Friday, June 25, 2010

Homestead's Artist-in-Residence: Why this land and not some other?

An artist residency at Homestead National Monument offers so many opportunities for a photographer. What am I expecting to see? Obviously the land as it is today after efforts to return it to the original tall grass prairie Daniel Freeman would have seen. Around it, though, is other, similar land exhibiting the 150 years of agricultural efforts started by homesteaders. The contrast is very appealing to me as a way to tell a story through pictures.

by Mel Mann

My photography passion is the outdoors. After years in a corporate life my ability to be outdoors with my camera is very appealing. As many visitors have discovered, the land of the Monument is filled with visual opportunities. Here I am able to find compositions ranging from expansive views to tiny flowers hiding in the grass, from winding creek muddied with the silt of the ground to streaming clouds flying across the sun or moon. Deer and birds roam the prairie constantly, some shy and some gregarious. There is a rhythm to the changing land felt in the wind blowing the grasses into a waving surf and the light playing across the ground as clouds race under the sun.

What intrigues me the most about a residency at Homestead National Monument is the accessibility of the park. You can see the whole of the park in an afternoon stroll. Unlike other locations in the national park system, Homestead is defined by its history - 160 acres of land served as a home and business - not by the grand landscape. The Monument represents history along with being a place in history, a proxy for all the other homesteads across the country. It is a lens that focuses on the efforts of a grand experiment to return public lands to the country’s citizens.

I’ve roamed around the woods and prairie for two weeks during all times of day and night, observing the weather changing the light. Light is critical to photographers beyond simply illumination. It is the medium we use to sculpt an image, the way we draw the viewer’s eye to what we believe are the important parts of the picture. The variable spring weather has given me ample options for lighting from clear sky to racing clouds to overcast. Combined with patience afforded by my residency - wait a bit and the light will change - I’ve found compositions a casual glance might miss. Simply paying attention to what is going on around me and what I am seeing through my viewfinder. That’s a significant advantage to a residency. Not rushed into taking snapshots but given time to make photographs.

Through all this part of the wonder is whether I’m seeing the land like Daniel Freeman saw it. Not only the lay of the land, the wildlife and vegetation, but rather the possibilities held by the land. Why this land and not some other? Why these boundaries and not some other shape? How did he see the future of this 160 acres for his family?

To get benefit from his homestead, Daniel Freeman had to change it to agricultural uses. Crops meant food for family and market, trees meant logs for cabins and fences, clay turned into bricks for a more solid and weather-tight house. All these changes took a toll on the prairie, some that are evident in pictures from the late 1800s and early 1900s but not evident in the Monument today. Continued practices virtually eliminated the original shape and look of the land around it, though, as any traveler through the Great Plains will note. Terraced furrows of corn, soybeans, sunflowers and wheat now stand where prairie once reigned.

We are still learning the value of prairie as it was originally. Knowledge of the benefits from environmental diversity were unavailable as the homesteaders fanned out across this part of the country. The land as they saw it was presumed useless until the hand of man created value from it. Over the intervening time we’ve learned there is value in seemingly empty prairie, more than the crops that can be grown on it. There are physical and emotional benefits of being at a place like Homestead Monument, seeing the land as it was. Part of my photography is intended to capture the essence of those benefits and preserve them for reflection.

Mel Mann Photography, LLC

15418 Weir St. #334
Omaha, NE 68137

Friday, June 18, 2010

Rachel Teaches Us to Fight the Odds with Perseverance

“If one wants to improve one’s life, or reach a goal, one must work hard, wait patiently, and never give up” (Calof, 1995). I would say that is a good philosophy for life right? Rachel Calof’s Story is a memoir, written by sixty year old women recalling her early days of homesteading. After reading her book, that is exactly how Rachael lived her life. Today I would like to recognize Rachel Calof, a pioneer homesteader was not rich or famous, but her life story of hardship and perseverance is extraordinary.

By Alycia Fritzen
Southeast Community College

In her book, Rachel Calof’s Story, published in 1995, she tells us the horror that she faced during her homesteading days. Thankfully, with Rachel’s memoir she gave a descriptive look into the pioneer lifestyle. At the age of four her mother died, and from that point on she lived a childhood full of abuse. Her father deserted her and her new family decided rather than take care of her; they shipped her off to America as a mail-order-bride. She would marry Abraham Calof at the young age of eighteen. Rachel left everything she knew and traveled to a homestead in North Dakota.
The early years on the homestead were the most challenging. They lived in one room shanties, with dirt floors. Rachel says, “out of all the privations of I know as a homesteader, the lack of privacy was the hardest to bear” (Calof, 1995). During the winter months, Rachel, Abraham, their growing children, their brother’s family and their parents would pool their resources and live together in their 12x14 shanty. Their livestock lived in the house as well; cows, chickens etc. The hardships Rachel faced didn’t end with a dirty shanty to say the least.

