Wood, Permanence, and Dwelling in North Dakota

Kostis Kourelis sent along a copy of J.B. Jackson’s “The Movable Dwelling” this week. Kostis joined us earlier this summer in the North Dakota Man Camp Project and brought a cross-cultural understanding of vernacular architecture as well as his skilled eye for architectural illustration. This short essay has helped me solidify one of the arguments that I have been trying to make in our study of man camps in the Bakken Oil Patch. Man camps are the new small towns of the Dakota prairies.  

In this thought provoking essay, Jackson (the father of American landscape studies) links the use of wood with impermanence in housing. He noted that the wood houses – in contrast to their stone of brick counterparts – required only modest expertise for construction, could easily be stripped to the ground and the valuable lumber reused elsewhere, and prior to the 20th century, were largely regarded as disposable dwellings. The limited investment in materials and labor involved in wooden houses their owner’s to abandon them quickly when economic conditions changed for the better or for worse. A drive across the Northern Plains quickly confirms the ubiquity of modest wooden houses on the prairie. (And the very impermanence of their predecessors – sod houses – have with few exceptions has ensured that they leave almost no trace at all in the landscape.) 

Today, of course, we have come to sentimentalize these houses which stand as lonely reminders of prairie dreams or huddled together in modest communities which attempt to resist the ravages of abandonment, wind, and weather. Jackson reminds us, however, that our willingness to sentimentalize these houses comes from efforts to individualize these dwellings and their romantic stance in the landscape that evokes a lost way of life. (It is interesting that stone buildings and ruins played a key role in the archaeological and architectural imagination of European Romanticism, whereas North Dakota Prairie Romantic look to the ruins of the wooden house as the symbol of a lost, magical past.)  

Jackson links the practice of building wooden houses directly to the utilitarian architecture common to housing practices at mining and lumber camps across the U.S. and ultimately in to house workers in company towns and in the highly mobile agricultural labor force of the first half of the 20th century. Mobile units in man camps combine wood – the low cost material of the 19th century and earlier – with the low-cost material of the 21st century – fiberglass and aluminum to create landscapes of low-investment housing for the opportunistic communities that both provide labor for the economy while at the same time dancing along its unstable margins.   

In this short essay, then, Jackson links the hastily constructed (and hastily abandoned) wooden towns of the prairie with the architectural tradition of man camps. So, what began as an impressionistic statement designed to entice the press to seeing man camps less as intrusions in the landscape and more as part of a tradition of dwelling in the Northern Plains has become (in the hands of a much brighter scholar than I) the starting point of a historical argument. 

One Comment

  1. I am not sure I agree that wooden dwellings on the prairie were seen as temporary or impermanent. With so little wood here, building materials had to be imported, typically by train and were not cheap.

    If one were talking about the tarpaper shacks, I would agree with the comparison a little more readily.

    E.O. Gunnerud, who built our home, started his life in Brinsmade, ND, in a tarpaper shack in 1911. After he had saved enough money through his growing hardware store business, he built the house we live in 1914 or 1915. This was something more permanent and was likely a kit house brought in on the train.

    Our house was moved in the 1960s from Brinsmade to Rugby. This suggests a lack of permanent attachment to location but not necessarily to wooden buildings. Extant wooden structures were valuable enough in a place with so few trees that moving a house was sometimes more cost effective than building a new house.

    There are countless examples of this. My husband’s great-grandmother and great-grandfather combined their two small houses into one home when they married. Mobility suggests impermanence, but the value attached to the structures that people moved from location to location suggests an attachment to wood frame homes that people did not have to sod or tarpaper dwellings.

    Perhaps I misread the above, but it seems to me that tarpaper shacks and sod houses are more akin to man camps than are wood frame houses that required considerable saving to buy.

    Point of reference – Gunnerud’s house today after one move and at least two additions:


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