Story and photos by Jim Schlett

Since its opening in 1962, Dulles Airport has been a gateway to the nation’s capital as well as a portal to numerous vacation, historical and educational opportunities.   With a multitude of flights from less than a hour to several hours, the world awaits those who need a break from the fast and hectic pace of the Washington DC area.  The rapid expansion has been accelerated in the past decade with numerous businesses moving into the area, including many in the exciting and ever-changing area of technology.   

Can you imagine how much additional growth there would be if someone were to tell you,  FREE LAND, FREE LAND!!  It’s hard to imagine or believe, but for a long time in America, that was the actual cry and declaration.   And while you might find this hard to believe, it was even used to encourage emigration. 

As background, in 2018, I was extremely fortunate to have been selected as one of several Artist-In-Residents (AIR) at several National Parks, including the Homestead National Monument Park located in Beatrice, Nebraska.   This park tells the story of Free Land, Homesteaders, Abraham Lincoln, Emigration and the plight of the American Indian that is still being experienced to this day.   

We flew from Dulles to Kansas City and drove up to the park in early October following a portion of the journey of Lewis and Clark from over 215 years ago.  While I was at the Homestead for 2 weeks, in addition to taking photographs of the park, I began to learn and absorb as much information about the Homestead Act of 1862 and its importance in history.   For the most part, we experienced great autumn weather, crisp coolness, the start of great fall colors and even a day of snow.   My wife, Gail and I enjoyed numerous hikes and were often up for the early morning light of sunrise that is often great for what I called the “Magic Hour” for photographers.   

The area for the park was created by Congress and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt back in 1936.  The Park commemorates the Homestead Act of 1862, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln, while he was also dealing with the American Civil War.  The Act eventually opened up western expansion of the United States with over 270 million acres of land with approximately 4 million claims filed.  The requirements to obtain the land were relatively simple: be over 25 years old, head of a household, live on the designated land, build a house, farm the land and stay on it for at least 5 years.  Immigrants, enslaved people, and single women could all qualify to file a claim.  Potential homesteaders found and filed their claim at a local, regional land office.  Initially it granted 160 acres of free land to claimants.  The last claim was filed back in 1976 in Alaska.

The Park itself, with about 150 acres of prairie land and 3 miles of trails, offers a fascinating look into the scope and breadth of how Homesteaders just started with a dream.  The park has 2 buildings, a Visitors Center and a Heritage Center, and engages visitors with a wealth of information and hands-on exhibitions.  Since Homesteaders were farmers, there are numerous displays of various farm equipment, a school house, a cabin and machinery at the park.   One cannot help but wonder how, without the many modern conveniences of today, that homesteaders survived their initial brutal winters.  The park, like most National Park sites, offers numerous ranger-lead activities and walks.  There are many special events that demonstrate crafts, games, and activities that would be part of the daily activities of those who claimed the land.  By joining in each day with the rangers and park volunteers, we would learn the various facets and facts of the hard life of farming.  The park arranged for a special tour of a nearby farm, where a farmer, Tim Graff, gave a great overview of running the farm and actually had us join him in his huge combine for harvesting corn for a good portion of the afternoon.  I learned first hand why this is called the “corn huskers” state.

In addition to the park being so interesting, we found that the state of Nebraska has a great deal to offer in terms of history, scenic beauty and very welcoming people. We managed to take in some of the nearby attractions while on this trip.  Some of the attractions would include the childhood home of Willa Cather, American Pulitzer Prize writer, Rock Creek Station – where the Pony Express, the California and Oregon trails all merge for a brief distance – the Arbor Day Farm, the birthplace of National Arbor Day, and a world class zoo in Omaha. 

The 2 weeks passed way too quickly but the sights and information about this unique Act and Park that changed America will long stay with me.  It’s also amazing that, even today, as it is estimated that 93 million homesteader descendants are still alive to tell their stories, including actress Whoopie Goldberg.

To see more of my photos of the National Parks, visit https://photomanva.zenfolio.com/p570512401.