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Free land was the cry

November 28, 2018
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Visitors fill the area around Homestead National Monument of America's heritage center last August for a total solar eclipse. the event helped push Homestead to its highest annual attendance on record.

More than 100,000 guests visit Homestead National Monument of America on an annual basis.

The National Park Service site is the area’s biggest tourist attraction and plays a crucial role in Gage County’s economy.

And it all started with a land claim.

Homestead National Monument is a NPS site recognizing the Homestead Act of 1862. The Homestead Act gave individuals up to 160 acres of land if they did two things — live on the land for at least five years and improve the land through cultivation.

The Homestead Act was in effect for 123 years and gave away 10 percent of the land in the U.S.

By the time it ended, more than 270 million acres were distributed through the Homestead Act and there were approximately four million claims for land filed.

The first of them was by Daniel Freeman, and his site was where Homestead is now located.

“There’s quite a story that goes along with the establishment of this monument,” said Homestead Park Superintendent Mark Engler. “A story from the standpoint (of) it’s a lesson in civics in many ways and community engagement. In 1900, there became an organized effort between local and regional leaders, along with Nebraska’s congressional folks, to establish a National Park Service site here on the site of the first homestead in the nation, which was the Freeman claim. It took them until 1936 with many attempts to finally be successful in seeing that the Homestead National Monument of America (be) enacted by Congress.”

Freeman had his sights set on claiming land in Nebraska under the Opportune Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, 1863.

Today, there are an estimated 93 million descendants of homesteaders, and the Homestead Act is regarded as one of the most important pieces of legislation in the U.S.

The early monument scarcely resembled the site seen today. In its early days, the visitor center was what’s now the facility’s maintenance shed.

“Emergency Relief Administration workers built the park’s maintenance building in 1941 and that maintenance building was actually used as the visitor’s center for the site and provided administrative functions for the park and the maintenance operation,” Engler said.

Engler said there were two important eras in the monument’s history following the first visitor’s center.

Both of those periods of transition featured new buildings.

It was around 20 years after the first visitor’s center was built that a new structure went up. This building is now referred to as the Education Center at the park and serves as primarily an open space for presentations and demonstrations, with some historical artifacts also on display.

The center was the result of Mission 66, a 10-year program intended to expand the park services by 1966 for the 50th anniversary of the National Park Service.

“After World War II, the park saw a huge influx of people coming to visit,” Engler said. “There were ads encouraging people to get out and really at that time the National Park Service established a program that was an extensive building program throughout the National Park Service that introduced facilities.”

The most recent major addition to Homestead came with the addition of the Heritage Center. Located east of the main facility, the centers serves as the museum and main stop for tourists.

The building was designed to resemble a plow and was added in 2007. Engler said that at the same, the monument vastly expanded its distance-learning efforts to educate the public over the internet.

“The park grew extensively into distance learning,” Engler said. “Beyond facilities from a program standpoint and the development of education programming, that has evolved through the years from the standpoint that today we talk to students throughout the United States through distance learning and I would say it’s around 150 different classes we talk to.”

Park ranger Susan Cook said that 17,000 students visit Homestead each year and that university students also frequent the site.

It’s also believed that Homestead has seen a rise in popularity as more people become interested in genealogy and tracing their own roots, including homesteading heritage.

“On the cultural side of things, it’s what can our families learn,” Engler said. “Since there are about 93 million descendants of people who homesteaded, that’s roughly 1/3 of our nation’s population. There’s a lot of interest in genealogy and finding out more about our families.”

A new attendance record was set in 2017 with approximately 125,000 visitors.

The record was driven by a solar eclipse that passed through the site. Homestead National Monument was deemed a prime viewing spot for the eclipse since it was directly in the path of totality and also experienced total darkness for one of the longest durations.

Homestead was an official NASA viewing site for the rare event, and area officials began promoting and planning for the event years in advance.

On the day of the eclipse, attendance reached nearly 21,000 people, and total attendance for the four days of festivities neared 37,000.

“Last year, we saw over 120,000 people here because of the eclipse,” Engler said. “We put that into the economics of it and the monument is generating millions of dollars that goes into the local economy and adds to the county and southeast Nebraska. People travel great distances to visit and I think we can look beyond the economic benefits and view it as a source of pride.”

Engler said the park has grown through the years thanks to its partners in the community and volunteers who work to make its events a success.

“The story is fascinating and is one that’s impacted literally millions of people, not only here in the United States, but millions of people around the globe,” Engler said. “I don’t know if we really stop to think about the beauty of this corner of the state and the beauty that’s found within the monument.”

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