The cornfields around Bob Graff’s farmhouse near Beatrice, Neb. (pop. 12,496), are green and lush, each stalk reaching to the sun in perfectly spaced rows.
Looking across his fields, Graff, 82, gives thanks not only to the good Lord for his many blessings, but also to the vision of his ancestors who first plowed the tall-grass prairie nearly 150 years ago.
Graff’s great-great-grandfather Joseph Graff immigrated to the United States from Germany in 1860 in search of land—and a new life in America. He ended up near Beatrice, and in 1863, filed a claim for 160 acres under the newly enacted Homestead Act. Most of that acreage remains in the Graff family today.
“He was the type of person I respect,” Graff says. “He was honest and trustworthy and worked to make the community better for everyone.”
Historical records indicate that the first Catholic worship services in Gage County were conducted in the Graff log cabin, and when the first St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was built in Beatrice, members of the Graff family pitched in with hammers and nails.
Those are the type of people who settled Gage County—primarily German, Czech and Welsh immigrants—and founded Beatrice in 1857. And they are among the 1.6 million homesteaders who responded to the cry of “Free Land!” and the opening of 270 millions acres of public land primarily in the western United States.
“Most nations didn’t allow commoners to own land, so this really became a symbol of the American dream,” says Mark Engler, 51, superintendent of the Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice.
While the monument would be relevant almost anywhere in the 30 states where homesteading was encouraged, the National Park Service site was established in 1936 on the former homestead of Daniel Freeman, the person credited with filing the first claim—just minutes after midnight on Jan. 1, 1863—under the Homestead Act.
The purpose of the Homestead Act was to encourage settlement across the mostly uninhabited parts of the nation, including the vast Great Plains. People who built a home, planted crops and improved the land gained title to 160 acres after five years. In so doing, they helped settle the nation.
“If it hadn’t been for the help of neighbors, these people wouldn’t have made it,” says Grace Zimmerman, 87, of Beatrice. Her great-grandparents arrived in New York Harbor from Germany while U.S. flags were still at half-mast, in respect for President Abraham Lincoln following his assassination in 1865. Lincoln signed the Homestead Act in May 1862.
Zimmerman’s son, Elmer, now owns the land that her ancestors homesteaded.
“Beatrice is still a neighborly place today,” Grace says. “When my brother was sick, everyone came and helped harvest his crops that year.”
Each June, the town celebrates its heritage during Homestead Days. The week-long event features a parade and carnival, pancake breakfasts and ice cream socials, high school class reunions and citywide garage sales, as well as historical re-enactors, educational programs and pioneer craft demonstration at Homestead National Monument of America.
But perhaps most significantly, Homestead National Monument hosts a naturalization ceremony. Last year, 14 immigrants became American citizens when they pledged allegiance to the United States.
“Our story is very much an international story,” Engler says. “What happened here beginning with Daniel Freeman not only changed the lives of millions of individuals, but changed the balance of power in the world, as so many came in search of the freedom of land in America.”