Does Thanksgiving make you think of National Parks? Not me. I think of turkey with all the trimmings, squash, corn, peas, cranberries and pumpkin pie! But there are National Park Units that celebrate our farming heritage. One of these is Homestead National Monument of America in Nebraska.
In 1862, President Lincoln signed the Homestead Act into law. This allowed anyone to claim up to 160 acres (that’s 1/4 square mile), provided that they improve the land by building a dwelling and growing crops. And, they had to stay there for a minimum of 5 years.
As you look out from the visitor center across the flat, treeless prairie it is hard to imagine staking out your 160 acres, clearing it by hand and trying to build a home out of sod. It amazes me that there were so many hardy souls who took on this challenge and succeeded, fueling the country’s growth and westward expansion.
Fun Facts about the Homestead Act
- The Homestead Act covered 30 out of the 50 states
- Most of the states were in the west with the exception of Florida
- Florida had 28,000 homesteaders
- Montana had the most homesteaders – 151,000
- The fewest were in Indiana – 30
- The last homestead was in Alaska in 1986, in a location where the temperature could drop 65 degrees below zero
- In the 124 year history of the Homestead Act, over 4 million filed
- More than half were successful
- 230 million acres of Federal land was turned over
Were your family Homesteaders?
If you visit the Homestead National Monument of America, you can find out if your forebears were homesteaders. Many people can give thanks this Thanksgiving to President Lincoln and the Homestead Act. It gave everyone a fair chance; an opportunity for all to live the American dream regardless of your past or station in life. After the Civil War, many African Americans took advantage of the Homestead Act to get their own land. But you’d be surprised at the list of famous people who have families who were once homesteaders:
- Whoopi Goldberg
- Laurence Welk
- George Washington Carver
- Charles Lindbergh
Plus, of course, Laura Ingalis Wilder, the author of Little House on the Prairie. This classic children’s series tells the life of a homesteading pioneer from a child’s point of view.
Homestead National Monument
Located in the flat lands of Nebraska, just south of Lincoln, Nebraska (the state capitol), this National Monument is well worth a visit – in fact, it is one that we would like to visit again. It is not to hard to get too, just a quick detour south off Interstate 80.
Begin at the Heritage Center, where you can see a great movie about homesteading. It really makes the trials and tribulations of these folks come to life! The idea of going west and working you own land sounded wonderful, but these romantic notions rapidly dwindled when reality set in. You won’t believe some of the conditions that the early homesteaders faced – drought, fire, blizzard, wind, locusts, searing heat, freezing cold – a hard life where the family was constantly exposed to the elements.
Five years didn’t sound that long until people started to realize the amount of back-breaking manual labor required to turn their land into farms that could sustain their families and meet their contractual obligation with the government. Think how hard it was to clear rocks and pull tree stumps, and gather enough fuel and food to last the long winter.
It is incredible the ingenuity that people had. The Heritage Center shows the tools and equipment that people invented, with great examples inside and outside as you walk the loop trail (no pets allowed.)
There is even an example of a homesteader’s cabin. It might have seemed like a palace after living in the elements for months on end, but I couldn’t imagine staying in overnight, let alone for 5+ years. Blowing dust would have come in through all the cracks and crevices; as would the heat and cold.
Okay – not as bad as the one in the photo – but pretty bad. (I just like this photo! We took it on our travels and I just missed getting a shot with all the cows INSIDE the house!)
Back to homesteading… Much of the land that was homesteaded in the mid-west was originally tall grass prairie.
Think a sea of grass stretching as far as the eye could see.
Homesteaders converted the prairie into agricultural land, primarily growing corn and grazing cattle. No one really recognized the value of the prairie and what it provided.
The National Park Service has been working on restoring the tall grass prairie at Homestead National Monument of America, where restoration efforts have been underway on this 100 acres since 1939, making it the oldest restoration project in the National Park Service. .
On this Thanksgiving, we thank the National Park Service and the Homestead National Monument of America for everything they do to preserve America’s heritage.