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Rammed earth houses [photographs] in Gardendale, Jefferson County, Alabama – stood the test of time

Rammed earth houses in Gardendale are still standing even though they were built nearly 80 years ago!


Rammed Earth house 1937 photographed by Arthur Rothstein

Rammed earth house. Gardendale Tract, Birmingham, Alabama 1937 Arthur Rothstein

In 1935, architect Thomas Hibben, designed the rammed earth houses as part of one of Roosevelt’s New Deal projects. Rammed earth houses is an ancient technique for building walls using natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime or gravel. Evidence of the early use of rammed earth has been seen in Neolithic archaeological sites of the Yangshao and Longshan cultures along the Yellow River in China, dating as far back as 5000 BCE.

1935 plans for Rammed Earth home in Gardendale by Thomas Hibben

plan of rammed earth house

In the 1800s, the building method became popular in the United States through the book Rural Economy by S. W. Johnson. The building method was used to construct the Borough House Plantation and the Church of the Holy Cross in South Carolina which are now US National Historic Landmarks.

There were also plans for two-story houses

plan4 of rammed earth house

In 1936, on a homestead near Gardendale, Alabama, the United States Department of Agriculture constructed an experimental community of rammed-earth buildings with architect Thomas Hibben.

It was rumored that the houses were built on the back of the community “so they wouldn’t be visible if they collapsed.”

Thomas Hibben took many photographs of the construction and his comments are included with the photographs below.

Digging dirt used in rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama photographed by Thomas Hibben

Digging dirt used in rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama Thomas Hibben

Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. A depth of eleven inches is adequate for footings in the Gulf and South Atlantic states. (Thomas Hibben photographer)Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. A depth of eleven inches is adequate for footings in the Gulf and South Atlantic states2

Tampers used in rammed earth construction. Gardendale Homesteads, Alabama.Tampers used in rammed earth construction. Gardendale Homesteads, Alabama

Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. The prepared earth is spread in the wall form in layers of three inches in depth. (Thomas Hibben)Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. The prepared earth is spread in the wall form in layers of three inches in depth

The forms are so designed that they may be removed and used again. (Thomas Hibben)Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. The forms are so designed that they may be removed and used again Thomas Hibben

Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. The workmen stand in the forms and knead the loose earth with tampers. (Thomas Hibben)Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. The workmen stand in the forms and knead the loose earth with tampers Thomas Hibben

Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, AlabamaRammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama3

Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. Forms sections should not be larger than can be handled by a crew of three or four men. (Thomas Hibben)Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. Forms sections should not be larger than can be handled by a crew of three or four men

Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama3

 Three-inch layers are tamped in the forms until it is filled. (Thomas Hibben)Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. Three-inch layers are tamped in the forms until it is filled

 Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. Under tamping the earth is compressed approximately fifty percent. (Thomas Hibben)

Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. Under tamping the earth is compressed approximately fifty percent

 After each three-inch layer has been tamped, another layer is spread in the form and work resumed. (Tom Hibben)Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. After each three-inch layer has been tamped, another layer is spread in the form and work resumed

Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. The bulkheads are firmly braced so as to maintain vertical alignmentRammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. The bulkheads are firmly braced so as to maintain vertical alignment

The bolts are removed and the holes plugged with mortar. (Thomas Hibben)
Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. The bolts are removed and the holes plugged with mortar

Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama 1937 Thomas Hibben2

Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama 1937 Thomas Hibben3

Detail of rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. The texture of wall after thirty days of weathering.Detail of rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. Texture of wall after thirty days of weathering

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Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. Concrete slate roofs may be used in place of wood deck. (Tom Hibben)Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama. Concrete slate roofs may be used in place of wood decks

Rammed earth construction near Birmingham, Alabama 1937 Thomas Hibben

Interior of house at Gardendale, AlabamaInterior of house at Gardendale, Alabama

Interior of rammed earth house at Gardendale, Alabama March 1937Interior of rammed earth house at Gardendale, Alabama March 1937

