What Is A Dogtrot House?

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Have you ever heard of a dogtrot home? Sometimes also called a dog run or a possum trot house, this style was common in the South from the late 1700s through the 1800s. And while there is some debate about whether the design originated in the Appalachian Mountains or the coastal low country of the Carolinas, given the adaptable design, it’s possible that both could be true. These homes were approachable to build, even if you were in an isolated rural area, and could grow with your family over time. The design was also an ingenious way to adapt to extreme conditions in the days before the modern conveniences of electricity and air conditioning.

The Ed Bagget dogtrot house in Laurel, MS- photographed with his daughter in the breezeway.

Early Homesteads

As settlers established new farms on land they acquired, they needed to clear the land to plant crops and to build a quick shelter to stay in. Materials all had to be made on-site, so from the trees that they cleared, they would use hand tools to fashion them into logs that would interlock (like lincoln logs). Logs would be laid horizontally on top of one another and fitted at the corners with notched joints. The weight of the log above held each log in place and gravity secured the joints. The gaps in between the logs were filled with a paste, made from clay, water, and fibers like animal fur, that would be used as ‘chinking’ to help insulate the cabin. 

The Ed Bagget dogtrot house in Laurel, MS- photographed c. 1934. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

An Adaptable Design

These structures needed to be erected quickly, and typically, this first shelter would start as a small single-pen cabin that was just enough space for a few people to sleep. While researching the construction of these early homes, I came across an account from an early settler in Mississippi who built a single pen log cabin for his family in just 5 days with the help of his brothers and one neighbor.  

Butler, Mississippi Dogtrot House. HABS photo c. 1934.

But over time as the family grew, more living space was needed and so they would build a second cabin. A few styles developed from here; In some instances, the second cabin would be attached with the chimney in the center, creating a saddlebag-style house. But in the dogtrot style, the two cabins were joined by a common roof with an intentionally wide hallway that was created between the two cabins.

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The enclosed breezeway or ‘dogtrot’ in a Texas farmhouse. This area was where the family and visitors would spend most of their free time.

This provided the family with a shaded space to spend time out of the sun in the days before air conditioning. This would often be the spot where the family’s dog would lay, hence the name, dog trot. The large breezeway, exterior windows, and elevation off the ground (usually stacked on stones) would allow for air to circulate throughout and underneath the home, creating a natural cooling system.

An example of a two-story dogtrot Log cabin in Blevins, Arkansas (Hempstead County) that reportedly served as a tavern as well as a home. HABS photo c. 1934.

These homes were typically only one-story, although there are a handful of remaining examples that are 1.5 stories with a lofted space upstairs, and even fewer that have a full second story. In most cases, an exterior kitchen wing or cabin would be built to the rear of the house to prevent fires from spreading throughout the entire home. 

The Looney Dogtrot in St. Clair County, Alabama is a two-story log dogtrot house with half-dovetail corners. The structure was built in the Beaver Creek Valley, ca. 1820 by the Looney family from Tennessee. It formerly was covered with siding which put it in the highest social and architectural category and it has unusual Flemish-bond brick chimneys, in which brick sides and ends alternate to form an interesting pattern. Photo courtesy of Eugene M. Wilson.

Expanded Functionality For A Growing Family and Visitors

This new floorplan allowed for space for mixed tasks and socializing in warm climates. Once the family had two separate cabins, one room would be used for sleeping, and one would be used for eating, cleaning, and household chores. In the central hallway, the shaded space provided the family with a cool place to take a break from farmwork and a place to entertain visitors.

The porch of the Vogtner dogtrot farmhouse in Dawson, Alabama (DeKalb County). HABS photo c. 1934.

To maximize the outdoor space, they might also add long, covered porches that would typically stretch down the side and across the front of the home as well.  The size of these rooms would depend on the size of the timber available but could be up to 20 feet wide.

The two-story dogtrot house built by John Looney in St. Clair County, Alabama.

Most dogtrots would have 2 exterior chimneys on opposite ends of the structure and the initial chimney would’ve been constructed of sticks, stones, and a clay mixture, with a hearth made of smooth rocks. Over time, the chimneys might’ve been upgraded to brick and the wooden shingle roof was replaced by tin. There was little glass on the frontier in the early days so windows would’ve been covered and opened by wooden shutters that hung on rawhide or wooden hinges. In some cases, glass windows would be added as an upgrade later on if the family was able to afford it.

Photo of a window at the Pope Family Dogtrot house in Bullock County, Alabama.

Over time, as modern conveniences like electricity and indoor plumbing became available, the dog trot style home fell out of fashion, but in many cases, owners would enclose the central breezeway, creating a wide interior hallway and more enclosed square footage. So, if you know what to look for, you might be able to spot one that was modified by enclosure over time.

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Dogtrot on a former slave plantation in Alabama.

Dog Trots On Enslaved Plantations

Many examples of dogtrot-style homes can be found in historic images taken of dogtrot-style homes that were used for housing people who were enslaved on large plantations. In many accounts from the slave narrative project, enslaved persons described the conditions of their living quarters that often had no floors and just dirt that they would sweep to try and keep their sleeping area as tidy as possible.

Dogtrot on the former slave plantation, Thorn Hill in Hale County, Alabama.
Dogtrot on the former slave plantation, Thorn Hill in Hale County, Alabama.
Forkland, Alabama dogtrot house on a former slave plantation.

How Many Dog Trots Still Stand Today?

These rudimentary houses worked well in a region with abundant timber and few laborers to produce the finish materials needed. And while the remaining examples of them are few, the fortitude of their design and materials can still be seen in the examples that stand more than 200 years later. Although in many cases, the central hallways were enclosed, masking dogtrots that aren’t easily identifiable unless you know what to look for. And while there are examples to be found across the south, one town, Dubach, Louisiana in Lincoln Parish, claims the title of “Dogtrot Capital of the World.”

The George McCullar Family in front of their Louisiana dogtrot home.

Want To See A Dog Trot House For Yourself?

I’ve compiled a list of sites with restored dog trots that are open to the public across the South. Click each link below for more information.

The Crowell-Whitaker dogtrot historic site, built c. 1840 in Rusell County, Alabama.
Caldwell Hutchinson dogtrot house in South Carolina.

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