Even though Rachel and Abraham had some agricultural background they suffered great crop devastation from Mother Nature (Calof, 1995). Just as we know today, the weather can change everything in minutes. In her book Rachel remembers a beautiful summer morning. The family had a great crop this year and they were planning on building their home that spring with the harvested money. In the evening a tornado went through ruined everything. The wheat was hammered to the ground; the hail broke out the windows on the house and killed their horse. She remembers just being happy to be alive and they managed to clean up and they did build their house that following spring.

Another hardship Rachel faced was the constant child bearing. Rachel and Abraham had nine children and all of them survived to adulthood. Obviously there wasn’t any kind of pain relief but she didn’t even have a bed. She delivered seven of her children on the on top a pile of hay on the floor. After the deliveries of her children, she was up doing her usual chores within a half an hour. Things like making supper, hauling water from the lake, and caring for the other children (Calof 1995).

In her book she always has a sense of calmness to her that takes her from one challenge to another. A special triumph Rachel accomplished was when she decided nature was to be conquered and civilization needed to put in its place. The people in this room wouldn’t know what it’s like to live according to sunlight. Rachel decided to separate herself from the animals that were forced to rely on daylight. She decided to make lamps out of mud, rag scraps, and butter. She was giggly inside at what she had done. Finally, she could go to sleep when she desired (Calof, 1995).
Rachel might have lived in a shanty, but instead of sulking and complaining she always made the most of it. In her book she tells about caulking all the cracks in the wall with clay. She had the smoothest walls in the state. Abraham and Rachel always hosted all gathering throughout their lives do to Rachel’s hidden talents in homemaking (Calof, 1995). Rachel was an everyday woman that helped to get us where we are today.
So, in the time that I have spent with you, I’ve taken the opportunity to acknowledge that Rachel Calof, a pioneer homesteader, is indeed worthy of our admiration. May 15, 2010, Laureen Riedesel, a historian at the Beatrice public library says, Rachel teaches us to fight the odds with perseverance and hard work. Like I said before Rachel wasn’t rich or famous but it’s the ordinary people that make or break it. Abraham Lincoln might have signed the Homestead Act into effect, but it was the people like Rachel that worked hard to reach ones goal and never gave up.
Calof, R. (1995). Rachel Calof’s story. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
L. Ridesel (personal communication, May15, 2010)

Links of interest:,pdf,CalofBio,b.pdf

Friday, June 11, 2010

Homestead Naturalization Ceremony

Flag Day - June 14, 2009

Comments by
Ranger Merrith Baughman

Good Afternoon!

Welcome again to Homestead National Monument of America.

Of America…Of all 391 National Park Service sites across this country…from our East Coast’s Ellis Island, part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument, to our West Coast’s Golden Gate Bridge, surrounded by Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and beyond…this is the only National Park Service site with “of America” as part of its name.

Why “of America” for this place in the middle of the Nation?

It is because this place commemorates one of the most important and radical laws ever passed by a government; a law not for the wealthy, not for the powerful but for the people. This law was the Homestead Act, signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862…a law that made land ownership possible for millions of people; a law that literally broadened this country’s horizon for the people it encouraged to settle in the vast stretches of the American Midwest and West. For a small filing fee, a “Homesteader” could claim up to 160 acres of public domain, land owned by the Federal Government, in 30 states. By making the land they claimed their home and working the land for five years…

“Homesteaders” become land owners… free land for a free people.

At the time the Homestead Act was passed owning land was a dream of hundreds of thousands of people. Why? Because owning land rather than working someone else’s property meant a better life for their family and a better future for their children’s children. To own land was to claim the American Dream…that your destiny was not determined by the class into which you were born but that anyone willing to work hard could create their own prosperity.

The Homestead Act of 1862 made this American Dream a reality for millions.

And who were these “Homesteaders”?

The law read “That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such.”

You see it is fitting that you are here today for your Naturalization Ceremony. Because in midst of the Civil War the U.S. Government saw the value in offering land not just to its citizens but the citizens of the World willing to come to the United States of America and become part of this country’s future. Just like those Homesteaders of our country’s past you are now part of our country’s future.

