Volume VI, No. 4, Summer 1979
CLARA ALEXANDER'S HOUSE OF MUD
Story by Mary Day
Photography by Mary Schmalstig
Would you like to live in a house made of mud? Not adobe mud bricks as used in the Southwest or the sod houses of the early settlers on the prairies. but a modern spacious ranch style home made of solid mud walls--a home with two bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen and a large two car garage.
This house may look and sound like any normal white house trimmed with red brick except for three things which make this home unusual. Every wall inside and out is made of mud, and all walls but one inside wall are eighteen inches thick. Also, the builder is a woman. This is the home of Clara Alexander in Salem.
She said she is the third woman in the United States to have built a home using this old method of using packed or rammed earth for building material, though other dwellings such as this had been built in various places in the country. Huguenot settlers in North and South Carolina used this technique, and it is believed that some of the outbuildings at Monticello, Jefferson's home in Virginia, were made of rammed earth. There's also a mud house in Washington, D. C., which was built over a hundred years ago. At one time there was an attempt made to tear it down, but the walls were so strong the attempt failed, and the house was remodeled and given a new finish.
The general term for this type of building is pise de terre, a French term meaning pounded earth. In this kind of construction, the earth mixture is poured in forms and pounded tight. A modern revival of this method of building began in England shortly after World War I by builders searching for a cheaper building material. Mrs. Alexander estimated that the total cost of her house built in 1946 when labor was cheap was no more than $9,000.00. Today, her neighbor estimated she could probably receive $70,000.00 for it.
"I got the idea from the Coronet magazine back in '37," Clara Alexander said, "and come to find out it was an old, old way of building houses. They have them over in France that are over 900 years old and still in use, so I decided to investigate." She ordered plans from California and with some additional information from Washington, D. C. and various other sources began experimenting.
She used the clay that was dug out from the basement area and piled in the yard. She knew that she couldn't use any top soil because it would cause the walls to crumble, but to get the right consistency, she sent samples of the clay to a laboratory at the state college in Brookings, South Dakota, where it was found to be in need of sand and gravel, for the clay alone was too heavy. The recommendation was to add one third each of sand and gravel to the heavy clay, with a small amount of water to produce a wad when squeezed in the hand. She then mixed it together. She made many test samples of the mixture in boxes and kegs to be sure it would hold together when dry and the forms removed. "I just got so enthused with it," she said. "I was operating a photo studio upstairs over a restaurant. I took some samples up there and was tamping away when the telephone rang and the manager said I was causing dirt and dust to fall from the ceiling. So I took the sample to a sturdier place to finish it and soon began making larger samples."
With the samples working so well, in 1943 she began hiring workers. "I didn't have any trouble finding people to work, not then. You can't find anybody to work now, but back then I don't know how many men we had working for us. Of course, wages weren't anything like they are now. We paid them fifty cents an hour. Then after the boys came back from the war, they wanted seventy-five cents an hour. I thought that was just terrible!"
The overseer of the construction was Guy Eveland, a concrete and masonary expert. He had learned of the feasibility of this type of structure when he observed several of these houses while in France during World War I.
The house, though the basement was poured as any house, began with the concrete foundation which had a twenty-four inch footing. As soon as the foundation walls were poured and dried, the brick corners were laid. Then the forms which were similar to those used for concrete were fastened on between the brick corners. The forms had to be two inch planks for one inch didn't hold up. They ranged from eight to ten feet long and were thirty inches high. Two boards were placed parallel, eighteen inches apart, and then bolted together to give enough strength to withstand the pressure of tamping the clay. The clay mixture was poured in using wheelbarrows as in concrete construction and was tamped down by hand with different shaped tampers somewhat resembling a post mall. They were made of heavy iron with iron pipe handles. The clay was poured and tamped four inches at a time until the form was full. Then the form was unfastened, lifted up and re-fastened to the wall. The earth was tamped in the same manner until the walls were the height needed. The mixture did not need to dry before removing the forms. The earth walls were recessed for the brick trim around the base.
