Yesterday's prairie homestead is today's museum. Pioneers dug out small rooms, cut bricks of buffalo grass, and moved in right before snowfall

AS far as the South Dakota horizon, grass upholsters the vast, bare land. Wind-made waves rush over it like a great, dry sea. But the earth takes care of her own. Grass, cut up in bricks and piled to make a ``soddy,'' sheltered the pioneers. Prairie Homestead, one of the surviving sod dwellings, is open to visitors. Pioneers came late to the Dakota Territory -- only after 1900, a decade after the last Indian battle, Wounded Knee. When wagons halted, homesteaders brought out the spade. Learning from the prairie dogs, they dug in for relief from the wind, for coolness in summer, warmth in winter.

Homesteaders used to say that the government bet their 160 acres against your $18 that you'd starve before you lived on the land for the five years it took to make it your own. Some did starve. Droughts, blizzards, grasshoppers, and crop failure forced all but the most hardy off the land.

Edgar and Alice Brown and their grown son, Charles, crossed the prairie by covered wagon in 1909. They stopped less than a mile from a rugged scar gouged in the grassland by wind and storm, the Badlands. Working fast, for it was late fall, they dug out two small rooms from the slope of a draw, chopped down cottonwood trees for beams, cut 1-by-3-foot bricks of buffalo grass to lay, two deep, covered roof supports with slats and dirt, and moved in -- just in time for the first snowfall. Paper nailed to a beam and a narrow calico curtain divided the bedroom from the kitchen, where Alice Brown wore a path in the dirt floor from cupboard to stove.

When spring rains came, drips and muddy rivulets invaded the Browns' home and eroded their dignity. Sometimes they'd have to hold an umbrella over the stove during meal preparation.

By 1913, the year Willa Cather published ``O, Pioneers,'' the Browns had made improvements. They hauled an abandoned, wooden claim shack by team and wagon to add as a living room and covered the front of the sod dugout with the same clapboard as the shack to give the appearance of a single structure. They dug out for a chicken coop and built a barn. They had lived through blizzards so blinding they had to use a rope tied between house and barn so they wouldn't get lost and freeze on their way to do chores.

Letters from Alice Brown told of alfalfa harvests, a new cream separator, mice fouling the water supply, scorching heat, heavy snows, and always mud. On August 9, 1917, she wrote: ``The corn on the breaking is green but so small and tasseling, surely it can't amount to much. We may get a few potatoes . . . . Sure hard to find things to cook . . . . This has been our worst year in Dakota. I am getting disgusted, but we must stay by it until we can get something out of it.''

Stay they did, 19 more years, until 1936, when mother and son, followed the pioneer hope of better things out West and departed into California -- and the Great Depression.

But their chance placement of the dugout right near the Badlands gave it a fair chance of being seen and cared for. Practically every 160-acre parcel in the South Dakota prairie once had a sod dwelling, but since the average soddy, unmaintained, lasts six or seven years, few remain. Only three in the nation are open to visitors.

Although the Browns' claim was purchased by a neighboring homesteader, the soddy sat empty from 1949 to 1963, when the second-generation neighbors, Keith and Dorothy Crew, peered for the first time into the abandoned home. The sod roof had collapsed, the false plank front had fallen off, and the sod bricks around the windows had disintegrated. Inside they found the Browns' original stove, tiny dining table, and a washstand made of an orange crate with a calico skirt. One crock pitcher, a commode half buried in the dirt, a rusted bed frame, and a half-filled can of coffee: the remnants declared that the dugout had been inhabited.

The Crews began the task of restoration much as the Browns had done -- by digging out. What remained of the roof was removed to make way for new cottonwood supports, and this time a heavy layer of plastic was put down before the new dirt. Soon the roof sprouted buffalo grass and sunflowers, as it had before. Mr. Crew cut some replacement sod bricks from the same field of buffalo grass that Ed Brown had used 54 years earlier, only this time a tractor was used.

To the people of the South Dakota prairie, history is close. Many live on land homesteaded by parents or grandparents.

Obtaining authentic furnishings for this restoration was easy. Neighbors who heard of the project brought crocks, milk cans, flatirons, kitchen implements, and vintage farm machinery -- a plow, dump rake, and wagon. At first overwhelmed by such generosity, Mrs. Crew was concerned. ``Should you really be giving away your grandmother's butter mold?'' she found herself asking.

``It would be right for it to be here,'' was the frequent, heartfelt response. ``It's our history, too.''

To get the real feel of life here, visitors must look out the bedroom window. It's at eye level inside but ground level outside. Even in summer the wind whistles around corners and sucks the white curtains outside. The weathered window, framing only grass and sky, looks like an Andrew Wyeth painting. During the winter, drifts of snow would surely have shut the family in darkness.

Items in the dugout tell how Alice Brown spent her days -- a coffee mill, candle molds, sauerkraut cutter, fruit press, butter churn, cast iron kettle, and, to show their utter dependence on the animals, cow chips for fueling the stove.

In the living room, the stereopticon, the worn cribbage board made from a razor strap, and the rag doll with penciled face were surely treasures, no less than the New Peerless vacuum cleaner, a 1911 pump model. A traveling salesman sold it to a neighboring homesteader, who said the thing never did work very well. It was hard to fight the dirt constantly blowing in under the door.

Prairie Homestead, on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, represents the nobility of America's pioneer heritage and merits a contemplative visit. Practical information:

The landmark is located on state route 240, two miles south of I-90 (accessible from exit 131), 20 miles east of Wall, and to the right of the east entrance to Badlands National Park. It's open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Sept. 27.

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