Driving across Nebraska on highway 4, it’s hard to miss the big building sitting at the top of the hill. From below, it looks like a plow blade cutting through the prairie soil. And, of course, that’s exactly what the architect intended. The visitor center at the Homestead National Monument brings together stories and artifacts from across the continent and across more than a hundred years of our national history to tell the story of those who settled the great American frontier.
In 1862, the Homestead Act made it possible for tens of thousands of Civil War veterans, freed slaves, and immigrants to claim a hundred and sixty acres of their own. To obtain title to the claim, each woman or man was required to plant crops, build a home, and live on the property for five years. That, and about $20 in filing fees, was all it took to become a land owner. More than 270 million acres were transferred from the government to private owners as each family “proved up” these claims.
While the process of staking a claim was fairly easy and within reach of most people people of that era, the work was anything but. There were few towns in the vast landscape that ran from the Canadian border to Mexico and from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. Do you want a cookstove? You’ll need to bring it with you from Saint Louis or New Orleans. Need a mule or an ox because yours broke a leg or died from winter cold? Lets’ hope you have a neighbor who’s willing to trade one for what little bit you have to offer.
Even though the prairie soil is thick and rich and excellent for growing crops, it’s covered with grass and roots up to two feet thick. Planting even an acre of this by hand took weeks with a cast iron tool. John Deere’s invention of the steel moldboard plow made for a revolutionary change in this work, as it cut much more easily through the tough prairie sod. Remember, though, if you wanted one of these (and could afford one), you’d somehow have to get it from the factory in Moline, Illinois to your claim in eastern Colorado or the middle of North Dakota.
One of the most notable events of the era came when two million acres, much of it highly desirable, was opened for claim at high noon on April 22, 1889. This became known as the Oklahoma Land Rush, and spawned the terms boomer (those who promoted the opening of the lands) and sooner (those who sneaked onto the land early to claim some of the choicest parts). The musical ‘Oklahoma’ gives a romanticized version of life in the new territory, while the song ‘Little Old Sod Shanty’ paints a much more accurate picture of the experience.
When you arrive at the visitor center, the first thing you see is a line of state outlines mounted on a wall. Each has a hole in it, and each hole represents the proportion that state that was open to homesteading as part of the Homestead Act. We were surprised to see a number of populous states from east of the Mississippi on the wall—none with huge areas of homesteading, but more than we expected. Inside, the displays include typical household effects and tools, as well as many homesteading stories. They also include native American reflections on the movement.
Among the displays is an Allis-Chalmers Model C tractor. It’s notable because it belonged to Ken Deardorff, a young Vietnam War veteran who filed his homestead claim in 1974 for a piece of land on the Stony River, 200 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska. In 1988, he became the last person to earn a patent under the Homestead Act, which had been allowed to expire two years earlier. The tractor was recovered in 2017 by the Park Service and restored by the University of Nebraska Tractor Restoration Club.
The museum includes a pioneer cabin, an early school, and a nice collection of early farm equipment. You can walk the quilt discovery trail, take an audio tour using your cellphone, and record information about your own pioneer ancestors for the on-site archives. Walk the prairie for a while. Look at the flowers, listen to the birds, and maybe discover a little of your own personal history, out here off the beaten path.