Before commencing the main part of the house Mrs. Alexander first poured the double garage walls to test the construction. After the garage walls were up and the roof was placed, it rained. Mrs. Alexander became concerned with the wall's resistance to water when after close observation, she saw that one wall was getting a little soft. She then called Mr. Eveland. By lantern light they discovered that water was dripping on a board and splashing back onto the wall. They removed the board before there was any harm done to the wall. The family lived in the garage until they started on the house, placing screen doors over the garage door openings.
Since the garage had held up so well, they began construction on the rest of the house on the fifth day of July in 1946. Even though the walls were made of mud, they needed lumber for floors, sills, frames, roof and other details. "What lumber we had in the house we bought at an auction of an old mill camp. For $182.00 we bought four camp houses and the mill shed which was covered with the galvanized roofing that we used to cover the tops of the walls as they were going up in case of rain. We bought five houses at another location sight unseen for $62.50. They all had pressed pine flooring in them and that's what we used all over the house.
"After buying all this we had to get the buildings dismantled and hauled here. It rained and rained. The waters got up and the haulers had a time crossing the stream. A lot of my lumber slid off the truck and floated down river. Then after the lumber was hauled in, we had workmen to pull out all the nails. We had two tubs of nails. When we got through with the house, we had great stacks of wood left over and I just gave that away.
"When we started building these walls, it rained and rained and I thought we'd lost every wall in the house. We used those galvanized tins that we got from all the mill sheds to cover up the top, but the tins had nail holes in them. In spite of that we lost only one little wall in the bathroom that was just nine inches thick."
The house was topped with an unanchored roof, held in place by its own weight. The roof overhang is greater than most buildings extending to four feet from the ground on the wings. The outside walls were covered with chicken wire and stuccoed and painted. The inside walls were plastered right over the dried mud walls."We did make one mistake, though. We put insulation overhead, of course, but we should have put up some studding in the walls to have a dead air space. As it is the walls are cool on the inside. I didn't know anything about building a house. Oh well, the walls aren't too bad."
As would be expected when building something unusual in a small town, there came by many who were skeptical about this kind of house, as well as those who were fascinated. "When we were building the house and after we got it built, the people would drive by so slow looking up here especially when we had the eighteen inch thick walls up. The people who drove by came up here and thought that was just awful to have eighteen inch walls. I just finally told them that that was the kind of house we were going to build. Of course, they was like everybody else and had never heard of it. But one woman stopped in, took pictures and borrowed all my books and instructions on building. I told her she could just keep them 'cause I wasn't going to build another one.
"Most people couldn't understand why I was building this type of house. I just wanted to see if it could be done. Some people thought I had lost my marbles, you know. My husband made fun of it, saying that he wasn't going to live in any mud house, but I noticed when I got it built that he was pretty glad to get over here. My son only got to see the foundation because he was lost in action in the South Pacific during World War II. When I told him he said, 'Oh, Mother, someday you'll just wake up in a pile of mud!'"
By now people have stopped laughing at it because of the thirty-two years that the house has survived. Not only has it gone through many years of wear and tear, but has done so without having even one small crack throughout the entire house--except the concrete floor in the garage. The floor, as concrete is known to do, is cracked from one end to the other. "There's one lady here who keeps telling me that I've got the prettiest house in town. You've got to take everything with a grain of salt, though. If this house hadn't worked, I probably would have left town!"
Mrs. Alexander's modesty, however, did not prevent her from pointing out the many advantages of this type of construction. It doesn't crack, it is fireproof, watertight, virtually soundproof, does not permit access to rodents and is immune to fungus, wood borers and termites. It also insulates against summer heat and winter cold. However, even with all these advantages there are few rammed earth houses in Missouri.
