Homestead National Monument is one of those places throughout the west that could have been anywhere on the windswept plains, but by some historic accident happens to be right where it is. When the 1862 Homestead Act went into effect, the first homestead patent to be filed was on this lovely site for a farm in southern Nebraska. Over the life of the law, 270 million acres were claimed, including huge areas of the west, which it was designed to get settled. A display on the way in shows the proportion of each state that was settled via the Homestead Act.
The brand new visitor center houses a wonderful collection of exhibits detailing every aspect of the homesteading period, often with a personal touch of a real person's story. One exhibit I found interesting was the one about farm equipment, which suggests that farming in the west was only made possible by industrial farm equipment production back east. It's certainly true today.
A goat-powered treadmill could be hooked up to a variety of devices. This one was hooked up to a laundry machine. They could also be hooked up to a butter churn, for example.
There is an eerie familiarity about a lot of stuff in the museum because our own family history has a connection to the story. At least my great-great grandfather homesteaded in South Dakota. I'm sure there were others back there somewhere.
The museum highlights the hardships the settlers faced, such as the harsh winters in North Dakota or the plagues of grasshoppers seen above, but also the pride in succeeding by doing it themselves.
Outside, there is an original homestead cabin from the area and a trail that meanders through a prairie through the original homestead property. There is also an exhibit of a wide variety of types of barbed wire!
There is a great film that pairs the opportunity the Homestead Act brought to Americans with the total disenfranchisement of the American Indians from the same land. Well worth the 20 minutes, and some familiar faces and places in Montana appear in the film.
The one thing that's missing is a full exploration of the environmental consequences of the conversion of the Great Plains to agriculture. Yeah, they mentioned the Dust Bowl, but they didn't mention the impact on native plants and animals now struggling to eke out an existence.
Homestead National Monument is free to visit and well worth it! For more information, visit www.nps.gov/home