A dugout is a rude shelter dug into the ground and roofed with sod or occasionally some other material. It was a most common shelter on the Texas plains and prairies, where timber for building was scarce. Dugouts were temporary and served as dwellings only until more sophisticated buildings could be erected. After houses were built, dugouts commonly became cellars or storage bins.
Like most primitive shelters, dugouts are difficult to document, but certainly they have been in use around the world for centuries. Evidently they were most common in regions with severe winters, where insulation against the bitter cold was essential to survival and where timber for building log cabins or picket-walled jacals was scarce. In addition to providing shelter with few manufactured materials, the dugout was made tolerably comfortable in both summer and winter by the temperature of the ground.
Dugouts belong to no particular historical period but rather to a phase of frontier development. On the Texas plains and prairies they were basic forms of shelter during early settlement and were particularly prominent on ranches and farms. Until a dugout could be completed, however, frequently families lived in wagons or tents, the latter of which were sometimes swept away by the winds.
On the plains, the dugout consisted of a rectangular pit, five to seven feet deep, eight or ten feet wide, and of variable length. If wood was available, short extensions of the walls above ground, about two feet high, were built around the pit, allowing the introduction of windows for light and ventilation; these were closed with either shutters or sashes. The roof was often fashioned from log beams that supported saplings or tree branches placed side by side and covered with grass, weeds, or tow sacks, all finally covered with dirt. In some instances the roofs were framed with sawed lumber, which was expensive to transport, and covered with shingles. Access to the dugout was down a stair dug into the ground. Dugouts were occasionally flooded.
Partial or half dugouts were favored in areas of broken terrain. A rectangular excavation was made into the side of a hill. This style provided improved drainage. Walls with doors and windows were placed at the open end of the pit and along the sides with the use of sod, stone, or logs. Openings also were sometimes made in the sides. Occasionally stone was used to line the sides of the excavation.
Regardless of the type of dugout, floors generally were tamped earth, although in some instances wooden flooring eventually was installed. Often rugs were placed over the earth floors. Walls were sometimes whitewashed or covered with domestics, and ceilings might be lined with canvas. Commonly, iron stoves were used in full dugouts, and occasionally fireplaces were built at the ends of partial dugouts, with flues dug through the earth.
Although dugouts provided vital shelter, they were not pleasant places of abode. Residents described problems with snakes, spiders, salamanders, and other pests, which infested the roofs. Evidently, on occasion an unwary cow stepped through the roof. Dirt constantly fell from the walls and roof onto dining tables and other furniture.
Examples of both types of dugouts are preserved at the Ranching Heritage Center on the Campus of Texas Tech University. Representative of the partial dugout is the building known as the Matador Half Dugout, a shelter with an excavation into the side of a hill lined with sandstone slabs, upper walls of cottonwood logs, and a framed roof covered with shingles; it originally was located south of Matador. The Two Story Dugout, originally located west of Levelland, represents the full dugout, although a wooden-framed second story eventually was added to it.