Homestead National Monument

During the week of September 2 – 7, we were in the little town of Beatrice, Nebraska (which my Dad grew up near). The day before we were to make the 13 hour drive home to Austin, TX, we thought it would be interesting to go out and see the Homestead National Monument of America, which is located 4 miles west of Beatrice on Highway 4.

What is this Homestead National Monument of America, anyway? Let’s start with a short review of some U.S. History.

From the web site:

The Homestead Act of 1862 was one of the most significant and enduring events in the westward expansion of the United States. By granting 160 acres of free land to claimants, it allowed nearly any man or woman a “fair chance.”  This act, which was brought into effect during The Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln was president, brought about significant and enduring changes to the United States. By giving government land to individuals in 30 states this law allowed nearly any man or woman a chance to live the American Dream. Over 1.6 million people rose to the challenge and claimed 270 million acres.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has also created a website to commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the Homestead Act. To visit it, click here.

The Homestead National Monument of America, located in Southeast Nebraska, commemorates this Act and the far-reaching effects it had upon the landscape and people. Why is this monument located 4 miles west of Beatrice, Nebraska? Because this is the location of the very first homestead, which was settled by Daniel Freeman.

The Homestead Act became the law of the land on January 1, 1863. it remained in effect until 1976, when the Federal Land Policy and Management Act repealed it (though a ten year extension through 1986 was authorized in Alaska).

Over the entire 124-year history of the Homestead Act, four million people filed for 160-acre parcels of the public domain. Of these four million, about 1.6 million (approximately 40 percent) were successful, fulfilling all the requirements of the government and earning the title to their property.

The requirement was that they had to actually live on the land, and improve upon that land. Every single one of these four million, regardless of success or failure, had a personal story. Here is my short photo story of our visit to this national monument.

Reminder: You can always view any photo at a larger size by just clicking on it. You will then need to use your browser’s “Back Button” to return to my story.

On the morning of September 6, 2012, we left the motel at 10:00 AM sharp, but due to a low tire pressure indicator on the car’s dash coming on, we took an hour long detour to investigate that issue. Turns out that the Honda dealer in Austin had underinflated all 4 tires by 8 pounds of air pressure (but I thought we got great gas mileage on the 800 mile trip to Nebraska). Anyway, no real problem to deal with – except the hour delay had let all of the softer morning light vanish before we arrived at the Homestead National Monument.

We were greeted outside the Heritage Center building by park ranger, Mark Engler. Turns out that Mark is the Superintendent of the entire Homestead National Monument.

Park Ranger Mark is also my cousin, so I’ll try not to write anything that would embarrass him…. other than to mention that he played on the Nebraska Cornhuskers football team way back in the early 1980’s. Mark played on the defense, at  the position of middle guard (across from the center – the guy that snaps the ball). He wasn’t the starter, but he once showed me his Cotton Bowl watch. Very cool! Alright, enough of that…

The building has an unusual pointy tip in the roofline at the far end. Mark explained that when the building and the wall leading to the building are viewed from the highway, it takes on the shape of a farmer’s plow furrowing the field. I’ll buy that.

On the wall leading up to the building from the parking lot, are metal silhouettes of the 30 states that participated in the Homestead Act.


Within each metal silhouette, as square is cut out of the center. The size of that square cut-out shows the percentage of that state’s land that the U.S. Government gave away to successful homesteaders.

We headed up to the entrance to the Heritage Center building.

Once inside, Mark introduced Dad, Barb, and myself to some of the other park rangers as National Geographic photographers that were here to photograph the place. After a few minutes of awkward silence, we all laughed and then admitted that we were just some of Mark’s relatives from Texas.

One of the lady park rangers made sure that I photographed this contraption.

Evidently that machine was used by laundry people to press multiple items of clothing at the same time. The clothing was somehow placed under the rollers, while weight of the rocks pressed the layers of clothing.

We then went into the nice “movie room”, where we watched a very professional 23 minute movie about the Homestead Act, how the U.S. Government basically gave away land that it didn’t really own, and the hard life that the Homesteaders endured. The American Indians basically lost everything….

Inside of the Heritage Center are tons of interesting displays about the American West, and what life was like more than a century ago.

I particularly liked this exhibit, showing a goat on a treadmill, which was used to power small machines like a butter churn.

