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'Home on the range'

The last homesteader’s tractor has finally arrived at its new home in Beatrice.

The 1945 Allis Chalmers Model C tractor was presented at Homestead National Monument of America during an unveiling ceremony on Monday afternoon.

Lt. Gov Mike Foley, United States Sen. Deb Fischer and Dr. C.T. Frerichs were on site to help commemorate the event and welcome the newest artifact in Homestead’s collection of more than a million. The Homestead Harmonizers also performed “Home on the Range” to celebrate the new addition.

“It is very fitting that the last tractor used by a homesteader would be displayed at the site of the first claim filed under the Homestead Act of 1862,” Fischer said. “This tractor represents how forward-looking the leaders who came before us were. I hope that seeing it on display reminds all of us that we, too, can continue that legacy of the Homestead Act by working to build a stronger community for tomorrow.”

The tractor had belonged to Vietnam veteran Ken Deardorff when he staked his claim in the Alaskan wilderness in 1974. Deardorff received the last patent to be issued under the Homestead Act of 1862 and settled on 80 acres of land located about 200 miles from Anchorage. Deardorff used his tractor to create a clearing and grow his crops, and it quickly became a lifeline for him. His tractor was the most important tool he had.

After 10 years at his Alaskan homestead, Deardorff moved away, leaving the tractor on the bank of the Stony River for the last 30 years. When officials from Homestead learned about the tractor, they were determined to bring it to Beatrice.

“This tractor represents the end of our nation’s epic homestead movement,” said Homestead Superintendent Mark Engler.

Last year, the Friends of Homestead started an online fundraising campaign to bring the tractor to Nebraska. Originally hoping to raise $44,000, the Friends of Homestead were falling short until Dr. C.T. Frerichs, a retired Beatrice family physician, read about the tractor in the newspaper.

Frerichs paid to transport the tractor to Nebraska and covered the cost of the conservation work needed to prepare the tractor for display. He made all of the donations in memory of his wife, Julia F. (Meadows) Frerichs.

“He thought that that would be a special memory for his wife, now deceased, and we agree,” said Diane Vicars, president of the Friends of Homestead. “We thank you, Dr. Frerichs, because that really did set in motion where we are today. It’s been a long journey. Little did we know it was going to take a helicopter and a boat and a truck to get it here. But it is here.”

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Santa Claus lights up Beatrice

On Sunday night, more than 30,000 holiday lights surrounding the Gage County Courthouse in Beatrice were lit when Santa Claus himself flipped a giant switch during the annual courthouse lighting ceremony.

The 125-year-old building was lit with giant snowflakes as the Homestead Harmonizers treated the crowd to renditions of holiday favorites like “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Up on the Housetop.”

Even though Thanksgiving was still a few days away, the crowd sang along with the Homestead Harmonizers as they performed “Christmas Don’t be Late.”

For the past 30 years, event organizer J.T. Thornburg has been making sure the courthouse is ready to make Christmas as jolly as possible for the people of Beatrice.

It takes about $4,000 a year to keep the project going, which requires the use of a crane to get lights all the way up to the top of the courthouse.

But the lights and singing were a precursor to the annual visitor who makes a special trip from the North Pole.

In a bright red, velvet suit trimmed in white, Santa Claus made his appearance with a chorus of sleigh bells and let out a loud “Ho, ho, ho,” as he came down the courthouse stairs.

The audience counted down from 10 with Santa before he flipped the switch and brought the lights up as the Harmonizers sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Overall, Sunday’s lighting event went really smooth, Thornburg said, though they’ve had some Santa problems in the past.

One year, Thornburg said, the county board had put new locks on the courthouse doors and forgot to tell Santa Claus. The doors locked up on him, and he was trapped inside.

“We couldn't get Santa Claus out of the courthouse,” Thornburg said, laughing.

Then there was the time that proved Santa just isn’t Santa without the red. After arriving, Santa realized he’d forgotten his trademark suit and had to make due with street attire, Thornburg said.

“He came out in his work clothes and the kids were just brokenhearted,” he said. “So, I checked today to make darn sure Santa Claus hadn't forgot about it.”

On Sunday, Santa was dressed to the nines in black boots and his cozy red and white suit and hat. After the lighting, he and Mrs. Claus spoke to dozens of children about what they wanted for Christmas.

Each kid got a bag of candy, which included what was most likely their first candy cane of the season, and left knowing that Santa was preparing for Christmas.

“I'm just pleased with the way it went off tonight,” Thornburg said, looking up at the white lights on the courthouse. “Thirty years. Thirty years.”

To watch the Homestead Harmonizers perform and to see Santa throw the switch, head to the Beatrice Daily Sun's Facebook page for a video.