News from the Homestead
December 2020

Happy Holidays from all of the staff here at Homestead National Monument of America!

We invite you to experience the Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures, either online with the wonderful schedule of programs, or in person with the exhibit at the Education Center. The exhibit celebrates the winter traditions of the many diverse cultures who called the Great Plains home during the period of the Homestead Act.

As a reminder, Homestead National Monument of America's Heritage Center and Education Center will be closed on December 24th and 25th, and on New Year's Day, January 1st. The park grounds and trails will remain open to visitors during daylight hours on these days.

Have a happy, safe, and healthy holiday season.


Mark Engler, Superintendent
Upcoming Events

Special Events and Exhibits at Homestead National Monument of America:

November - December: Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures Exhibit (Education Center and Heritage Center)

August - December: "Rightfully Hers" Suffrage Exhibit (Heritage Center)

Tuesday, December 24th, 2:00 PM: Monument is closed.

Wednesday, December 25th: Monument is closed
Finding Peace in Parks - Winter on the Prairie
Image of the National Park Service buffalo logo in snowflakes.
December is a great time to Find Peace in Parks. December 21st brings the first day of winter. The patterns of the winter season are upon us. Over the last month migratory birds have headed south to their wintering grounds. Our resident thirteen-lined ground squirrels have all entered hibernation. The grasses and plants of the prairie have gone dormant for the winter too - gone are blooming milkweeds, goldenrod, thistles, resting until next year. As winter settles in and many of us dream of hibernating, Homestead is a great place to visit as a place of healing, inspiration, and peace.

Come visit the trails. Once the snow falls on the prairie, it is a tranquil and serene winter wonderland. You can even bring your skis for a bit of crosscountry skiing! Favorite staff spots in the winter include the Cottonwood Loop amongst the trees - which help block the north wind. Winter is a great time to come out and birdwatch. You might see owls, eagles, geese, blue jays, and more. If you visit in the early evening you can watch the vibrant hues of the sunset against the prairie and the Palmer-Epard Cabin from the Heritage.

Don't forget this winter to turn your eyes to the skies for a few important stargazing events. On December 21st, the planets of Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer in the night sky than they have in nearly 800 years! Also of note is the Geminid meteor shower, which will peak on the night of December 13th - 14th (Sunday night into dawn on Monday). If you're out at 2 a.m. you might see 50+ meteors per hour!

However you decide to find peace in parks, we hope you enjoy a wonderful winter holiday season.
Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures
Image of three festively decorated holiday trees in the Homestead Education Center.
Image of the Palmer-Epard Cabin in winter. Snow is covering the ground.
Image of the Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures exhibit in the Homestead Education Center. Multiple trees and some artwork is visible.
Top left: Image of three trees in the Education Center, decorated for the Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures.

Bottom left: Palmer-Epard Cabin and Osage Orange Hedgerow under a fine coating of snow.

Right: Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures exhibit in the Education Center.
Homestead National Monument of America will be presenting the Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures, from November 27, 2020 through January 3, 2021. These sparkling holiday displays showcase ethnic traditions of the people who lived in the Great Plains. These holiday displays, which include decorated trees, ornaments, tabletop displays with hand-made crafts, traditions, and other festivities, will be at both the Homestead Education and Heritage Centers.

Cultures represented include African-American, Czech, French, German, Jewish, Hispanic, Irish, Polish, Scottish, Swedish, and Welsh. Our Winter Festival remembers this rich heritage and celebrates the many diverse cultures of all those who called the Great Plains home during the era of the Homestead Act.

Sunday, December 13, The Traditions and Legacy of Jewish Homesteaders: Rebecca E. Bender

Learn about the more than 400 Russian and Romanian Jewish homesteaders who settled on about eighty-five farms in McIntosh County, North Dakota, beginning in 1905. Learn about the traditions and cultural practices of these homesteaders from an author who is descended from a family who participated in the movement. Check it out below!
YouTube video of Rebecca Bender's program. Closed Captioning available at
The Winter Festival of Prairie Cultures is possible due to the generous support of Humanities Nebraska, the Friends of Homestead, and our volunteers. The event will transport guests back in time to see the diverse winter traditions of those who lived on the plains during the Homestead Era. The promise of the Homestead Act brought a variety of cultural and ethnic traditions to the United States and transformed our nation. “The Homestead Act of 1862 attracted people from all over the world. The various displays and presentations provide a festive and educational way to celebrate the holiday season,” said Mark Engler, Superintendent at Homestead National Monument of America.
Now Accepting Applications for the Artist-in-Residence Program for 2021!
Image of an artist creating art in the Homestead Education Center.

