Friday, May 28, 2010

Homestead's Unique Palmer-Epard Cabin

The Palmer-Epard cabin has stood at Homestead National Monument of America for 60 years as a representation of the hardships endured by the homesteaders. The cabin helps visitors visualize the dimensions of the dwellings that dotted the prairie during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, the Palmer-Epard cabin was somewhat unique to the homestead experience. The cabin is made of wood, a resource not readily available to the majority of early homesteaders. This cabin would have been the dream of such pioneers living farther west where trees were scarce and lumber was expensive. Instead, many had to settle for homes created out of the earth; a sod home or a dugout. A home, no matter what it was made of, was a necessity, not only for shelter, but to satisfy the residency criteria written into the Homestead Act.

George Washington Palmer came to Nebraska in 1865 to take advantage of the rich soil and mild climate he had heard about from his brothers in law. Like most new arrivals, he did not have the time or the resources to build a new home of wood. Palmer had to spend his first two years living, like many homesteaders, in a dugout. However, he did have access to a wooded area on his claim, and in 1867 he was able to build his family home. Palmer used seven different kinds of hardwoods to construct the two story cabin that measured 16’ x 14’. The cabin had a total of 336 square feet. The Palmer family, including his wife and five children, moved into the cabin in 1868.

Palmer’s story mirrors that of other homesteaders. Men would sometimes, not always, come to their tract of land prior to the arrival of his family. They would build the home and start the initial crops that would provide the food necessary for survival. Once the homestead was prepared, the family would then follow. The home was the central focus of most homesteads. Much work revolved around the crops, but dreams were realized in the home. Hardship and toil could always be found in the field, but small comforts and hopes of a better life could be found within the home.

For an immigrant coming from a life of serfdom or a laborer from a large city that had lived in a crowded tenement house, a home of their own would have been the fulfillment of a fantasy once thought impossible. The former slave who came to the prairie had gone from being property to owning property. The Homestead Act penetrated these insufferable environments and provided not only hope, but a means to achieve the American Dream. Owning land and property were ways of displaying success and wealth, but for many, these things represented freedom. The Palmer-Epard cabin meant many things to the various owners over the course of its 143 year history, but to me it stands as a symbol of the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence.

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