16 June 2015

Chesley Homestead, Part 2: The Charles Chesley Sod House

This is reprinted with permission from the Masters Thesis "The Sod Houses of Custer County, Nebraska" by Andrea R. Kampinen, for the University of Georgia, 2008.
The Charles Chesley Sod House/Nolan Steele Sod House is one of two remaining
sod houses in Custer County that are still inhabited. The house is located in Powell
Canyon nearly six miles east of Arnold on the northwest quarter of Section 21, Township
17 North, Range 24 West. The house is clearly visible from the public right-of-way but
does not resemble a sod house. The dwelling is currently a one-story, L-plan building
clad in masonite siding. Displaying a hip roof, the house features a non-historic shed
roof dormer on the south elevation, which is its primary façade. A historic one-story
rectangular addition has been constructed on the northwest corner of the house giving the
building its current L-plan. 
Charles Chesley built the original sod core in 1892. Rectangular in plan, the
house is very large and measures 48’-3”x 30’-3”. It is known through a local newspaper
article that blue stem grass was used for the sod and the walls measured approximately
36” thick. When Nolan Steele moved into the house in 1902, he covered the exterior
with wood clapboard. The interior of the house, however, was inaccessible due to the
absence of property owners and no further details were gathered on the interior layout of
the dwelling. Since there was no sod exposed on the exterior, block dimensions and
coursing could not be verified. 
All windows and doors on the house have been downsized and replaced with
modern types, but their placement is still likely original based on a historic photograph of
the house. All windows are one-over-one aluminum sash. The south elevation, also the
primary façade, contains four windows and an entrance. The entrance contains a modern
door covered by a non-historic stoop, and the central two windows are paired. The nonhistoric dormer is centered above the paired windows. The east elevation contains two
evenly spaced windows. The north elevation features two windows and another set of
paired windows. The frame addition projects off the northwest corner of the house and
obscures part of the north and west elevations. The west elevation likely contained two
windows in similar positions as the east elevation (Figures 37 and 38). 
From the historic photograph, the roof shape appears to be original. The exact
construction method of the steeply pitched hip roof is unknown, but local history states
that the lumber for the roof came from the Milldale lumber mill. It is currently sheathed
with asphalt shingles, but the historic photograph shows it was covered with wood
shingles. The side gable frame addition was added to the northwest corner of the house
in 1928. Its construction removed a small portion of the sod wall. The interior of the
house was inaccessible, but the local newspaper article mentions that the house included
four bedrooms and a small upstairs. The house was updated with electricity and
Charles Chesley filed a Timber Claim on the property in 1899, but the sod house
was already built on the land. Jared Copeland, Chesley’s brother-in-law, began building
the large, one-story sod dwelling for the Chesley’s in 1892 and finished it three years
later. Copeland is known to have helped or directed the construction of several sod
houses in the general vicinity of Lower Powell Canyon. The Chesley’s sold the property
to Samuel Steele in April 1902. However, Nolan and Ella Steel moved into the sod house
in November 1902 and established the B (Butler) and S (Steele) Cattle Ranch. Samuel

Figure 37. Sod – 03: Charles Chesley/Nolan Steele Sod House, 1892 --
South Elevation, view looking north

Northeast corner, view looking southwest
Figure 38. Chesley/Steele floor plan
Steele remained the property owner until Nolan Steele received the deed in 1914. The
Steeles raised cattle and hogs and were well respected in the community. The property
continues to remain in the Steele family today. Leon Steele is the grandson of Nolan
Steele and son of Cecil Steele, who lived in the house until the early 1990s. 
The Chesley/Steele Sod House is unique in Custer County. The mere size of the
structure, 48’-3”x 30’-3”, differentiates it from many of the other sod houses found in the
county. This house took an experienced sod builder three years to build. While it is
implied that sod houses did not have building plans, this particular sod house appears to
have been carefully constructed to ensure its durability. It was constructed as a
permanent family homestead and not a temporary structure. Its quality craftsmanship and
durability secured its fate with the Steele family and prevented its demise, which so many
other sod houses in Custer County faced. 
Since the Steele Family has occupied the Chesley/Steele Sod House for most of
its lifetime, its history is better documented that most sod houses in Custer County.
Although the interior could not be inspected, the exterior of the house remains in good
condition. Its integrity may appear compromised due to the exterior alterations, but for a
sod house these alterations are necessary to keep the house in good maintenance. Sod
houses are not significant for their exterior appearance; they are significant for their
method of construction. Without the alterations imposed on the Chesley/Steele Sod
House, it may not have been livable according to twentieth century standards and
ultimately may not have survived into the twenty-first century.

Copyright © 2015 by Kevin W. Walker

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