Nearly five years ago (in 2009) a reader named Dave sent Tiny House Blog information regarding the Shorpy Historic Archive. One of those images is shown above and is a dugout house built by homesteaders Faro and Doris Caudill with Mount Allegro in the background in Pie Town, New Mexico. (titled: The Caudills at dinner. 35mm Kodachrome transparency by Russell Lee.)
At the time it was classified as a Tiny House In A Landscape. But as the history of tiny houses continues to be written it seems that these underground homes share a number of qualities with modern tiny houses.
Imagine this. You have moved out to a destination unchartered. There are no cities or roads in your view. The closest Wal-Mart is anyone’s guess. You subsequently have no bricks for foundation, no lumber for framing, and no vinyl for siding. What do you do? Without being able to take refuge in a cave you may turn to the very ground you are standing on. And why not? People have been doing it for centuries. And while many in the tiny house community may not be using the earth for their homes they are using the materials most readily available to them; pallet wood, reclaimed lumber, reglazed windows, and the like.
The dugout or pit house, with sod roof, log walls and earthen floor, is among the most ancient of human dwellings dating back at least 5,000 years.
The process is rather simple (if by definition and not actual labor). Dig a square hole in the ground between four and five feet deep. Construct a slanted roof above it using poles, brush, and even dirt. This collection of materials would not only keep you cool and out of direct sun in the summer but also relatively warm in the winter. The secret was that our ancestors took advantage of the earths temperature which we now call earth sheltering. It is a practice of building walls for external thermal mass; to reduce heat loss, and to easily maintain a steady indoor air temperature.
As time progressed dugouts or pit houses looked less like ground burrows and more like shelter entrances to unimaginable, earthen comfort.
James Barton came to Republic County, Kansas, in 1871, from Marshall County, Iowa, as a young child. His parents homesteaded near modern-day Cuba, Kansas. Looking back on the family’s trip by covered wagon, Mr. Barton remembered that it “was a mighty long and hard walk from Iowa to Kansas for a seven year old, barefoot boy!”
The following paragraphs are excerpted from an account of homestead days that Mr. Barton wrote in 1936.
In the spring [of 1872] father built our dug-out. Now you young folks, who think your pretty homes are not comfortable enough, you should have seen our first Kansas home — one underground room, dirt floor, dirt roof, and fleas and snakes for company. You never saw so many fleas– we always blamed the buffalo and buffalo grass for these fleas, for all sod-house and dug-out families had them.
Our first crop was cut by father and a Mr. Zavodsky with a “cradle” scythe, — a hard beginning for our parents, but how we children enjoyed the pretty country– miles and miles of “Blue-Stem” in places three and four feet high, and just a lot of fun to play and hide in! There were no roads — no towns — no churches — no schools — no doctors — and no railroads… When father went for provisions, it took him about a week to drive it with oxen, where you young folks now could motor it in an hour and a half…1
Or perhaps not so comfortable!
To continue down yet another tiny house history rabbit trail consider starting here!
To view a video tour of the dugout home made famous by Laura Ingalls Wilder in Little House on the Prairie click here.