On a 24-hour trip to Omaha, Nebraska I checked off my 164th National Park Service site with a visit to Homestead National Historical Park in Beatrice. It’s about 1.5-hour drive from downtown Omaha. Since there are three parts to the park, give yourself at least an hour to visit and more if you want to hike several of the trails.
The Homestead Act of 1862 affected millions of lives in the United States feeding the desire to own land and a home in a wave of expansion across the west. Under the act, anyone could have 160 acres of land if they agreed to farm it. By 1890, the federal government had granted 373,000 homesteads on 48 million acres of undeveloped land. The Homestead Act was repealed in 1976 with passage of Federal Land Policy and Management Act. Homestead National Historical Park preserved the T-shaped, 160-acre claim Daniel Freeman filed on January 1, 1863. Filing shortly after midnight, he is believed to be the first one to file under the Homestead Act of 1862. The park is also home to the oldest restored prairie in NPS system. Restoration started in 1939.
I started at the Heritage Center. After chatting with a ranger, I sat down at one of the computers and searched a few of my ancestors in the homestead records. There are more than 93 million descendants of homesteaders. That’s 1 in 3 people in the United States! Downstairs in the heritage center it’s filled with exhibits including expansion, Native American displacement, and agricultural revolution.
After walking through the exhibits, I headed outside to see the Palmer-Epard Cabin and prairie. George W Palmer built the log cabin in 1867 in Logan Township Nebraska about 14 miles from Beatrice. For his cabin walls, he used oak, ash, and other hardwoods cut from the banks of a nearby creek. The brick in the gable ends he made by hand. Palmer staked his homestead claim in 1875 with his wife and five children since he had built a home, planted crops, and lived on the land for five years as required by the Homestead Act. By 1880, the family had grown by five more children and all 12 lived in the 14 feet wide by 16 feet long cabin. The Palmers lived in the cabin until 1895. Prior to 1900, Lawrence and Ida Epard, acquired the farm and lived there for 40 years. The cabin was moved to Homestead National Historical Park in 1950. The rambling acres of grass and greenery are part of an ongoing restoration effort that began in 1939 to undo the effects of 76 years of farming. The restoration restores agricultural fields to a diverse collection of native plant species representing the vegetations the first homesteaders encountered. Prairie ecosystems once span 140,000,000 acres. Today less than 1% remains.
I drove a short distance to the Education Building. Homestead has an artists-in-residency program where artists can come to the park for two weeks and create something on what inspires them in the park. Outside of the Education Building is some old farm equipment on display including hand powered machines for digging, planting, seeding, and shelling corn.
It was a pretty but chilly midday as I walked across the foot bridge and followed the half-mile Farm Loop Trail in the restored tallgrass prairie. I walked around clockwise. Part of the loop takes you along the Grain Growers Highway which followed an old freight road running through Daniel Freeman’s Homestead and was initiated by the green growers Association in 1926. I stopped at the overlook spot to enjoy the view and see if I could spot any birds. You could see red-winged blackbird, dickcissel, great blue heron, rose breasted grosbeak, yellow warbler, and wood duck. At the overlook I also learned an interesting fact: some of the richest topsoil in the world is found in Nebraska. For centuries prairie plants died and decomposed here improving the soils texture, porosity, and ability to hold water. It took about 2000 years to build up the top 2 inches of rich soil. There’s a stone from the old state capital at Lincoln, Nebraska, marking the site of the first registered homestead in the United States which dates 1863 to 1925. There’s a time capsule buried near the erected stone too.
My last stop was the Freeman School. The brick schoolhouse dates to 1872 and it was open until 1967. On the first day it opened there were fourteen students. For a time it was the longest running school house in Nebraska. It’s usually locked but you can call the ranger’s office if you want to go inside. I was short on time and just peeked in the windows before heading back to Omaha to catch a flight.