Hometown Of Homestead National Monument Attempts To Relive Its History

The Homestead Act of 1862 brought the promise of land to settlers who could make a living on the frontier. NPS poster.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Homested Act of 1862 that resulted in 1.6 million people claiming 260 million acres of land.

Beatrice, Nebraska, home of Homestead National Monument of America, decided to celebrate with its own offer of free land to settlers.

Like many small agricultural towns throughout the United States, Beatrice has experienced a population decline as farms consolidate and young people flee the wide-open spaces. The result in Beatrice and throughout much of the Plains is an accumulation of empty buildings and vacant homes.

According to a June 16 story in The Wall Street Journal (the front page, no less), Beatrice in 2010 offered three empty lots free to anyone who would agree to honor a homesteader’s obligation; obtain a building permit, build a home within a year, and reside in the home for three years.

The initial offer produced a number of interested individuals including the great-great grandson of Daniel Freeman, who declared he was America’s first homesteader when he claimed 160 acres just outside Beatrice on what is now Homestead National Monument of America.

According to the article, none of the interested parties or applicants followed through. One person who completed the application process returned the deed after deciding to move to Maui. Freeman’s descendent also demurred, saying he was actually interested in finding a location to park his RV.

One lot was eventually given to a Beatrice citizen who is using it as a garden. Another was given to the local Chamber of Commerce for use as a prize in a raffle. The plot of land (no value listed) was won by Randy Witkowski. A mower tune-up was listed as the prize just below the plot of land.

Homestead National Monument celebrated the Homestead Act’s sesquicentennial during weekend of June 14-17 with a number of special events, including a naturalization ceremony, cultural demonstrations, educational programs. Beatrice celebrated with its own Homestead Days that included a parade, family bike rides, and a sold-out mud volleyball game.

Comments

I spent a couple of days in Beatrice (pronounced bee-AY-triss) while visiting Homestead a couple of years ago. Camped in the town park in the middle of a residential neighborhood where a couple of residents from nearby houses wandered over to talk and make sure I was comfortable and knew of all the "must see and do" things around.

People were friendly and helpful and it was just a flat-out great experience.

Homestead National Monument was just the icing on the cake. And what good icing it was, too!

I heard from a Beatrice native that these lots are in the floodplain. I'm sure that doesn't make them very attractive, even with these generous conditions. If vacancy is an issue, maybe the town should incentivise a sort of "urban homesteading" in the existing buildings instead of encouraging the building of new ones. That might be a gimmick that actually works!