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Texas | Columns | Lone Star Diary

Unearthing the story of Dugout Homes

One of the first shelters for early pioneers

by Murray Montgomery
Murray Montgomery
I had been thinking about doing a story on dugout homes for a long time - they were one choice of housing available to the impoverished pioneers of this country. The more research that I did, my respect for our ancestors grew even more; as if that was possible.

From Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and beyond; the landscape was dotted with this primitive housing. Made by digging into the earth or carved out of a mountainside, these make-shift dwellings show the ingenuity and creativity of those who came before us.

According to the Handbook of Texas: "Dugouts belong to no particular historical period but rather to a phase of frontier development. On the Texas plains and prairies, they were basic forms of shelter during early settlement and were particularly prominent on ranches and farms."

 A cowboy at the entrance of a dugout in Texas, 1907
A cowboy at the entrance of a dugout in Texas, 1907
Photo courtesy Amon Carter Museum

If there weren't any mountains available to dig into, the dugouts would be made by just digging out the ground. Research shows that there were various sizes and dimensions but it seems that the most popular way was to dig a rectangular trench about six feet deep and ten feet wide - with variable lengths. I imagine that the overall size would depend on how hard the ground was and how many hands were doing the digging

As with every project, the dugouts had good points and bad ones. While primitive by modern standards, dugout homes offered protection from the elements and provided a measure of comfort to the pioneers. The earth surrounding the dwelling acted as natural insulation, regulating temperatures and providing relief from both extreme heat and biting cold.

Old timers have been known to say that you could be riding across the Kansas prairie and not know a dugout was around until you saw a stovepipe sticking up out of the ground.


As you might guess, the interiors varied according to the material available. Most had tamped-down dirt for floors. If they could get wood, the floors would be covered with lumber. One source indicates that they would put whitewash or something similar on the walls.

Although dugouts provided vital shelter, they were not pleasant places of abode. Residents described problems with snakes, spiders, salamanders, and other pests which infested the roofs. Dirt constantly fell from the walls and roof onto dining tables and other furniture.

According to the Oklahoma Historical Society: "Problems with ventilation, lighting, insects, flooding or seepage, and the stigma of living underground like prairie dogs, contributed to the perception of the dugout as an expedient but temporary solution to a housing problem."

One of the things I thought of while writing this piece, was trying to picture going back in time and putting my family in a dugout—especially the kids and grandkids. It wouldn't be pretty, but I really shouldn't say much because I doubt if I could have stood it.

On a personal note, it was an old television show I watched as a kid (and still do) that got me interested in researching the dugouts. It seems as if Chester Goode was building a dugout in preparation for his upcoming wedding and he asked Matt Dillon to bring his would-be bride out to see it. To make a long story short, the lady wasn't the least bit impressed and went back to town after throwing a tantrum.

As a result, Chester was living in his unground palace all alone. However, he woke up one morning and his home was flooded—that turned out to be a good thing because the much-needed water was very valuable. Chester started selling the water and his bride-to-be came back and helped gather the cash. But the well dried up and his fiancee left Dodge with the entire bankroll.

If you've never watched "Gunsmoke," you can't relate, so please disregard the previous two paragraphs.

Murray Montgomery
Lone Star Diary 7-24-,2023 Column

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