Gage County stores, gas stations, hotels and other destinations all use tourism dollars to stay afloat.
While the Sunland has its share of attractions, one feature stands out as the top draw for spreading the word of the area’s rich history: the Homestead National Monument of America.
The national park located 4 miles west of Beatrice pays homage to the Homestead Act of 1862, and is located on the claim of Daniel Freeman, the first homesteader.
Mark Engler, park superintendent, described not only the park’s historic significance, but the major role it plays in Gage County tourism.
“I think that through tourism it brings a lot of community pride and community awareness, and then as well there’s a true economic benefit that comes from having a place such as Homestead National Monument here,” he said. “We not only get an economic benefits from staff and budgets that Congress has put in place, but there’s also the benefits that come to the community and region from people coming to the area to visit and spending money.”
Last year attendance at Homestead was up nearly 14 percent, making it the second busiest year in the monument’s 80-year history. Nearly 78,000 visited the park.
The park brings in an estimated $2 million to the Beatrice area and Gage County area each year, with high hopes for 2016, the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and the 80th anniversary of the park itself.
“Last year we had a terrific year when it comes to visitation and we are anticipating that this year might surpass last year,” Engler said. “We’re readying ourselves for that. We know that in addition to the day-to-day operations we have put in place, there are many special programs that we’re sure will draw a lot of interest.
“We know that homesteading is a big story and we know also that programs that are important to the National Park Service are also important. We believe it’s our responsibility to provide programs and activities for the community.”
The Homestead Act gave those who filed a claim up to 160 acres of land at no charge, provided they built a home on the land, resided there for at least five years and improved the land through cultivation.
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The Homestead Act is often regarded as one of the three most important pieces of American legislation, as demonstrated by the staggering figures from the 123 years the Act was in effect.
A total of 30 states have homesteaded land in them, and there were approximately 4 million claims filed.
It’s estimated today that 93 million people are descendants of homesteaders, and more than 270 million acres of land were claimed under the Homestead Act, which was signed by President Abraham Lincoln.
Park ranger Susan Cook said Homestead draws visitors from all over the globe, eager to hear how homesteading helped settle the west.
“It is amazing how many visitors come from outside the U.S. every week, all year long,” she said. “Citizens from other countries are interested in the U.S. west and how we built our country. Farmers were on the land and people developed towns around these farms, that’s how our democracy grew and the economy grew.”
Last year, one of the Homestead’s largest events was the public release of a quarter paying tribute to the national park.
The 26th quarter in the U.S. Mint’s “America the Beautiful” series, the Homestead quarter features a log cabin, water pump and two ears of corn on the tail side.
Cook said regular events, including the annual fiddle festival each May, have become favorites. Homestead staff also works to keep new events on the calendar, all while promoting other area attractions as well.
“They get here and then ask what else is around here,” she said. “There’s an interest and we direct them to what we have around. A lot of people are traveling through to other places. We do a lot of planning trips through Nebraska. … When they get here, they find that there’s so much more to do, spending nights in hotels, shopping, eating and buying gas that all helps the economy.”
Cook added the events wouldn’t all be possible without the help of volunteers, who contribute to every event the Homestead hosts, from being at the event to working behind the scenes raising awareness and helping with plans.