Building her house is not the only amazing project that Clara Alexander has undertaken just to see if she could do it. Her life seems to be full of challenges she made up her mind to do. Born in December 1891, she has lived in the Ozarks all her life. Even though she stopped school in the seventh grade, she has never stopped learning and values an education. "If I was young again I would want to get a good education because that's what counts. I think everyone should get a good education. I suppose if I had gone on I probably would have been a school teacher, which would have been all right, but teachers back when I was in school didn't get paid hardly anything."
Her youth was similar to that of most girls in the early 1900's. "We used to have choir practice when I was young and I'd play the bass violin. We had saxaphones, violins and about anything else you could think of. It was the most beautiful sound you ever heard."
She also has been a hard working woman and had the good fortune to work at different occupations. Her first job was a telephone operator on the country switchboard working from six o'clock in the morning to six o'clock in the evening for twenty-five or thirty dollars a month. "That was the way people used to work." Her next job was taking orders door to door for silverware, and then she sold hosiery. "I've been into first one thing and then another. I was always doing something and I guess I was a convincing salesman. I never got rich at it though!
"When I was younger I used to make lots of hats. They had what you call 'buckling frames.' I don't know if I could go through that again or not! I've also been sewing since I was knee-high to a duck. I made all my clothes and all my sister's clothes. I used to sew for people to make a little extra money. I didn't sew for just anybody. I sewed for the big bugs. I didn't use patterns either. Some people wouldn't even have a dress made from a pattern."
In 1915 she married Bruce Alexander at a private family wedding with the usual shivaree that accompanied a marriage. "A bunch of boys got together and put the buggy up on the shed and I guess there was shooting, too. I can't remember what all else they did."
She was twenty-three when she was married. "Some girls got married when they were real young and others waited until they got older. I really and truly think a person is better off when they marry young. They more or less grow up together, and if the old folks would just stay out of their business, they'd be all right. I think the best method is to let them work their problems out on their own."
When the Alexanders were first married, they moved to a farm outside of town and lived there for six years. When their son Don was four years old, Mr. Alexander got a job carrying mail, so they moved to town.
In 1929 they moved to the Studio Building, which was located over a restaurant on Main Street. In spite of the name there was no photography studio there, but so many people kept going up there in search for a studio, that Mrs. Alexander saw this as a challenge to start one. Though she had no previous experience in photography except when she was younger she developed some of her own film, she decided to get a camera and make people think she knew what she was doing. When she got the camera, though, she didn't even know how to open the shutter. "I was just like a kid with a toy when it came," she said. It was a big studio camera with the stand, an eight by ten inch size.
"I didn't know anything about taking pictures when I first started. I just made people think I knew what I was doing. I got some good pictures, too." She still has a five by seven inch camera that uses a plate instead of film. "I believe i gave a hundred and forty-nine dollars for my new camera, but my first camera was, I think, twenty-five dollars."
There seemed to be no limit to the type of pictures she took. She photographed families and children in the studio and went out on commercial jobs. "I took a picture one time of a man killed down here. The doctors had a field day that day and sawed off the top of his head. I had to photograph that. I've taken pictures of just about everything. One time I had to crawl under a house to photograph the wiring because I was the only photographer in town."
The size of her photographs varied, also. "I used to make little pictures that were two and one-fourth by one and one-fourth inches. I sold six of them for a quarter. Then I made a billfold size that was six for fifty cents. But before I quit, I put the little ones up to fifty cents and the billfold size up to a dollar. I used to make postcard size which were two dollars for a dozen. Back then everything was sold by the dozen or half-dozen. Then others were the five by seven inch and the eight by ten inch. The five by seven were eight dollars a dozen. Nowdays you can't hardly buy one for eight dollars."
But even following his death in 1961, she continued to accept challenges. Though she knew nothing about painting, she began painting as a hobby. This is just another example of her determination to do what she decides to do.
Even with all of her jobs and accomplishments, and being the first woman in the Chamber of Commerce she never considered herself a career woman. She laughed and said, "I was just a woman trying to make a living. When you get started in something, you've got to keep working at it or you're not going to get anywhere. I just kept plugging along."
Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.