"Is there anything better than making a kid laugh?"
State 15: Nebraska - September 7, 2017
We woke up in a Walmart in Lincoln having had another awful night sleep. The city of Lincoln is a large city of 250,000 people, and it was a very noisy night in the Walmart parking lot. Today, we drive 45 miles South from Lincoln, to Beatrice, NE to visit the National Park depicted on the reverse of the Nebraska quarter: Homestead National Monument of America.
On May 20, 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed into law one of the most important legislation's in American History; The Homestead Act. The act gave men, women, African Americans, and immigrants the ability to own 160 acres of land free and clear providing they fulfilled certain requirements. The homesteader had to: be head of household, older than 21 years old, be an American citizen, or file a declaration of intent to become one, to farm on the land, build a 12 x 14 foot home on the land, live on the land for a minimum of 5 years, and submit a filing fee of $18.00. After the 5 years had passed, the homesteader had to have 3 witnesses sign sworn affidavits the homesteading terms were fulfilled before a deed was issued for the land.
The Homesteading Act resulted in a mass migration West, sparked the immigration boom of the 19th century, and the fulfillment of the manifest destiny that the US would extend from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans. Between 1862, and 1934 the federal government granted 1.6 million homesteads, and transferred 420,000 square miles or 10 % of total land in the US into private ownership. Today, many Americans still live on the same homesteads as their ancestors once did.
However, it wasn’t home sweet home for every homesteader on the western frontier. Natural disasters, pestilence, disease, inexperience, and loneliness, were all contributing factors to homesteaders failing to meet the 5-year requirement. In all, a mere 40% of the homesteading applicants completed the requirements, and obtained a deed for their land. For Native Americans, the Homestead Act was the catalyst causing them to ultimately lose the land they had lived on for thousands of years. The Native Americans argued since the land did not belong to the US, it was not theirs to give away. Nevertheless, the opportunity for free land resulted in homesteaders flooding the West, and they pushed the Native Americans farther and farther away from their ancestral lands.
The Homesteading National Monument of America in Beatrice, NE is the site of the first 160 acres successfully claimed under the Homesteading Act by a man named Daniel Freeman. Freeman was a scout for the Union Army during the Civil War. On January 1, 1863 the day the Homestead Act went into effect, he convinced a land office clerk to open just after midnight to file his claim, so he could return to his military duties. After the war ended and having fulfilled the homesteading requirements, Daniel Freeman had his neighbors, Joseph Graff and Samuel Kilpatrick, sign the affidavit, and the US government gave Freeman a deed for his land. Both Daniel Freeman and his wife Agnes are buried in the land they once homesteaded. In 1936, congress recognized the Freeman homestead as the first in the country, and was subsequently designated Homestead National Monument of America. Please see the pictures below.
If the story of homesteading begins with Daniel Freeman, then where does it end? The Homesteading Act in the United States was repelled in 1976, except for Alaska where it continued until 1986. A 29-year-old Vietnam veteran named Ken Deardorff filed for 80 acres of land along the Stony River in Southwest Alaska in 1974. Dandruff successfully fulfilled the requirements of the Homesteading Act in 1979, and received his deed to the land in May of 1988. Having personally visited the Homestead Monument in 2007 and in 2012, Deardorff has played an active role in helping to shed light on the process of homesteading, and contributing to the display at the park in his honor. Deardoroff claims to be grateful to have been a part of history, but considers his celebrity status as a fluke.
Deardoroff sold the homestead 10 years after claiming it, and left his tractor on the property. The tractor had been outside exposed to the Alaska wilderness for over 30 years. Recently, Homestead Monument officials learned about the tractor of America’s last homesteader, and started a collection to bring the tractor from the site of the last homestead in Alaska to the site of the first homesteader in Beatrice, NE. The tractor began it's 3500-mile journey by being air lifted via helicopter to Big Lake, Alaska, and was placed in a custom built shipping crate. The tractor was then placed on a barge in Anchorage, transferred to a ship in Seattle, and finally placed on a truck to Beatrice, NE. Deardorff’s tractor will undergo restorations at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, before being put on permanent display at The Homestead National Monument of America.
Outside of the visitor’s center, a 19th century cabin was on display, which belonged to an actual Nebraskan homesteader. Interestingly enough, I don’t think I would have a problem living in that old cabin as it has more sq ft than my Rosie.
