Sod Houses on Glass Plates

June 3, 2019 NEBRASKAland Magazine


The Chrisman sisters near Gosheen settlement on Lieban Creek, Custer County, 1886. Daughters of a local rancher, each of the sisters claimed her own homesteads, and took turns living with each other to fulfill the Homestead Act’s residency requirements. History Nebraska RG2068-1053

By History Nebraska

Solomon Butcher came to Nebraska in a covered wagon, but quickly found himself poorly suited to the hard life of a pioneer. He failed at homesteading, taught school, briefly attended medical school, served as a rural postmaster, and opened – and closed – the first photography studio in Custer County.

Sylvester Rawding house, north of Sargent, 1886. The famous “cow on the roof” photo is a bit of an illusion. Look close and you’ll see that the cow is on a hill behind the house. History Nebraska RG2068-1784

Desperate to avoid going back to farm work, Butcher had a bold idea. He would produce a photographic history of Custer County. Starting in 1886, he hitched up a wagon and began visiting homesteads with his photographic equipment, accepting meals and selling photos, and making images for his history book.

“Some called me a fool, others a crank,” he recalled, “but I was much too interested in my work to pay any attention to such people.”

The Shores family near Westerville, Custer County, 1887. Rachel and Jerry Shores (third and fourth from left) were among a number of former slaves who settled in Custer County. History Nebraska RG2068-1231

Butcher’s Pioneer History of Custer County, Nebraska (1901) gave him the only taste of financial success he ever knew. Later projects were less successful. But he continued making photographs, slowly building a collection of nearly 3,500 glass plate negatives, which he later sold to the Nebraska State Historical Society (today’s History Nebraska).

Butcher believed he was a failure when he died in 1927, but today his photos are recognized as a uniquely important record of settlement on the Great Plains. He captured a brief period after the area’s Native inhabitants were forced out and before the new settlers had fully established themselves. Together they are a time capsule of rapid change on the “sod house frontier.”

An exhibit featuring Solomon Butcher’s photography and associated artifacts will be at the Nebraska History Museum in Lincoln from June 15, 2019 to June 1, 2020.  ■

Learn more at

The Harvey Andrews family at the grave of their son Willie, near New Helena, Custer County, 1887.
History Nebraska RG2068-2360a

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