Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act of 1862 in, I guess, 1862. It offered 160 acres of public land FREE to homesteaders. They just had to live on it, build a home, make improvements and farm it for five years. As long as you had never taken up arms against the United States, you were eligible. That meant freed slaves, immigrants from other countries, even women could homestead--but not Confederate soldiers. (Just to put it into perspective, the flags around the parking lot enclose one acre. The sign says that to plow that acre, you have to walk 10 miles driving a team of oxen. So don't complain next time you have to mow the yard, kids!)
Thirty states participated in this. The wall leading to the
Visitor Heritage Center shows each of those states. The cutouts show the proportion of homestead land in that state. I had no idea that Washington was one of them, but George can remember people still talking about homesteading when he was growing up in Spokane. But after all, that whole Oregon Trail thing was about free land, so Washington and Oregon were really the first to welcome homesteaders though the focus for them was on the journey, not the destination.
Since the various Homesteading Acts offered free land in lots of states, I wondered why they chose to put the National Monument in Nebraska. After all, the first land act in 1850 promoted free land in the Northwest. Maybe they figured the various Oregon Trail memorials covered that one. Then downstairs in the museum, I learned that the first person to file a claim after the 1862 Act--right after midnight--was Daniel Freeman--and the monument is on the site of his claim. Okay, that works for me.
Visitor Heritage Center is the Palmer-Epard cabin. This isn't the cabin that Freeman built, but was relocated from somewhere nearby for posterity (and tourists). This luxurious cabin (14' x 16') was built in 1867 by George Palmer for his wife and 10 children. (That luxurious comment is a quote from the NPS website, not my opinion at all. I'm not even going to say anything about the 10 children.) They lived in it until 1895, then sold to their nephews. It was sold again and the last owners were the Epards, who lived in it for another 40 years, hence the hyphenated name. (I think it might have been the model for the Crooked Little House song. Obviously there were no building inspectors back then.)
Except for the buildings in the distance, this is probably what the prairie looked like when they got here. The grass was tall and the sod was rock hard and difficult to cut through. And don't forget one acre = 10 miles of walking (and probably cussing and swearing most of the way). The Great Plains were considered part of the "Great American Desert" and it took a different kind of farming to succeed.
The Industrial Revolution had a major impact on homesteading. They needed more and better tools to farm this dry land. That's why the Education Center just a couple of miles past the park entrance has a big display dedicated to historic farm implements. There's a big John Deere something-or-other, but I thought the picture of the employees at the Deere and Co. factory was even more interesting.
My favorite household apparatus to make life easier was back in the Heritage Center--not that I'd ever want to use one! This is a cold roller mangle, using weights and rollers to iron clothes. I suppose it must have been an improvement over the old flat irons that had to be heated constantly during use. (The mangle part prompts visions of torn clothes and broken fingers. Makes me really glad they invented permanent-press in my century!)
Homestead Natl Monument