And…in just a few moments all of you taking the “Oath of Citizenship” will also be “of America.”

On behalf of the National Park Service let me say a heartfelt Congratulations!

Editor's Note:
Flag Day Naturalization Ceremony

Date: June 14, 2010 Time: 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM
Location: Education Center

Homestead National Monument of America is honored to host a United States Citizenship and Naturalization Ceremony on Flag Day, June 14, 2010. There will be over thirty new citizens sworn in at the ceremony. The ceremony will take place at 2 p.m. in the education center`s courtyard and the public is invited to attend.

Citizens from around the world will be represented. "Homestead National Monument of America is the perfect place to host this event. The Homestead Act of 1862 had a tremendous impact upon immigration, bringing millions of people to the United States to become citizens and pursue the American Dream through owning land," stated Superintendent Mark Engler. "These new citizens are doing the same thing."

Friday, June 4, 2010

Homestead's Artist-in-Residence: A Day of Stories

The very first day that Nelson, my husband, and I arrived at Homestead for my two week stay as a storytelling artist in residence, I walked through the woods, along the river, past the tree line and up to the plow shaped heritage center. In the auditorium out of the sun, I watched the movie, which serves as an introduction to the exhibits. I listened to the grey haired lady speaking about her ancestors. She said it was a miracle that that the homesteaders survived. They had to battle the weather, the land and loneliness. They only survived, she said, through working together, as families and as a community.

By Sally Crandall
Artist-in-Residence 2010

Every morning, I practiced a little for the up coming storytelling festival. I was nervous. Would the audiences like my stories from Ohio? Thinking about the stories I would be telling, I passed the banners of the people who homesteaded and those who descended from those early homesteaders: Whoopie Goldberg, Lawrence Welk, plus a bunch of others. I usually made a stop in the staff library where I read about prairie plants as medicine and prairie plants as food. I read about the importance of fire too and about the prairie itself, and then I took a walk around the park, often stopping to watch the video in the heritage center. I loved to hear the stories of all the families. Watching Ken Deardorff, the last homesteader, so full of adventure and happiness with his young family, brought tears to my eyes every time.

The first day of the storytelling festival was hot. Kids came in buses and we told stories under the tent and inside the education building. At the end of the day, I walked the perimeter of the prairie land, up to the heritage center, and watched the movie again. Arriving back at our house, Jesse, who keeps the prairie a prairie, said there were severe thunderstorms coming. He said to call if we needed help. We kept the radio on, and the sky grew dark. The wind whipped the trees, the thunder rumbled like death itself was on the doorstep, and the radio station talked about finding safe places inside

Jesse, when he spoke to us earlier, said he wasn’t sure we could hear the siren, but we did. Nelson couldn’t find his shoes. I couldn’t find the flashlight even though I had just put it down. We pulled open the heavy door of the shelter and stood on the big floor mat, which says "Welcome" in 10 languages. I turned the battery operated light on. We thought about locking all four locks on the door, but, instead, propped it open with a big white bucket and watched the rain fall sideways and the hail follow. The closet at the back of the room held blankets, and ready to eat food and bottles of water, all under the watchful eye of Daniel Freeman in poster form, the first homesteader. This land had been his home. How many times had he witnessed the dark whirling sky and the never-ending rumble of thunder? The rain slowed. Nelson and I scurried back to our house only to find that Meredith, the park ranger, and Mark, the park manager, had tried to reach us, as well as Nelson’s sister and nephew, who both live in Lincoln. All those folks hoping we were safe.

Finally, the radio station broadcast music again. I went to bed. I was sure I wouldn’t sleep. I was sure I couldn’t sleep, but, despite myself, when I heard the spring peepers start again and when I heard a truck roll by on the road outside, followed by a car, I did.

The next morning, there were all the yellow buses in the sunshine. I thought it was a miracle. The tents were standing. The birds were singing. I walked past the banners of the homesteaders and their descendants and out into the tent packed with kids. There we were, all of us: teachers, parents, kids, retired folks, and park rangers. I heard the voices of the distance-learning children coming out of the computer. We were ready, eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart, for a day of stories, which, even in a time so removed from what the homesteaders knew, still have the power to bind us together. It’s not the stories that were the miracle, however. Stories are old and slow growing like the prairie. The miracle is that amid the hurry of our lives and the pressure in today’s schools, that so many remembered, set aside time and came to listen.