Homestead National Monument of America has come full circle.
Located on the site where Daniel Freeman, one of the very first homesteaders, staked his claim in 1862, Homestead will soon be the new and permanent home of a tractor belonging to Ken Deardorff, the last homesteader.
On Monday afternoon, the Homestead National Monument showed off Deardorff’s tractor, a 1945 Allis-Chalmers Model C that he bought when he moved to his homestead in the Alaskan wilderness in 1974.
The tractor will be sent to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for refurbishment before it goes on display, but the team that brought it 3,500 miles back to the Homestead via helicopter, barge, ship and truck had a story to tell.
In 1974, Deardorff was a 29-year-old Vietnam veteran from California. The Homestead Act was still two years away from being repealed—though the Alaskan repeal was 10 years away, due to its late addition to the United States. Dearsdorff staked a claim and settled on 80 acres about 200 miles from Anchorage and nearly 50 miles from the nearest town.
He traveled by dog sled to get to his homestead and slept in a tent in sub-zero conditions until he was able to finish building his log cabin. There were no roads, electricity or modern amenities at all when he arrived, and the property remains the same way.
Using his tractor, Deardorff cleared a forest to grow his crops—mostly hays and grasses, as those were the only things that would grow in the climate. The tractor was his most important tool.
When he left the Alaskan homestead ten years after starting it, the tractor was left sitting outside for the next 30 years. Officials from Homestead Monument learned about the tractor and were determined to bring it to Beatrice.
Last year, the Friends of Homestead started an online fundraising campaign to bring the tractor to Nebraska. Asking $44,000 at the time, they were falling short until Dr. C.T. Frerichs of Beatrice happened to read about it in the Omaha World Herald.
Frerichs had recently lost his wife and was looking for a way to honor her memory, said Diane Vicars, president of the Friends of Homestead National Monument.
When Frerichs and his wife, Julia, were engaged, the couple came to Nebraska to visit his parents in September of 1950. During that visit, a photo of Julia was taken as she sat on a tractor.
She liked the experience, Frerichs said. He still has that photo of Julia perched on the tractor. A late 1940s-era Allis-Chalmers Model C. Just like the one Deardorff used on his homestead.
Frerichs was inspired and made a significant financial contribution to bring the tractor to Nebraska.
After cutting off the protective plastic that surrounded it from its trip to Homestead, Frerichs got a little choked up.
“I think she would just sit here and cry,” he said. “She'd probably shed a tear, but she would be surprised and extremely thankful.”
Rob Ruskamp, chief of maintenance at Homestead, went on the Alaskan trek to retrieve the tractor. They did a little bit of recon work, he said, in looking for the tractor based on information Deardorff had given them before finding it in a clearing. It was rough, but still very much recognizable.
They called in a helicopter to lift the tractor to Big Lake, Alaska, where a crate was custom built for it. It was put on a barge to Anchorage, then onto a ship to Seattle before being trucked to Beatrice.
The team also found a plow and other pieces of equipment located in a river sandbed, he said.
"We just stumbled upon these pieces of equipment and huge trees were growing up through them,” he said. “The helicopter was coming that morning to get the tractor, so we only had a couple of hours, so we just went crazy digging them up.”
The tractor will be heading to UNL for restoration in the next week or so, Homestead National Monument superintendent Mark Engler said, but they don’t want it looking like new. It's an American treasure, he said.
They’re aiming for what it would have looked like when Deardorff was using it. They’ll fix up the tires and repair the rotting wood on the hand-made seat, but that’s about it. No new paint or anything too fancy. Authenticity is what they’re going for.
“I would like to add that the Allis-Chalmers seat on which my future wife sat in September of 1950 was much nicer and cleaner than that,” Frerichs joked. “And I'm afraid if it had been that one, she might have said 'no'.”