Even barns were constructed by rammed earth process, Gardendale, Alabama. photograph by Arthur RothsteinBarn constructed by rammed earth process. Gardendale, Alabama Rothstein

The houses were built inexpensively and were sold to the public along with sufficient land for a garden and small livestock plots. The project was a success and provided valuable homes to low-income families

Whitewashing rammed earth house near Birmingham, Alabama 1937 (Thomas Hibben)

Whitewashing rammed earth house near Birmingham, Alabama 1937 Thomas Hibben

Rammed earth houses nearing completion near Birmingham, Alabama

Rammed earth pump houseRammed earth pump house near Birmingham, Alabama Arthur Rothstein 1937

Rammed earth house at Gardendale, Alabama3 march 1937

rammed earth houses 1937 Arthur Rothstein

This link includes some pictures of the houses in 2010 on Rosemary Road in Mount Olive, Jefferson County, Alabama.

Vinegar of the Four Thieves was a recipe that was known for its antibacterial, antiviral, antiseptic and antifungal properties for years. It was even used to cure the Bubonic Plague. See Thomas Jefferson’s recipe in VINEGAR OF THE FOUR THIEVES: Recipes & curious tips from the past

VINEGAR OF THE FOUR THIEVES: Recipes & curious tips from the past (Kindle Edition)


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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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33 comments

  1. John Paul Myrick

    I grew up near there, and have known about these houses for over 25 years but never saw one. Please show us some photos of the homes today.

  2. Barbara Morgan

    Very interesting!!! I’ve never heard of this before!

  3. Teresa Belrose Watson

    We were just down that road this week. Some are in better shape than traditional homes of the same era.

  4. Diane Lestage-Davis

    My husband has been talking about this building method for years, and wants build our studio of rammed earth. I admit to being skeptical, but this has opened my eyes!

  5. Horace McLean Holderfield

    I have been interested in this type of construction and sought articles over 30 years. Wonderful to see this. Would love to build but too old now to do the work . Much construction in Australia. Many, many benefits are derived from this type of residential construction.

  6. Keith Pate

    where in gardendale?

    1. Alabama Pioneers

      Many are in Mount Olive, Alabama.

  7. Linda Webb Cleveland

    I’ll bet ther energy efficient too.

  8. My grandparents (Bill and Rachel Shaw) bought the very first one on Rosemary Rd Mount Olive, Al It has weathered the test of time and still looks good today.

  9. I grew up visiting an elderly lady who was, at the time, the last remaining original owner on Rosemary. I was always fascinated by the house. Thanks for this article. Now I’d love to hear about the houses on Sutherland Road, just a couple of streets East of Rosemary, and the adjoining community center which were part of the New Deal projects as well.

  10. Mary Fuller Huddleston

    These are just down the street from where I lived as a kid.

  11. Katrina May

    I don’t know where they are but would love to see them. My Granny’s old house used to be where the exit from 65 North onto Mnt.okive road is.

    1. Yes we are the second owners of one that was owned by MRS.Flood who taught school st the Mt Olive and Sutherland Rd School and have the original survey map. It is a 2 bedroom 1bath with fireplace and original hardwood floors,with a small 2 room bldg in back that has a well in one side and the other side was for coal. We have tried to keep it original as all the windows have the weights that help the windows up when raised.All the homestead houses on Sutherland had Barnes in back and some have been turned into apts and garages but Mrs Flood let someone tear hers down.

  12. Mary Fuller Huddleston

    On the far end of Rosemary Road, which is off Mt. Olive Road.

  13. Craig Thompson

    Mount Olive Rosemary rd

  14. RoyandPam Henderson

    great idea, happy to see they are still around

  15. Sandra Veal DiFulio

    oh wow if you are unfamiliar with the area it might be hard to tell which houses are as my Mom and Dad called them Earth Houses and they are quiet beautiful many have been remodeled.

    1. Do you know the address for this homestead?

  16. Rammed earth houses is an ancient technique for building walls using natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime or gravel. People still build such houses.Great article on rammed houses.

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