Sunday, June 17, 2012

Free Land and Sod Houses

From time to time Congress has risen above partisan politics and passed major legislation that would positively impact countless people and future generations. To name a few -- after World War II there was the GI Bill of Rights that enabled veterans to get a college education. In the 1960s there was the Civil Rights Act that helped bring an end to segregation and Jim, Crow laws. And amazingly during the Civil War Congress passed and President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act in May of 1862. This act offered to any person 21 years or older the ability to file a claim on 160 acres of land. The filing fee was all of $18.00. The Act required the homesteader to build a house, plow a small acreage for crops and establish a residence for five years in order to receive ownership. This was called “prove up.”  Here in South Dakota one such original prairie sod house is still standing and is now on the National Historic Register. The Brown homestead is located not far from the entrance to the Badlands National Park.
Ed and Alice Brown settled here in 1909.  The right half of the house was added some years later when they obtained a small wood cabin and attached it to the sod house.

Notice the "green" roof.  Whenever practical, sod homes were built into the side of a hill.  This added structural stability,  more insulation value and increased storm protection. 

This side of the house was a small cabin that later was added to the home to give it a living room.

.  Kitchen 
 The doorway with the white curtain leads to the only and very small bedroom.
 Outdoor plumbing in winter or summer.
 This 75gallon kettle was used to render hogs and to clean bedding in hot water.
 The barn
The ancestors of these Prairie Dogs must have made life miserable for Mrs. Brown's vegetable garden.
The one-car garage
Mr. Brown dug this water well by hand -- all 30 feet deep.

This homestead is a tribute to iron will, sacrifice, extreme hardship and the success of unbending determination to create a home and a legacy for future family generations. It was a common comment made by homesteaders that the U.S. Government was willing to bet 160 acres of land against $18 and the severe challenge of surviving for five years. Many lost the bet.

Western South Dakota was one of the last areas to be homesteaded. Mr. Brown acquired his land in 1909. He passed away just 11 years later, but his widow Alice remained for many years. Her memories were surprisingly happy ones. She loved the house, the land and all of her neighbors who formed a close community which undoubtedly helped them all survive.

In the 1960s the family gave the homestead to the State of South Dakota. Some minor restoration work was necessary, but essentially the farm is the same as when it was last worked in the middle of the 20th Century.

The Brown homestead is one of a very few to survive the elements and modernization, but practically every 160 acre quarter section near the Browns has a depression on the side of a hill or at the edge of a bank where a homestead family dug in for a new starts in life.

As Sandy and I stood on the property and walked into the sod home and the farm buildings we tried to imagine what it must have been like on hot summer days under blistering sun or in bitter winters as well as during the dust storms of the early 20th Century. I for one and glad I was not born into a homesteader's family. 

Additional facts:

>The Homestead Act ended in 1986 in Alaska, the last state to participate. 

>1.6 million homesteads were proved up.  This represents just 40% of the total allocated.  The failure rate was high. 

>270 millions acres of privately owned property in the U.S. came about as a result of this great program

>10 percent of all land in the U.S. was acquired through the Homestead Act

A final thought--

Human nature is still the same today as in all previous ages.  During the early years of  the  Homestead Act, there were con artists who set up phony offices, took in the cash and issued bogus claims not worth the paper they were printed on.  Then the crooks folded up their tents and moved on to another town to commit the fraud all over again.  With all of the schemers and scamers on the internet just let your imagination run wild and try to imagine how this program would have turned out had it been introduced a couple of years ago.   

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