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
| 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
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.
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
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 dugoutespecially
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 floodedthat
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.