Also worth mentioning, in the parks visitor center had a dozen computers available with complementary access to Ancestry.com to see if your relatives were homesteaders. Regretfully, neither Lori nor my ancestors were homesteaders, but we did find it kind of creepy so much personal information is available on the web. The Homestead National Monument of America did a phenomenal job at breaking down a 123 year period in American history, and telling the story from the perspectives of all people involved in an interesting and easily understandable manner.
After leaving the Homestead National Monument of America, we drove another 45 miles West from Beatrice to Hebron to visit the Cross Country Couple's chosen roadside attraction for the state of Nebraska: The World’s Largest Porch Swing. The front porch swing is as iconic and American as apple pie, baseball and a cross country road trip. At over 30 feet long, seating between 18 to 24 people, suspended from a giant crop irrigator, and complete with “squeaks” while it sways, the world largest porch swing will make you lose all sense of time as you sway the day away. The swing is located on the town's green beneath a newly built gazebo enabling the swing to be enjoyed regardless of the weather. This roadside attraction was one of our favorite on the trip thus far, as it is not just gigantic, but functional and fun.
While we were swinging away taking in a warm and sunny Nebraska day, we noticed an elderly man exiting the nursing home from across the street. He was walking towards us as quickly as an 80-year-old man could, and he had a stern and serious look on his face. The closer he got to us, the more worried I became. Had we unknowingly broke some obscure city ordinance? Did we need to pay before using the swing? Did the man have dementia, and not know what he was doing? All of these thoughts, and more ran through my head in a matter of seconds. As a precaution, I left Lori on the swing, and met the seemingly grumpy old man before he made it to Lori. He stopped, looked me square in the eye, and said “Where are you from?” I told him I am from Connecticut. He then paused, nodded his head a few times, and then reached in his pocket. Suddenly, I got extremely anxious as I had no idea what the old man was going to pull out. I walked as close to him as I could, so I had the best chance to wrestle from his grasp whatever he was about to pull on me. Just as I was about to spring into defensive action, he removed his hand from his pocket, and handed me a pin depicting the world’s largest swing. He asked Lori if she wanted a pin as well, but she declined. We both thanked the thoughtful old man, and he walked back to the nursing home across the street. Lori and I both returned to swinging, and reflected upon the generosity of a local citizen who shared a memento of a town he clearly loves with two out-of-towners.
After leaving the world's largest porch swing, we drove yet another 45 miles North to a Walmart in the town of York, NE. When we roll into a new town we never really know what we are walking into until we actually arrive. Upon entering York, we couldn’t help but notice the very uniquely painted water tower. By this point in our cross country trip we have seen our fair share of water towers. Some have been painted in smiley faces, tea pots, and ketchup bottles among others, but this is the first water tower we have come across painted to depict a hot air balloon!
We decided to go the library in town to catch up on some blog posts, and stumbled upon the York, NE "Yorkfest Family Fun Night". A whole city block was closed down to make room for hundreds of families enjoying bounce houses, local vendors, and complementary root beer floats and hotdogs.
But wait that’s not all! We have yet to discuss the main attraction headlining the 2017 York, NE Family Fun Night! Tell the Teletubbies to hit the road, and Barney and Baby Bop to bounce, because tonight Mighty Magic Pants is in the house and takes center stage performing live on the front lawn of the York, NE courthouse!
Winners of the prestigious Parent’s Choice Award, "Mighty Magic Pants" is a comic vocal band for families. Award-winning children’s musician and poet, Mike Mennard launched the children’s band from Lincoln, NE in 2012 to create an interactive vocal group that would mix harmonies, multi-voiced poems, and silliness. Mighty Magic Pants superhero themed children’s band encourages kids and grown-ups to discover their own superpowers (talents). In addition to Mennard, the group includes, Ben VandeVere (Buccaneer Ben), and Charmaine Ang (Bubblegum Beckie), and they are looking for more superheroes to join them! With smash hit songs like; “Gotta be the Pants, “My Mom is Batman” and “I Would Rather Eat Slugs”, Mighty Magic Pants will clearly be entertaining families for many years to come!
Musical concerts where the target demographic is 2-10 years old is usually not our scene. However, we were extremely impressed with their entertaining performance, and while clearly geared toward children, they successfully involved the adults in the audience as well. They were all very talented performers, and have the best job in the entire world; to make the children smile. York Family Fun Night is a great idea to bring families and the community together. We are noticing a recurring pattern that maintaining close family ties is extremely important to the residents of Nebraska, which is a rare and attractive quality in a potential new home state. After biding adieu to Mighty Magic Pants, we headed back across town to the York Walmart to sleep for the night.