I was always interested in what a dugout was like

Mr. Schumacher discusses his family's homesteading experience.

Audio Chapters

DL: Your specialty is these shelters, these dug-out shelters. How do you know about them, and what was their purpose?

SS: I got interested in them because my great-grandpa, John Joseph Schumacher, come from Wisconsin in 1865. They homesteaded about a mile west of me, right where Leavenworth is now. The first year they had no place to live, so they dug a dugout along the Cottonwood River. They had two children, and my Grandpa Charles was one of the two; he was about 1-1/2 years old when they came. They made a dugout, they dug into the side of a hill of the [river] bank. They dug out three sides, and then put posts in there and then they covered the top with wood posts, or whatever, and then they put hay on top, and then covered that with dirt. So it was completely covered, and the only opening was to the front side.

I was always interested in what a dugout was like, and I could never find any dugout to look at and no one knows for sure how they were. I come to the Historical Society and they gave me a few printouts and told about them, but there wasn’t really that much on how they were made. Our family is interested in history, and this was something we were interested in. It was about 2-1/2 years ago that we decided to make a dugout. So I went and two years ago in April, I cut down about 35 trees and put them out to dry until last fall, and then we started to dig for the dugout. And I don’t have any really know-how of how they really made them, so I had to just do a lot of guess work of how they might have made it. We’re in the process now of getting it finished.

DL: Is the dugout process related in any way to 1862?

SS: Not to 1862. I think in 1862 when the people came, they were putting dugouts in at that time, and this was right after. But that’s what usually they did: they would come to an area where they were going to settle and homestead, but they had no place to live. So the only thing they could do was make a dugout to live in for maybe one or two years until they could get enough trees cut down for a log cabin. Dugouts didn’t last that long. And then they would have their log cabin made, they would use them for cellars because that would keep things cool. Then they just left them to deteriorate, and probably after 5 years they probably were just abandoned. And that’s why you can’t find anything about dugouts much. Where my great-grandpa had his, the people who lived there said when they were just kids that there was a place there. They said this is where they thought that was.

But that’s 60 years ago now, so I go no idea really where- I know about the area, but to know right where it was, we don’t know that.

DL: What would these things have looked like? Could you stand in one; were they tall enough so you could stand up?

SS: Yes.

DL: That’s a lot of digging. And it had to be dangerous as well- what was to keep it from caving in?

SS: It depends on what the banks are like. The one I dug, when we got down about 4 foot, we got to real hardpan, where it’s real hard dirt. So there’s no way that’s going to cave in. In some of the places I had to put slabs along there so we could cover the sides, but it’s hard there and not going to cave in. And the higher part above it, I got some boards along the edge so it can’t cave in. But otherwise you can see it won’t cave in because the ground is that hard. But nobody’s ever seen any. The Ingalls, theirs was up by Walnut Grove. It was later on when they dug theirs. They had whitewashed the sides, the dirt, they whitewashed it. But I know when my grandpa made the dugout there was no way he could get any whitewash or anything, because the train wasn’t through there and there would have been no way they would have done that. But later on they maybe did.

DL: How would they heat them?

SS: They had little stoves. I got a little stove that’s about this high, something that they could haul around. It’s got a flat top. Now they call them laundry stoves, but they’re real hard to come by, because they’re quite old.

DL: How would they keep the smoke from not going into the dugout?

SS: Well, they had their stoves there, and they did have stovepipes at that time. And New Ulm had a few stores where they could buy them; otherwise they would have to go to Mankato to get supplies, and they would be gone for a couple days to go get supplies.

DL: Did they have doors; these dugouts?

SS: Yes, they had doors. They were pretty rugged; everything had to be cut with the cross-cut saws. They didn’t have anything like what we have now. And the windows, some of them didn’t have windows, so they would just take what you have when you get these little sacks, they would put a little oil on them so it would draw a little light through, just to get a little light in there until they got some glass, so they could put a regular window in. But some of them didn’t even have that. But even the one I made, it’s so dark in there; you’d need a light all the time. Even with the door open, if the sun starts going down it gets dark in there a lot, so they must have had to use their lanterns quite a bit.

DL: That’s very rustic living.

SS: Yes. I want to just see what it would be like to be in there. And in the wintertime I want to go down there and start the fire and really see how warm it would be and how it gets. It’s real damp in there now.

DL: How did they survive the winters- because winters can be very severe here.

SS: Yes.

