Prairie Earth, Prairie Homes: A Field School

24-31 July 2011

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

HIST 430 Prairie Earth, Prairie Homes (3 hours regular undergraduate credit)

HIST 695 Field Experience - (3-6 hours regular graduate credit)

HIST/EDUC 600 Field School (4 hours professional development graduate credit)

Learning Vacations (non-credit) - contact Suzzanne Kelley

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

Field School Calendar

Course Requirements

HIST 430 Prairie Earth, Prairie Homes (3 hours regular undergraduate credit)

HIST 695 Field Experience - (3-6 hours regular graduate credit)

HIST/EDUC 600 Field School (4-6 hours professional development graduate credit)

Learning Vacations (non-credit) - contact Suzzanne Kelley

Financial Aid

All participants in the field school will receive partial defrayment of housing expenses from Preservation North Dakota. Details will be posted here.

The NDSU Center for Heritage Renewal 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.

Release Forms

NDSU Informed Consent

PND Hold Harmless

Property Owner Hold Harmless

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

Depending on the enrollment option chosen, students will engage in preparatory readings and study prior to the field experience, write curricular materials adapted from the content of the course, or pursue independent research projects springing from 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 (historian & editor, PhD candidate at NDSU, 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


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


PDF Poster for Field School

PDF Press Release for Field School

Tom Isern / NDSU History Department / Suzzanne Kelley