The Sod Frontier
Timber was a scarce commodity on the treeless plains, but sod was abundant. The very soil that posed such a formidable obstacle to farming-at least until the manufacture of John Deere’s “Grand Detour Plow”—was a durable, dense, and (quite literally) dirt-cheap building material.
The work of the sod frontier was back breaking. Even with the Deere plow, “busting” the sod into viable crop rows was no easy task. For the many homesteaders who had the misfortune to stake claims at a distance from creeks and streams, there was the added burden of digging a well. Few sodbusters could afford to hire, a drilling rig, so this work, like most of the work on the prairie farm, had to be done by hand. With nothing more than pick and spade, homesteaders dug to depths up to 300 feet, where they were exposed to the dangers of cave-in as well as asphyxiation from subterranean gases such as methane and carbon monoxide. Not only that, but breaking your back and risking your life did not guarantee you’d find water. If, by the time you hit bedrock or shale, you came up dry, you had to start digging somewhere else.
Water in a well goes nowhere unless you take it there. As the prairie earth yielded an abundance of natural building material, so the winds that fiercely scoured the prairie afforded a natural source of energy. In 1854, a Connecticut tool-shop tinkerer named David Halladay invented a windmill with a vane that allowed it to pivot into the wind; moreover, the centrifugal force of the turning blades adjusted the pitch of the mill blades so that the gusty, often violent winds would not tear them apart. A crankshaft transformed the rotary motion of the mill into the up-and-down action needed to operate a pump. Using wind power, hundreds of gallons of water could be moved each day to irrigate crops and quench the thirst of livestock.
The sodbusters turned stubborn soil and fierce winds into assets. They also found strength in another, less tangible, but no less harsh, reality of prairie life. Limitless spaces and driving winds were a trial for the spirit. The emotional demands of the wide-open spaces served to reinforce the solidarity of the family as a bulwark against loneliness, despair, and danger. Beyond the family, these uncompromising conditions helped bond neighbor with distant neighbor, gradually forging communities where there had been none before. Neighbors were a new phenomenon in the West; for the trapper, the prospector, and the soldier had no need for community.