Are you an artist with a love for national parks?

Apply to be an Artist-in-Residence at Homestead National Monument of America in 2021!

We are now accepting applications for painters, composers, musicians, carvers, writers, and more! During the residency, the artist will explore Homestead's historical and natural themes and present a public program.

To learn more and begin your application you can visit our website:

If you have questions, you can also email

Jesse's Jottings - The Heritage Farm Field
Image of a man behind two horses pulling a plow in front of the Homestead Heritage Center.
One acre just north of the Heritage Center is set aside to demonstrate historic farming techniques. This year got away from us, so it sat fallow until this fall. Ranger Jessica, Historian Jon and I have been discussing making a how-to video showing at least some aspects of how the Homesteaders would have went about planting and harvesting their crops using methods early homesteader could have used.

With the help of some great volunteers (Kevin Knaber and Lance Brinkman), we were able to get the field plowed. Just hooking up the team was a task in itself. It was great to have Kevin talk us through the mechanics of how and why. Lance's trusty John Deere tractor and plow made quick work of what we did not finish with the team of horses. To break up what the plow left behind it would have been best just to let it sit all winter, but our plan was to plant winter wheat, so we put the four-foot tiller on the front of the skid steer. Yes, I know a disk would have been more historically accurate, but the parks disk is neatly stowed away in the back and it was much easier to get the tiller out.

After tilling the field Jon and I planted it with vintage Seed Kaster, a hand cranked cyclone seed sower. This was followed by harrowing the field to lightly cover the seed.

So, we got it planted relying on neighbors to help work the soil, neighbors to buy the seed from and a little manpower from Jon and I to sow the seeds using the cyclone seed sower. 

Being optimistic like so many farmers before us we are now making plans to harvest the wheat. At the park we often talk about how the earliest homesteaders relied on hand power. In our farm implement room at the Education Center we have a grain cradle above the replica of the McCormick Reaper. Of course, we cannot take that one down and use it so now Ranger Jesse is the proud owner of a 1800's grain cradle that appears almost new except for a crack in the handle and a few pieces of baling wire holding it together.  

As the owner of a grain cradle a hay rake is now needed, to the wood pile I must go...

Splitting the logs would be much easier and accurate if I had a froe...

If I had a forge a froe could be made from an old lawnmower blade...

If I had a forge I would need an anvil...

If I had an anvil and a forge a shelter to place them under would be nice...

And that is why you had better not let this ranger have a slice of bread because then I will be looking for a cow, and then a bull, and then I will definitely need a cream separator and a churn...

Stay tuned, hopefully in late June or early July we will determine how much work it really was to harvest an acre of wheat using a grain cradle (or perhaps we will be calling on our neighbors and their trusty John Deere again).
Homestead Historian casting seeds in a plowed field at Heritage Center.
Early Beatrice History through Homestead's Museum Collections
Image of Homestead Staff with large flag in front of Education Center.
Homestead staff with Beatrice's first flag.
Nebraska in many ways is the epicenter of homesteading across the country. But even though Gage County is home to Daniel Freeman, the first homesteader, our history goes back even further than that. In 1855, the Territory of Nebraska established 19 counties. Gage County was named for Reverend William D. Gage, who was the chaplain of the territorial legislature. The town of Beatrice was founded in 1857, and named in honor of Julia Beatrice Kinney, the daughter of Judge James F. Kinney. Did you know that the city almost had a different name? In a vote over the town name, Beatrice narrowly won out over “Wheatland,” 16 votes to 9.

Residents of nearby Nebraska City honored the new town of Beatrice with a visit for Independence Day that year, and brought a flag created by the ladies of Nebraska City. The massive flag was dedicated with a public ceremony, including the reading of a poem written by Beatrice’s namesake, Julia Beatrice Kinney. The flag eventually made its way to the museum collection of Homestead National Monument of America in 1948. After a story including the flag appeared in Newsweek Magazine following 9/11, Gage County museum officials realized that the flag which had long been supposed lost was just down the road. The flag was deaccessioned from the monument and returned to the Gage County Museum in 2006, where it honors the early history of Beatrice.

When Congress authorized the creation of Homestead National Monument of America, we were congressionally mandated to maintain a museum "in which shall be preserved literature applying to such settlement and agricultural implements used in bringing the western plains to its present high state of civilization, and to use the said tract of land for such other objects and purposes as in his judgment may perpetuate the history of the country mainly developed by the homestead law.”
From the very beginning the museum was an important part of Homestead and commemorating the Homestead Act and its influence on the country and the world.

