During the early years of settlement, from the Provinces of Canada to the Edwards Plateau in Texas, the lack of timber forced settlers to construct their buildings and fences from other local materials. Though sod houses and dugouts served in some places, stone, when available, was the material of choice.
In central Kansas a Cretaceous limestone (Fencepost limestone) lies near the surface on the divides and is exposed in stream valleys. It forms a layer of uniform thickness of about nine inches and, when freshly quarried, is soft enough to be sawed, carved, notched, drilled, or otherwise worked with simple hand tools. The stone's standard thickness and coloration and its almost universal use impart to the entire region an element of uniformity and a unique folk character that have survived to the present. Many houses and barns, churches and stores, outbuildings and bridges, fences and curbstones display the same characteristics of color, texture, and dimension.
Quarrying required nothing beyond simple hand tools and strong backs. First the overburden was removed and the level face of the stratum exposed. The drilling buck, a homemade rig with sawhorse legs at one end and a hand-pedaled drill at the other, was used to bore holes into the stratum. Next, wedges, called plugs, were driven into the drill holes to cleave the rock from its stratum. Once cloven, the stone blocks were finished with dressing hammers and frequently textured with a variety of chisels into a number of simple designs. Smooth-textured finishes were ordinarily applied to stones to be used in chimneys, window and door lintels, and building corners. Often the stone for these applications was simply scraped smooth and offered an interesting contrast to the rough-hewn quality of the natural face used for the remainder of the building. Occasionally, the face was pitted with a punch, imparting a primitive decorative feature. Stones were laid one tier upon another mortar; powdered shale was used for chinking the joints.
The stone houses of central Kansas fall into several basic design classes. These include the simple cabin, the two-story L or T plan, and the one- or two-story square design with either mansard or pyramidal roof. Many variations appear within these generalized classes, but character, individuality, and ethnic affinity were achieved by the treatment of the appurtenances rather than by any overt distinction of the basic design. Stone houses were common to most ethnic groups.
With the completion of local rail service lines, lumber became competitive with stone, and in the late 1920s the use of stone was generally discontinued. When it was replaced, the old stone house was often left standing to be put to a variety of uses. It was, after all, nearly as difficult to remove as it had been to build.
L. Carl Brandhorst Western Oregon State College
Brandhorst, L. Carl. "Settlement and Landscape Change on a Subhumid Grassland: Lincoln County, Kansas." Ph.D. diss., University of Nebraska, 1974.
Muilenburg, Grace, and Ada Swinford. Land of the Postrock. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1975.