Homestead draws visitors to Gage County

February 25, 2018 GMT

Homestead National Monument is a National Park Service site dedicated to remembering the Homestead Act of 1862. The Homestead Act gave individuals up to 160 acres of land at no cost if they built a home and lived on the homestead for five years, improving the land through cultivation.

The Homestead Act gave away 10 percent of all land in the U.S. during the 123 years it was in effect. In total, more than 270 million acres of land was distributed under the Homestead Act.

A total of 30 states have previously-homesteaded land in them, with approximately 4 million claims filed in all, and there are an estimated 93 million people who are descendants of homesteaders.

Nearly 124,000 people visited the National Park Service site in 2017, marking the second year ever that attendance has topped six figures. Attendance on Monday, Aug. 21, the day of the solar eclipse, was 20,991.

Last year’s attendance intensified in August, as the total solar eclipse generated international attention for the National Park Service site.

Homestead National Monument was deemed a prime viewing spot for the eclipse since it was directly in the path of totality, and it also experienced total darkness for one of the longest durations.

The 2017 estimate represents an approximate 40 percent increase over 2016’s attendance of 87,755.

In the days leading up to the eclipse, Homestead was host to NASA scientists who presented on a variety of topics, as well as several other activities for families.

The only other year Homestead’s attendance has topped 100,000 was in 2012, when 103,000 people visited the site to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act of 1862, for which the NPS site was established. To mark the occasion, the original Homestead Act document, signed by President Abraham Lincoln himself, was on display in Gage County.

The 2017 eclipse was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many, though Superintendent Mark Engler speculated the rare event will have an impact on Homestead for years to come.

Homestead hosts a variety of annual activities such as the spelling bee and fiddling competition. Engler said the NPS site is also always looking for new events to bring in visitors.

“We’re always hearing from the public what they would like to see us do,” he said. “We often get ideas from the community or visitors. We’re always looking. From that standpoint, we are always in a listening mode.”

Engler added that Homestead means more to the area than as just a way to bring in visitors. For many in Gage County, the NPS site is a source of identity.

“When they were in our community, they’re spending money and contributing to our community’s economic well-being,” Engler said. “Then also, for the community and the area, it’s a source of pride and it’s also in some ways an identity for us and for others when you see a business is using the name ‘homestead’ or see the monument or the free land idea referenced on patches. It’s even in the courthouse. When you’re in the chamber for the supervisors, you see individuals tied to the story that we represent painted on the walls.

“It’s a part of our history and for that, part of our identity and source of pride.”