We could have easily spent a couple of hours looking at all of the exhibits of old tools, utensils, and photographs that are on display, but we only did so for 15 minutes or so before going out the door to the back of the building.

Mark suggested that I get a better close-up photo of the pointy tip of the building, which I was happy to do. The photo that I took next was the one that I showed at the top of this post. I really like that curvy-swoopy tip of the roofline!

Out behind the Heritage Center building is this old log cabin, which was moved 14 miles to this location. Note the old farm implements on both sides of the cabin.

To the right of where I took the previous photo, there is a little sidewalk that takes you over to a nice display of barbed wire. One the fence to the left of this photo, they have strung several types of the barbed wires.

We decided to head on down to the old cabin, and I took this photo with Barb in front of it, just to get the perspective of the size of this tiny home.

To the right of the cabin, sits these two old farm implements: an old plow on the right, and horse-drawn implement that raked up hay.

This plaque says that at one time, a family of 12 people lived in this cabin.

Here’s a view looking straight in from the front door.

That’s a wide an angle of view that I could get with my Olympus 12-50mm f/3.5-6.3 lens on my Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera could show, so I had to take a couple more photos to show everything worth seeing in this spacious abode. Here’s a view to my right, which includes the wood burning stove.

And a view to the left, which shows the kitchen table, and the stairs leading up to the other sleeping quarters.

How the heck did 12 people live in this cabin at the same time?

Turning around near the front door of the cabin, I thought this was an interesting view of the Heritage Center building.

Mark asked if anyone wanted to go see the tombstone of Daniel Freeman. Remember, he was the first Homesteader, and this was his land. Dad and Barb declined the offer, so they waited under the canvas awning shown in the previous photo. It was only a short 50 yard (meter) walk to get to the tombstone.

I must admit that I did some post-processing on this photo. The subject (the tombstone) was strongly backlit, so I used the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom 4 to increase the exposure by + 1/3 stop on the face of the stone with all of the wording on it.

We then drove down to the Education Center (see the map above), which used to be the main visitor center to the national monument.

We went out back and examined the displays of the old equipment, covered wagons, etc. that they still have there. For some reason, I thought it would be nice to put the camera on self-timer and get a photo of our little tour group.

Mark then asked if we would like to go see a “steam tractor” that someone had on loan to the national monument. It was not located where the normal tourist would be allowed to see it, but we could, if we wanted to. Of course we did!

This 22 ton (20,000 kg) steam tractor operated just like an old steam-powered locomotive does. The operator loads wood into the back end, it burns, which in turn heats water in  a boiler, which creates steam, and the energy from the steam is used to propel the tractor.

There are no rubber tires on a 22 ton steam tractor. The wheels, and the “tire treads” are sturdy metal. The rubber band that you see surrounding the wheel is in place just to prevent the grounds and parking lot from being damaged.

We must have spent 10 minutes photographing the various angles and features of this old steam tractor. I liked this photo of this old control wheel.

That last photo was taken at 1:10 PM, so we had been at the Homestead National Monument almost exactly 20 hours. Even we had missed the softer early morning light, we still left with some very nice photos that we were pleased with.

I appreciate the special guided tour that we were given by Mark Engler, as I’m sure that he does to all of the other National Geographic photographers that drop by every now and then.

Addendum: Before this post went live, I asked Mark to proof-read it for accuracy. He could not see the photos, and he did make three minor correction. Mark also added this comment in his message back to me: “You might also find it interesting, a National Geographic photographer, Joel Sartore is a friend of the monument’s and has had an exhibit at the park, as well has given a talk.”

Now that’s very cool, too! I wish I had known that when we were visiting, as I would have loved to see Joel’s exhibit.

Thank you for visiting my web site, and I hope that you enjoyed seeing my photos of The Homestead National Monument, just west of Beatrice, NE.

2 thoughts on “Homestead National Monument”

  1. I would just love to get inside that old log cabin. The sense of that small space must have been an experience. Don’t forget, entire families lived in those -) That steam tractor is very cool and it looks like it’s in great shape.

    Thanks for the great visit!

    1. Yes, that little cabin was very interesting to see. I can’t help but wonder what it was like upstairs. I guess the family of 12 that lived there didn’t spend much time sitting on the couch watching TV…. 😉

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