The museum collection began and continues to grow from people in the surrounding communities. The Mayerhoff-Dietz Collection is a prime example of how the community has contributed to the museum collection. In October 1948, the Gage County Board of Supervisors donated a collection of ethnological and historical artifacts relating to pioneer life on the Great Plains. Museum items are also received from citizens that live great distances away, such as from the last homesteader, Ken Deardorff.

Homestead maintains an extensive museum collection: over 9,000 archaeological artifacts, 6,700 historical objects, more than 1,000 scientific specimens, and over 928,000 archival documents. That’s nearly a million items in the collection! Objects include things like textiles, farm tools, artwork, toys, medical equipment, plant and animal specimens, and much more. You can see collection items in exhibits throughout the park. Be sure to check out the window into the collection room at the Heritage Center. You can also view the collection in our online web catalog, or even research the collection in person. Learn more at 
Image of Bureau of Land Management Archeologist Bob King
Did You Know?
Bob King

The Story of the Swanson Brothers, Early 20th Century Florida Homesteaders at the John F. Kennedy Space Center

In recent columns, I've written about a variety of homesteaders (male, female, young, old, immigrant, African American, Hispanic, veterans, widows, and more). Their special stories reflect some of the many ways that people obtained federal land to improve their lives. This column tells the story of two brothers who joined the early 20th century land rush to Florida, with their land now part of the John F. Kennedy Space Center. Whether they really intended to become long-time farmers seems much less likely than simply taking advantage of a great opportunity to get “free” federal homestead land and then make money by selling it for a profit.

Let me introduce you to Andrew “Andy” Sibilious Swanson (1890-1965) and Ralph Lebanon Swanson (1893-1972). They were the second and third of three sons born to John A. Swanson and his wife Anna, in Cattaraugus County, New York. In the later 1910s, life for both Andy and Ralph would completely change. Both would leave New York to claim homesteads in east-central Florida.

In late 1918, following the end of World War I, Florida experienced a land boom. Florida’s warm weather, growing tourist and agricultural economy, along with improved railroads and increasing road access in the age of rising car ownership, all figured into Florida being recast as a warm paradise and a land of opportunities, including a place to invest and make money. National newspapers carried stories about people streaming into Florida by the thousands to get in on the real estate boom. One measure of what was happening with skyrocketing land sales and speculation in southern Florida in the “Roaring ‘20s” was the staggeringly thick July 26, 1925 issue of the Miami News newspaper. It had a record 504 pages, mostly real estate ads, and weighed over seven pounds!

While much of the real estate craze occurred in south Florida, other areas of the state were also involved including Brevard County, in central-eastern Florida, which today has a population of more than 600,000 people. But before Florida’s great land boom, Brevard County was sparsely settled. The 1910 census reported only 4,717 people in the county, and still only 8,505 by 1920. But in 1920, that number included Andy Swanson. However, before he started homesteading there by early 1919, he was already living in Jacksonville.

On June 5, 1917, Andy registered with the draft board. Between his employment with the State Board of Health and his service with the Florida Naval Militia, he was not shipped overseas to fight in the war. On July 23, 1917, Andy’s younger brother Ralph had enlisted for service in the U.S. Navy. He served for over two years until being discharged on September 27, 1919 in New York City. He last served on the USS Mercury, and during his two years of duty, Ralph was stationed on a number of naval vessels where he served as an electrician.

Before Ralph’s discharge in the fall of 1919, his brother Andy had established a homestead claim on 160 acres of federal land on Merritt Island in Brevard County, east of Orlando, Florida. His homestead land today is within the southwestern part of the John F. Kennedy Space Center property, with the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge lying north of the Space Center.

What caused Andy to settle on this particular tract of land in what was then a relatively remote and sparsely settled area not connected to the mainland of Florida is unclear. But not having been a farmer in his youth, and having been an employee of the State of Florida at a time when real estate values were on the rise, suggests a likely reason: the hope that getting 160 acres of “free” homestead land could help him financially. After his discharge from the Navy in the fall of 1919, Ralph joined Andy in Florida.

The 1920 federal census reported that Andy S. Swanson was farming on his homestead claim in “Precinct 15” in Brevard County, Florida on Merritt Island. Ralph was living with him at that time and may have assisted him with some of the work needed for Andy to be granted his land in 1923 under the Three-Year Homestead Act of 1912.
Sometime after the census was taken, Ralph filed his own homestead claim on 157.65 acres of federal land adjoining his brother’s land to the south. While initially living together in early 1920, Ralph would have established his own residence on his own adjacent homestead claim made later in 1920, to meet homesteading requirements.

