Sod house memories: Man spent childhood years within earthy walls

Farm Forum

Over the course of his 88 years, Norman Schuh has seen a lot of progress in housing. When he was a youngster near Java, his family lived in a sod house. Later, as a carpenter, he built many sets of kitchen cabinets for Aberdeen homes and helped construct the American News building in the 1950s.

Schuh, who moved to Bethesda Home seven months ago, also has witnessed many advances in agriculture. These days, a farmer gets his crop in pretty quickly. When Schuh was young, a farmer might start putting his crop in in March and still be planting in June.

His dad had a McCormick Deering 15-30 tractor, but the family also made use of four horses.

“My dad planted corn with a two-row corn planter and a team of horses,” he said.

Now, farmers harvest with a head that’s50 feet wide.

“My God, a horse wouldn’t even be able to pull that,” said Schuh, who has been around long enough to remember that farmers had a good crop in 1942.

Earthy homes

Schuh was the second of Fred and Katherine Schuh’s six children. The family lived in two sod houses when he was a child. One house was 11 miles northeast of Java, the second one was 5 miles northeast.

Although the walls were made of sod, the exterior didn’t look much different from other houses. There was wood siding on the walls, shingles on the roof and shutters on the windows.

The Schuh homes weren’t the only sod houses in the area. Each fall, neighbors would get together to add a room to existing homes, Schuh recalls.

Schuh agrees that times were tough in the 1930s.

“People survived, though,” said Schuh, who has lived in Aberdeen since August 1949.

The sod house had no electricity. But it wasn’t all bad. A sod home stays cool in the summertime, he said.

There was never a shortage of meat. The family could butcher a hog or steer when needed. To preserve it, the meat was canned or turned into sausage.

“We never suffered,” said Schuh, pointing out that his mother didn’t complain. “She was kind of happy-go-lucky.”

With money from cream and eggs, the family would buy the groceries. Because they produced so much of their own food, all they needed was coffee, sugar, salt and a few other items. His mother baked bread, although the family occasionally enjoyed store-bought bread.

“That was a treat,” he remembers.

The stove was powered by hard coal.

“You could buy a ton of lignite for a little bit of nothing,” he said.

The family used kerosene-powered lamps. Back then, it “wasn’t like today — push a button” and get immediate results, he said.

Respected livestock

Schuh said his father was pretty finicky about his livestock. He made sure the cattle and horses were inside during the cold-weather months.

“There wasn’t one head of livestock outside in the winter,” said Schuh, whose dad didn’t like to be around when his cattle were slaughtered. He also wouldn’t loan his horses to a neighbor.

“He’d sooner let them have his tractor than his horses,” he said.

Like other farm families, the Schuhs listened to radio shows on a battery-powered radio. His father entertained the family by playing accordion, piano and fiddle.

In 1948, Schuh married LaVila Brick, a Bowdle native, and moved to Aberdeen the next year. LaVila, who worked at Control Data for 20 years, died in 1995. They had two children, Kenny Schuh and Jacqueline Leisen.

In one of Schuh’s first jobs, he was paid 90 cents an hour. When he joined the Milwaukee Road, his salary rose to $1.75. He became a carpenter in 1952. He prides himself on the fact he worked with a table saw for more than 30 years and never cut off a finger.