fireplace in the house, they could get downright cold in winter. People coming from 'the old states' always built fireplaces into their adobe houses, but people coming from Mexico, unless they were wealthy, didn't. In Mexico, fireplaces were taxed.

An adobe house had two major weaknesses. If it rained long and hard, say, over a period of a couple of weeks, the house might simply disintegrate. Usually, in country in which adobe was used, rain came sparingly, but when it came, it came in torrents. For some reason those torrential rains, lasting a few hours, didn't often affect adobe structures.

The other weakness was also structural. You could break into an adobe with very little effort. All it took was a rawhide lariat. Two men, using a rawhide lariat with knots tied about every 6 inches, could literally saw a corner off an adobe in a matter of a couple of hours. In country where corrals were built of adobe bricks, Indians discovered this early. They could use a knotted rawhide lariat to saw a chunk out of the corral's fence-the sawing made very little noise- and be off with the horses in the middle of the night, leaving the family to wake up afoot the next morning.

Adobe is still used extensively in far West Texas and in New Mexico, and in fact is the most common building material in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When I was there for the Western Writers of America's annual convention in 1998, we were told that a 2-bedroom adobe on a 50-foot lot in Albuquerque, no carpeting, no central heat nor airconditioning, without any appliances except a water heater, would sell for about $235,000.

C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
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August 9, 2006 column

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