The Walter and Anna Zion Homestead is the only known surviving farm complex in eastern Colorado with original sod buildings. Located midway between Idalia and Vernon in Yuma County, the homestead was settled by the Zions in 1909, and the sod buildings were constructed in the 1910s. Zion family members lived at the homestead until 1975, and today the property is owned and maintained by the nonprofit Idalia Vision Foundation.
Early Homesteads in Yuma County
In the early 1870s agricultural activity started in what is now Yuma County in northeastern Colorado. Owners driving herds north from Texas began establishing ranches in the area when they noticed that the native grasses in eastern Colorado were ideal for cattle because they were resistant to drought and trampling. By the early 1880s nearly 500,000 cattle roamed the eastern plains. Huge cattle ranches declined sharply in the mid- and late 1880s, however, after an 1885 federal law prevented the fencing off of public lands and a string of harsh winters killed enormous numbers of cattle throughout the region.
As large cattle ranches scaled back their operations, immigrants from the East and the Midwest rushed to homestead in eastern Colorado, spurred by railroad marketing schemes and the dream that rain would follow the plow. It did not hurt that the late 1880s saw the introduction of new plow technology as well as several unusually wet years on the plains. The height of settlement in what became Yuma County was 1886, when ninety homesteads were filed. That year, William Harvey Zion moved from eastern Nebraska to a plot of land southwest of Vernon, where he grew grains and raised cattle. By 1893 William Zion convinced his brother, Joseph, to join him in Colorado. Joseph Zion homesteaded about seven miles southwest of Vernon, not far from William, and built a sod house for his wife, Anna, and their seven children.
Joseph Zion picked a bad time to move to Yuma County. The Panic of 1893 and a four-year drought in the middle of the 1890s drove more than 30 percent of the county’s settlers away. Eastern Colorado was littered with ghost towns and abandoned buildings. The Zions managed to survive, with Joseph working odd jobs and traveling to Denver with his oldest son, Walter, to earn money. During these trips to Denver, Walter met a widow named Anna Burk and married her in 1903.
Walter and Anna Zion Homestead
For the first few years of their marriage, Walter and Anna Zion lived in Denver with the two children Anna had from her previous marriage. In 1909 they moved to Yuma County, near Walter’s family. By that time eastern Colorado was recovering from the 1890s drought, and settlers were moving into the area again, fortified by a new faith that scientific methods could help them be successful farmers on dry land. Migration was spurred in part by the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, which allowed homesteaders to claim up to 320 acres (twice the previous limit) in places that could not be irrigated. Walter took advantage of the act and homesteaded 320 acres on a rise north of the Arikaree River between Vernon and Idalia.
Walter quickly worked to improve his land. In 1910 he completed a three-room sod house, which he built by cutting sod strips that were three feet long, one foot wide, and four inches thick. He stacked the strips side by side to make walls that were two feet thick. The roots of the grasses grew together to hold the strips in place, and Walter used a spade to smooth the interior and exterior walls. The interior walls were covered with plaster and whitewashed. The floor was initially bare earth, but within a few years it was covered with concrete and wooden planks, and finally with linoleum. The roof of the house consisted of wooden planks, tarpaper, and a layer of sod, which was covered with tin around 1915 to prevent leaks.
Similar sod houses were common throughout the treeless high plains between the 1870s and the 1920s because they were cheap to build, used easily accessible materials, and maintained a comfortable interior temperature. The main disadvantage of sod houses—and the reason relatively few survive today—was that they generally started to deteriorate after twenty or thirty years, when they had to be either replaced or covered with a protective coating.
By 1913 the Zion family had grown to have six children, so within a few years Walter built a one-room sod bunkhouse nearby as sleeping quarters for the older children. In 1915 he gained title to the land, and in 1920 he added another forty acres to his property. He used the land to raise cattle and chickens and grow wheat, corn, and cane. The family also planted conifers and fruit trees. As the operation grew, Walter added a sod milk house and a root cellar in the 1910s and a cow barn and brooder house in the late 1920s.
In 1944, Walter and Anna Zion retired. They passed their property to their oldest son, Joseph A. Zion, who updated the house by adding a phone line in 1945 and electricity in 1952. The house never had indoor plumbing. In 1948 he also covered the sod exterior of the buildings with a coating of concrete mixed with limestone to keep the walls from deteriorating. Joseph Zion lived at the homestead and farmed the land until 1975, when he sold the property to neighbors Clayton and Billie Neil Penisch. Various Zion family descendants continue to farm and ranch other land in Yuma County.
For about twenty-five years, the Penisch family used the Zion property as an extension of their own farm and ranch. In 2001 they donated the land containing the Zion Homestead buildings to the Idalia Vision Foundation, a nonprofit established in 1992 to promote historic preservation and community welfare projects in the area. In 2005 the Zion Homestead was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Idalia Vision maintains and preserves the homestead, and in 2011 the organization repaired the roofs of the sod buildings with the help of two State Historical Fund grants.