About 5 years ago I was ‘re-gifted’ a plate. The plate commemorates the diamond jubilee of Oberlin, in Kansas for the years 1885-1960. The plate features images of heritage: The main street in the 1920s, Indian Raid Monument, Grade School, The High School, The Court House, Smick Memorial Field and The Soddie.
Soddies (turf-built) dwellings were a feature of pioneer life on the North American Prairies. The thick root system of the prairie grass meant that blocks could be cut and stacked to build walls (grass-side down) – just as with other turf buildings (such as in Iceland or South America). Soddies were common through the 19th century, and continued to be built into the 20th century. Innovations were introduced to ease the process, such as horse-drawn ploughs that would cut the sod into strips, which could then be cut into smaller blocks. Most soddies were single storey but there is a famous 2-storey example built in Nebraska in the 1880s by Isadore Haumont. The building was demolished in the 1960s but you can see a photo of the family stood in front of their house through the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalogue (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005693385/).
The web is alive with information and interest in soddies much with a slightly nostalgic air, and many exploring the process of construction, and the lives of the people who lived within. The Women of the West Museum “There are no renters here” website features the letters and biography of Mattie Oblinger alongside links to further resources: http://theautry.org/explore/exhibits/sod/mattie.html
I’ve been fascinated with soddies since my childhood reading of Laura Ingalls Wilder ‘Life on the Banks on Plum Creek’ where the family live in an earth-built house and one of many exciting episodes is when the family cow falls through the roof. That fascination then was about ‘otherness’, and how a pioneer family adapted to new ways of doing things which were so alien to a 1980s childhood in the West Midlands.
But now I am more interested in the value and perception of earth buildings, and the Oberlin plate seems to be a case where earth buildings are valued just as highly as their stone or timber built equivalents. Here their heritage value is linked to nostalgia (to a ‘how they lived then’ mentality) which values the building material as a ‘last resort’ and therefore as symbolic of determination and adaptability of the settler population.
Perhaps they also represent a rather exclusionary view of the past in which national identity is created through values placed on particular types of tangible heritage, for example Oberlin was the site of the last Indian Raid in Kansas and the monument to that event is also commemorated on the plate. Whilst the other ‘sites’ (the Grade School, The High School, The Court House, and Smick Memorial Field) are also symbols of one particular identity. Given the plates commemorative origin in 1960 it is unsurprising, but it would be interesting to see how (and if) heritage value was created by subsequent (and future) plates. But for now I won’t put it in the dishwasher!