From tourism to sharing history, Homestead National Monument of America is an asset to Beatrice and Gage County.
The National Park Service site recognizes the Homestead Act of 1862, which gave individuals up to 160 acres of land if they did two things — live on the land for at least five years and improve the land through cultivation.
The Homestead Act was in effect for 123 years and gave away 10 percent of the land in the U.S.
By the time it ended, more than 270 million acres were distributed through the Homestead Act and there were approximately four million claims for land filed.
Homestead park superintendent Mark Engler said the Homestead Act was one of the most significant documents in the country’s history, and helped shaped the country we know today.
The first homestead claim was by Daniel Freeman on land where Homestead National Monument is now located.
Freeman had his sights set on claiming land in Nebraska under the Opportune Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, 1863.
Today, there are an estimated 93 million descendants of homesteaders.
“While the Homestead story is an epic story, it not only involves a local community or state. It’s a national narrative,” Engler said. “It’s a story that starts with Daniel Freeman, the first homesteader and the placement of this monument in large part happened because of the Daniel Freeman story. The narrative also includes millions of people who followed Freeman in search of the American dream and ways to better their lives.”
Engler added the Homestead Act impacted industries, agriculture and immigration.
The site attracted nearly 70,000 visitors to Gage County in 2018. The previous year eclipsed all others when an all-time attendance record of 123,400 visitors was set.
The record was driven by a solar eclipse that passed through the site. Homestead National Monument was deemed a prime viewing spot for the eclipse since it was directly in the path of totality and also experienced total darkness for one of the longest duration.
Homestead was an official NASA viewing site for the rare event, and area officials began promoting and planning for the event years in advance.
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On the day of the eclipse, attendance reached nearly 21,000 people, and total attendance for the four days of festivities neared 37,000.
Another high point was seven years ago, when more than 38,000 people visited Homestead in 2012 to see the actual Homestead Act of 1862, signed by President Abraham Lincoln.
Angie Bruna, director of the Beatrice Area Chamber of Commerce, said Homestead National Monument plays an immeasurable role in the local economy.
“Having a National Park Service site in our own backyard is an absolute treasure we take for granted,” she said. “Those travelers are stopping in at our local restaurants, shops and doing side business while they’re here in town, so we really do benefit. There’s also the culture piece that benefits from being able to expand on that and it’s great for the business and tourism industries.”
The impact Homestead has had on the area is obvious, Engler said.
“I think that as an established long term member of the community, the monument has been a source of pride,” he said. “You can see it on the sheriff’s department patches, on other places within the region, and people using the name in their business or even on the highway form Lincoln to Beatrice.
“We also recognize that there is an economic benefit to the monument within the community. We know that economic value is not only tied with those funds that we use to operate the park, but also tied to the dollars that people traveling to the monument spend in our local communities.”
When Homestead National Monument first opened, the visitor center was what’s now the facility’s maintenance shed.
It was around 20 years after the first visitor's center was built that a new structure went up. This building is now referred to as the Education Center at the park and serves as primarily an open space for presentations and demonstrations, with some historical artifacts also on display.
The most recent major addition to Homestead came with the addition of the Heritage Center. Located east of the main facility, the centers serves as the museum and main stop for tourists.
The building was designed to resemble a plow and was added in 2007. At the same, the monument vastly expanded its distance-learning efforts to educate the public over the internet.
“I think these programs not only bring the monument to life, but also enhance the quality of life for citizens of southeast Nebraska,” Engler said. “We as a people can learn from this story and there’s also a value to this narrative from the standpoint of how can it help us in looking at future challenges. Are there clues here with this story that might help us moving forward as a local community, state or nation? I think there are and that’s our job here, to keep that story alive so it can be drawn from as we move forward as a people.”