Prairie Earth, Prairie Homes: A Field School

13-20 July 2014

Prairie Earth, Prairie Homes is a field school that celebrates, investigates, and encourages the preservation of buildings built of earth on the northern plains. Too often considered a temporary expedient of pioneer times, earth buildings are, we argue, an environmental response and a cultural signature of the people of the plains, fixtures in the prairie way of life. As we come to understand them, we are better able to preserve the buildings themselves and the lifeways that invest them. Restoring and preserving earth buildings in a region of continental climate offers challenges both technical and logistical, but those challenges can be met. In this field school, offered by North Dakota State University, we learn how.

Instructor Essay

Enrollment Options - NDSU Campus Connection

HIST 430: Prairie Earth, Prairie Homes: A Field School (3 hours regular undergraduate credit)

HIST 630: Prairie Earth, Prairie Homes: A Field School (3 hours regular graduate credit)

Preliminary and follow-up discussions will take place via the Facebook group established for the field school, Prairie Earth.

Course Requirements

HIST 430 (Undergraduate)

HIST 630 (Graduate)

Financial Aid

All participants in the field school will receive partial defrayment of housing expenses from the NDSU Center for Heritage Renewal. Details will be posted on the Facebook page. The Center for Heritage Renewal also will provide free lunches to participants while working at the Hutmacher site.

Local historical society staff from North Dakota may be eligible for assistance from the Heritage Training Scholarship Program of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Apply to the SHSND; funding (pending legislative appropriation) may be limited.


Center for Heritage Renewal - NDSU's research center for historic preservation and heritage tourism

Germans from Russia Heritage Collection - the world's resource center on the Germans from Russia on the northern plains

Preservation North Dakota - statewide association for historic preservation

Experiential learning is at the heart of Prairie Earth, Prairie Homes. Participants in the field school take part in the restoration of an amazing and significant historic property - the Hutmacher Farmstead, in Dunn County, North Dakota. The Hutmacher house and outbuilding walls are constructed of sandstone mortared with clay, both quarried on the farm. The roof uses ridgepoles and rafters locally cut and covered with successive layers of brush (chokecherry, plum), flax straw, clay, and aggregate. The house was built by the children of German-Russian immigrants and was occupied into the 1970s.

In order to broaden the learning experience, participants also will tour and study examples of the earth building traditions of the various cultures to occupy the West River country of the northern plains:

  • Mandan & Hidatsa earth lodges
  • Sod houses of Anglo-Americans
  • Earth houses of the Germans from Russia >li>Ukrainian post-and-fill houses
  • Moderne rammed-earth construction

Depending on the enrollment option chosen, students will engage in preparatory study and online discussion prior to the field experience and write reflective assessments following it.

Tom Isern
Suzzanne Kelley

Instructors of the field school are Tom Isern (Professor of History & University Distinguished Professor at NDSU, founding director of the Center for Heritage Renewal) and Suzzanne Kelley (Managing Editor of New Rivers Press, Minnesota State University-Moorhead, and former president of Preservation North Dakota). Tom is instructor of record for regular undergraduate or graduate credit; Suzzanne (an experienced public-school teacher) is instructor of record for the teacher workshops and coordinator of learning vacation experiences; and they share overall responsibility for organization and management of the field school.

Who will benefit from the field school?

  • Degree-seeking undergraduate and graduate students seeking a rich, hands-on learning experience
  • Historic preservation professionals desiring professional development in earth building restoration and interpretation
  • Teachers loking for an active option in continuing education with direct curricular applicability
  • Vacationers looking for a learning experience at compelling sites in an unforgettable landscape
Course Bibliography

Online Resources

Knife River Indian Villages

Dunn County Historical Society & Museum

American Memory Project, Library of Congress:

Historic Architectural Survey of Bowman County: Hutmacher Farmstead: Germans from Russia Heritage Collection: The Russian Mennonite Clay Brick House and House-barn Tradition

Scoria Lily Ranch:

New Zealand: Current & technical:
Study Guides

Talking to Houses - Questions to Ask When Encountering Vernacular Architecture

Children of the Steppe, Children of the Prairie - guide to the DVD

Field School Journals - A Guide for Writers

Tom Isern / NDSU History Department / Suzzanne Kelley