The 1912 Three Year Homestead law effectively amended the 1862 Homestead Act. A homesteader’s residency required on the land was decreased from five to three years, with up to five months of absence from the land allowed during each of those three years. This allowed homesteaders the possibility of getting temporary employment elsewhere to earn money needed to continuing homesteading.

By 1922, Andy had met the requirements to get his homestead and filed a notice with the U.S. Land Office in Gainesville, Florida to prove up on his claim, which was successful. On August 22, 1922, Andy’s homestead was patented to him by the General Land Office. Thereafter, on November 11, 1922, he registered his homestead patent with the Clerk of the Circuit Court at the Brevard County Courthouse in Titusville, Florida. To get there from his homestead, Andy had to leave Merritt Island and travel west to the Florida mainland across Indian River. The process for Andy’s brother Ralph to get his homestead was similar. In early 1923, Ralph filed to prove up on his homestead and received patent to it on May 26, 1923.

As early as 1949, the military was performing test rocket launches at what by that time had become part of the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, partly located in the same Township as the Swanson brothers’ land on Merritt Island. With the start of the Space Age in the 1950s, the area would only become more important to the federal government.

In the late 1950s, the government established the Long Range Proving Ground on Merritt Island that later became part of the John F. Kennedy Space Center. That helped stimulate further developments in that part of Brevard County. By 1962, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), an independent agency of the U.S. federal government, began further land acquisition, buying title to 131 square miles of land on Merritt Island and negotiating with the state of Florida for an additional 87 square miles of land. Included were Andy and Ralph Swanson’s homesteads and those of their neighbors patented in the 1910s and 1920s.

However, by the late 1950s and early 1960s when this was occurring, Andy Swanson was long gone from his Merritt Island homestead. He likely sold it soon after gaining title to it in 1922.
The 1930 federal census reported that Andy S. Swanson was then married to Nell Parsons (1902-1979), with both living in a rented house ($50 per month) in the small town of Perry in Taylor County in northern Florida, about 50 miles southeast of Tallahassee.
By 1935, Andy S. Swanson and his wife Nell had moved again—this time to southern California where they lived the rest of their lives in Los Angeles County.

Ralph, like his brother Andy, also did not remain long on his adjoining homestead, which he had received in 1923. But instead of moving into northern Florida like Andy, Ralph moved south. By 1930, Ralph was married to Gertrude Honeywell (1906-1999), and had a young son. They were living in Palm Beach County, Florida at the historic Jupiter Lighthouse, where Ralph served as the First Assistant Keeper from 1928 to 1946. After that, he was transferred to the Fowey Rocks light station, located seven miles southeast of Cape Florida on Key Biscayne, near Miami.

When Andy died in 1965, his brother Ralph was retired and living in West Palm Beach, Florida with his family. Subsequently, Ralph remained in Florida the rest of his life dying in Palm Beach, Florida in 1972.

In sum, both brothers are examples of early 20th century homesteaders in Florida, who were part of the population surge and land boom at that time. That they were two of several homesteaders who settled on what is now part of the John F. Kennedy Space Center may be a surprise to many people who might not have thought about the Space Center as a place that had been homesteaded. Yet, the story of the Swanson brothers just underscores that homesteading was widespread in America from the 1860s into the 1980s, and occurred in many places that may surprise us today. Learning about the often fascinating stories of real homesteaders during this 120+ year period only enriches our understanding of how really important homesteading was in the history of the United States.
The Last Homesteader's Cabin
Image of Last Homesteader Ken Deardorff's homestead cabin.
Ken Deardorff is recognized as the last homesteader in America. He filed a claim on 80 acres of land on the Stony River in southwestern Alaska. In many ways, he had similar experiences to those homesteading decades before him elsewhere in America. He built all the buildings on his homestead from white spruce trees. He fished and hunted wild game for food. Transportation methods were limited. The challenges he faced included wildlife, extreme weather, isolation, and the difficulties of farming. Still, like millions of homesteaders, he persisted, and "proved up" his land. He received the final patent in 1988, officially becoming The Last Homesteader.

Homestead National Monument of America has acquired quite a few of his items over the years including his 1945 Allis-Chalmers tractor, which is on exhibit in the lobby of the Heritage Center. In November 2020, the park accepted another item from Deardorff, drawings of his plans to add the second story to his log cabin. Homesteaders had to be resourceful and repurposed items whenever possible. Deardorff was no different, these meticulous plans were drawn on the backs of sugar bags!
Architectural plans for Ken Deardorff's cabin, drawn on the back of a sugar bag.