When towns disband and disappear, it’s not usually intentional. That isn’t the case with Empire, Wyo., which is the focus of Homestead National Monument of America’s current exhibit.
Homestead paired with the Center for Great Plains Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to look at five towns that solely had African-American homesteaders.
“The Homestead Act of 1862, it’s a time the government gave 160 acres of land to the head of the household,” said Susan Cook, interpretation and resource management. “You had to build a home, make improvements, and after five years the land was yours."
Cook said everyone from the towns in this exhibit was a homesteader.
“They came as groups, settled, built their community and they all homesteaded,” Cook said. “A lot of them have disappeared, or their towns have disappeared. At the end of our first year of research, the Center for Great Plains Studies discovered that many of these towns were never meant to last.”
According to the exhibit, in 1911, the population of Empire stood at 46. By the 1930 federal census in Goshen County, only four people out of a population of 11,754 were black.
Cook said the towns were a stepping stone to leaving slavery.
“Once they owned their land their children had options in life,” Cook said. “They weren’t forced into slavery. It gave them the wealth to provide a different life for their children and grandchildren. The idea was that if they didn’t want to be farmers, they wouldn’t have to be. A lot of these after several generations, the children all graduated, moved on and went to other places to follow their own dreams. The towns weren’t meant to last forever, they were meant to provide an opportunity, and that was new knowledge for all of us.”
The exhibit also gives an economic explanation for people moving from Empire. There was an agricultural boom in the 1910s due to World War I, causing farmers to buy more land and equipment. But when they couldn’t pay off their loans during the 1920s recession, resulting in foreclosures and bank failures.
Cook said Homestead’s theme for the year is innovation in homesteading areas.
“We’re focusing on the Transcontinental Railroad completion, because that was a huge part of homesteading,” Cook said. “The other part that we’re focusing on this year is the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 landing on the moon. Because the west was the frontier of the past, and space is the frontier of the future.”
The next exhibit runs April through June. Entitled “Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry," it focuses on the Dust Bowl.
“Our legislation tells us that we are to tell the story of homesteading to the high state of civilization, so our story never ends,” Cook said.