Building Homesteads

Overview

When the settlers arrived in the west, they faced the difficult task of building from the ground up. The farmers first needed to clear the land and then would begin the task of building homes and barns. In the 1880s and 1890s, getting access to construction materials was not easy because there were few railways and the roadways were too rough to haul lumber.

Settlers could rely on each other to help with building their homestead.

A homestead with a wood farmhouse, a few sheds, and some newly planted bushes along the edge of the house show a newly settled farm.

This homestead was built near Crane Valley, Saskatchewan in 1914.

Clearing the Land

When the settlers arrived, they had to clear the land. Trees were chopped down and stumps were pulled out with a team of oxen. If the settlers did not have oxen or horses, they would have to do the work with hand tools. It was hard work!

A team of two horses are pulling a plow to break Prairie topsoil. A farmer is walking behind the horses to operate the plow.

PHOTO CREDIT: WESTERN DEVELOPMENT MUSEUM

A horse team is pulling the plough to break up blocky Prairie land.

Settlers also used steam engines that were invented in 1869 in the United States and brought to the Prairies to clear the land. The steam engine helped the reduce manual labour and dependence on horses. These machines needed an engineer to operate them because they were awkward and difficult to use, so mostly only the large farms had the resources to get a steam engine.

Three men are operating a steam engine with a plow and a harrow behind it.

Steam engines greatly reduced manual labour, but most settlers didn’t have access to them.

Trees were scarce but very important. They were used for winter fuel, for construction material, for tent framework, or as a foundation for thatched roofs on sod houses before a log home could be constructed.

An oxen is being used to clear the trees, stumps, and rocks from the land.

Barns

Settlers needed to build barns for their animals’ survival and to store their crops, hay, and straw. Building a sod barn was the easiest and cheapest way for settlers on the Prairies. Many of the settlers would gather together to help each other build their barns, these gatherings were known as ‘bees’.

A few men are sitting on top of an addition that is being built onto the back of a wooden barn. A child and a dog are playing on the ground by the barn.

Men are working together to build this barn as part of a homestead in 1945.

An illustration of a red wooden barn is shown

Barns are red because farmers sealed their barns to protect the wood from rotting with linseed oil (made from flax). They often added rust to the linseed oil because it killed fungi and mosses that would grow on the barn. The rust turned the mixture red in colour.

A homestead with a wood farmhouse, a couple of sheds, and a large barn are being highlighted.

This homestead and barn were built in 1907.

Building a Sod House

Building a sod house or ‘soddy’ was the easiest and cheapest way for settlers on the Prairies to make a home and a barn. First the sod (a layer of grass, soil, and roots) was cut into strips. The sod pieces were piled one on top of the other like bricks. That’s how the walls were made.

Logs or lumber were used for the door, door frame, and window frames. When glass was not available, greased paper or canvas covered the windows.

A team of two horses are pulling a plow to break Prairie topsoil. A farmer is walking behind the horses to operate the plow.

PHOTO CREDIT: WESTERN DEVELOPMENT MUSEUM

This woman stands in front of her family’s newly built sod homestead.

For the roof, logs were placed across the top and covered with sod and hay. Sometimes the floor was made of boards, but often it was just packed earth. When it rained a lot, the house leaked, but these houses were cool in summer, and warm in the winter.

Building a sod house was the easiest and cheapest way for settlers to make a home.

Log shacks were built more commonly in areas with dense trees.

In the spring, sod houses leaked and roofs collapsed as the piles of snow collected over the winter months began melting. So along with breaking and clearing more land, planting a crop, fixing the roof had to be added to a settler’s list of chores.

Building a sod home was a temporary solution until settlers had time and resources to build another style of home that would be more practical on the Prairies.

Building a Log House

Log houses were built by pioneers settling in areas with dense trees. When the land was cleared, the trees were hauled to the homestead where they were carefully cut and put in place. Once in place, the logs were plastered with mud inside and out. The mud coating was then whitewashed with lye and water. The lye was made from wood ashes.

A log house on a hometead has three childen playing in front.

This log house was built in 1917 near Lac Cheval, Saskatchewan.

Frame houses were built from purchased supplies which had to be hauled to the construction site. Framework for these houses was similar in construction to the houses today. The walls consisted of studs and lumber with tarpaper between.

Many settlers set up their homestead and built homes on their own before their wives and children arrived. This video shows the steps a settler would have had to take to build a log cabin with only one person.

A log house in winter is covered in snow and ice, showing that the weather has been cold and blizzarding.

This log house was built in 1905 near Hilldrop, SK. Logs were taken from the banks of Shell River to construct this home and the family lived here until 1963.

Modern homes are built a lot different now, with many more conveniences. How is your home different from the homes that settlers first built when they moved to Saskatchewan?