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In Minn., Back to the Earth Indeed

By Amy Ruth
The Washington Post
Sunday, March 7, 1999; Page E04

What: The Sod House Prairie Bed and Breakfast, perhaps the nation's only habitable, bookable overnight accommodation made of sod.

Where: Sanborn, Minn.

Why: To get as big a slice of semiauthentic frontier life as you're likely to want.

Background: Fulfilling a childhood fantasy, Stan McCone, 54, constructed the replica 1880s sod house in 1987 from 300,000 pounds of prairie sod. Much like his great-grandparents, who confronted the tangle of prairie grass roots as South Dakota homesteaders, McCone cut strips of sod from the earth, then sliced them into "bricks." He likens the sound of sod busting to the ripping of canvas.

The result is a one-room, rectangular structure measuring 31 by 17 feet, located just a few yards from the McCones' modern home and barns in southwestern Minnesota. The soddie--with its plank, tar-paper and sod roof and four small-paned windows--is surrounded by native prairie grasses and wildflowers.

Deep background: Thousands of American and immigrant families were drawn west by the Homestead Act of 1862, which allotted 160 acres of land to those who cultivated the land and built, maintained and occupied a shelter on the acreage for five years. There was little timber on the prairie, and the sod house was an immediate solution to the housing shortage, and to the harsh climate, which could be punishing at both extremes.

Historians estimate that the pioneers built a million or more temporary sod structures to tide them over until a crop brought prosperity and, presumably, better housing. Only a few sod structures remain today; one is the birthplace of musician Lawrence Welk in Strasburg, N.D.

Living in the earth: "You can't fathom what it was like to live in one until you come in here and close the door," says McCone, who owns a food distribution company and operates the B&B with his wife, Virginia.

Sodbusters shared their homes with a variety of critters, from moles and prairie dogs to crickets and spiders. While the thick walls insulated the home, they couldn't keep out all the elements. When it rained outside, it rained inside, too.

While the McCones admit theirs is a rich man's soddie, it is authentic down to the canary cage swinging by the front door, a fixture in many prairie homes. Like the more well-to-do sodbusters, the McCones finished the floor with wooden planks and whitewashed the walls to keep out the critters. And the roof keeps out the rain.

Prairie amenities: The sod house is decorated with period furnishings, including a fainting couch, pot-bellied stove and two double beds. It sleeps four comfortably, five if someone bunks on the couch. Guests sleep under hand-stitched quilts and a tanned buffalo hide, and wash up with a porcelain wash bowl and pitcher. Visitors are invited to try on authentic and replica 1880s costumes and play with period toys.

"When people go to museums, they can't touch," says Stan. "When you come here, if you want to look in a drawer, you look in a drawer."

In the mornings Virginia, 52, tucks breakfast into baskets lined with brightly checked napkins and delivers it to guests: hash browns, iced fruit pastries, assorted meats or cheeses, coffee and juice.

In the cold months, a fire keeps the house cozy. When it's warmer, visitors like to wander through the tall grasses on trails to absorb the sights and sounds of the authentic prairie the McCones seeded about eight years ago. "I've had so many guests say that they have the sense of the prairie when they're here," Virginia says. "They can understand the sea of grass and the immensity of the sky. And they can hear the quiet."

Rates range from $90 to $155 per night. Tours for visitors not staying overnight are $3 per person. Details: Virginia and Stan McCone, 12598 Magnolia Ave., Sanborn, Minn., 56083, 507-723-5138.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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