DL: And here you are, stuck in the hole of a riverbank?

SS: Yes. I really don’t know how you could live in there for two years, because it’s so tight in there. They said some of them were 8x10. I made it 9X12, which makes it quite a bit bigger. But just a 9x12 room, that’s all you got to live in with two kids for two years, or for sure a year. That’s quite hard to understand, how they could make it, but it was tough times. I guess they just had to put up with the way the times were.

DL: If they had food to store, it had to be down there too, because how would they eat? What would they eat in the winter months?

SS: I really wonder. A lot of them would have pig and they made salt pork. Now how they made salt pork, I don’t know, but it was some deal where you would put a lot of salt with it and soak it, and that would preserve this meat. They did a lot of that. They used to can meat. My mother canned meat when we were younger; we didn’t have a refrigerator or anything, and then when we would butcher, they would can the meat, and put it in fruit jars and cook it for so long, and then you put it down the basement and it was good any time. And I don’t know if they did any of that, I don’t know if they had jars, or really how they survived. It’s really interesting when you think about how they would have survived.

DL: I wonder if they could have done any fishing on the winter, because certainly it froze over.

SS: I think they did. And in the winter time they used to cut a hole in the ice and then they would spear. You could spear carp. Now nobody wants to eat a carp or a sucker; we used to get bullheads, they were good, but nobody else would eat them now. But when I was younger, if you caught a fish, you brought it home and you had to eat it, so I’m sure that they did quite a bit of fishing too, through the summer months. Because I know like, this Schneider, the great-grandson told me that that’s what he was told, that every so often they had to go down and get fish, and they lived right next to the river. I think they liked to be close to the rivers because they needed water and fish. It seemed like a lot of them settled along the river in the early years.

DL: I wonder how they could have been talked into doing this. If I were the mother of two children and my only option was to live out of a hole next to a river for two years, I wouldn’t find that especially attractive. What kind of people were these? In your research did you learn anything about their personalities, or what was it that brought them here?

SS: I really don’t know. My Great-Grandpa John Joseph was a really outgoing person, and he helped the people that homesteaded to get the paperwork done and everything, and then he would take the papers to Tracy. When Leavenworth got going, he was on the Township Board. Then he bought a store. They must have really thought it was nice here, because why you would leave Wisconsin and come that far, not knowing where you’re going, with two kids, and have to travel that far. I don’t know if the women had to go, or if they were willing to go. But my great-grandma was a midwife. When they came to settle, there were only two other people that lived there, the Sherman’s and Webber’s. She got to be a midwife because there were no doctors around in the earlier years, so whenever anybody was going to have a baby, she was the one they would come for, and she would have to take her goose grease and all this along. I guess they kind of had in there, what all she would have to take along.

DL: Did these early relatives ever talk about encounters with the Dakota?

SS: No, they never talked about it. I think when they came, it was pretty well settled. Because, see, they moved them [the Dakota] out of the area. Some of them went west, out by the Dakotas, but in our area I think it was real safe when they come; I don’t think there were any problems.

DL: What year was that again, about?

SS: They come in 1865.

DL: Did they bring animals with them? Did they have oxen or horses?

SS: They had horses. They usually had a cow, and some of them even had a few chickens. I don’t know if you could bring chickens that far, but a cow most of them had, because then they would have milk for the kids. Most of them had a cow; she walked along, I guess. They had a rope on the cow and then as the team and the wagon went, she would follow along, and then they would stop and feed the horses; they would eat the grass and she would too, and that way they had milk all the time and butter.

I don’t know how you’d make butter with just one cow, because you gotta have cream for the butter-making. Unless it gets cold enough the cream don’t come to the top. See, if it gets cold the cream comes to the top and you can skim it off and then you can make butter. So I don’t know if they had butter, they probably just had milk.

DL: The animals would stay where?

SS: They had to make some kind of a shelter. Usually they would just get some logs and slant them against a tree and throw something against [the logs], and then they would have a place where they could get out of the snowstorms. Otherwise they were pretty much out in the open.

Oral History- Interview | Narrator Sylvan Schumacher Interviewer Deborah Locke made in New Ulm, MN | Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Citation: Minnesota Historical Society. U.S. - Dakota War of 1862. I was always interested in what a dugout was like April 22, 2024. http://www.usdakotawar.org/node/1119

Viewpoints: All viewpoints expressed on this website are those of the contributors, and are not representative of the Minnesota Historical Society.