Friday, October 29, 2010

Homestead's Artist-in-Residence: Homestead Prairie Gleanings

By Judy Thompson
2010 Artist-in Residence
Homestead National Monument of America
Cottonwood Cows:  While at the Homestead, I encountered triple digit temperatures.  The hot, humid prairie offered little relief from these extreme conditions except for the few sparse cottonwoods scattered throughout the landscape.  Many times on the prairie, trees became personalities which were known throughout the area for their distinct ability to give shade to both man and beast.

I am a visual artist who is fascinated with the beauty and history of the Great Plains.  Through my watercolor landscapes, I attempt to capture not merely a likeness of my subject, but also a “sense of place.”  The Artist-in-Residence Program provided me with the unique opportunity to explore the history of the homesteaders while being immersed in the native tallgrass prairie.   My goal was to create a series of watercolor paintings depicting the prairies during the time of the first homesteaders.  My time at the monument included researching existing photos and records, as well as taking my own photos, and creating onsite sketches of the park environment.  These references were used to create compelling compositions of the homestead era.

Distant Harvest:  In my research, I came across many accounts of how the homestead life affected children.  For some children, moving to the prairie was an exciting adventure. However, many children soon realized that prairie life meant isolation.  Future dreams of careers as teachers, doctors, etc., were kept in check by their ability to receive education, and by the expectation for them to stay and work the family farm.   "Distant Harvest" speaks to the many sacrifices made by homesteader children.

Of the many interpretive themes of the Homestead National Monument, I am particularly interested in the change of ecosystem from the native tallgrass prairie to cultivated farmland.  I am also inspired by the individuals and families who seized the opportunity to settle the West through the Homestead Act.  My hope is to put these themes together into a series of watercolor paintings which will tell a visual story of this revolutionary event in our nation’s history.

Prairie Impressions:  Speaks to the colors and mystique of the prairie landscape.  Subtle colors and textures give a peaceful mood to the flowering, flowing grasses.

In October of 2010, I am scheduled to give a solo exhibition in Brookings, South Dakota.  I want to entitle my show “Prairie Gleanings” and will include pieces of work from my time on the prairie at the Homestead National Monument.

Trail's End: The perils of homesteading were great. Many who tried were stopped by disease, lack of food, natural disaster and poor planning. Hopes, dreams and lives were often shattered. The prairie landscape was inviting yet hostile to those who tried to tame it. However, through time, it is the natural prairie which survives.

Uninterrupted time to observe, draw, and paint a subject is an artist’s dream.  The Artist-in-Residence Program provided me with the exciting opportunity to experience the prairie in a very personal way and challenged me to capture the beauty of the prairie through watercolor. During my time in residency, I created an art journal (sketch book) of plants, animals, landscapes, and skyscapes discovered at the park. I included in this journal my impressions, ideas, and notes.  This journal will provide me with artistic inspiration for years to come. 

Editor’s note: Judy was in residence August 1 through 15, 2010.

Artist website:

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Importance of Water in the Homestead Experience

I read a quote by Bernard Frank, deceased journalist and writer, in which he claimed, “You could write the story of man’s growth in terms of his epic concerns with water”. Initially, I passed this off as an oversimplification of human history; however, I began to contemplate man’s “epic concerns” with water, and consider the implications this had on past events. The ability to obtain and control fresh water sources has been one of the key features of civilization from antiquity through the present. This was especially true to homesteaders who decided to stake their claim in the semi-arid regions of the Great Plains.

Humans have a few basic needs in order to survive; food, air, shelter, and water. Histories of homesteading often focus on food production and the primitive shelters that settlers were living in; while water, and its acquisition, often remains a tertiary focal point unless it was lacking as it was in the 1930’s. I can only assume the former are more appealing because sod houses and tar-paper shacks are more visually engaging or crops are the measurable products of a farmer’s painstaking efforts.

The link between crops and rain is so intertwined that the two seemed to have reached a causal relationship, thus we overlook the importance of water for human and animal consumption.
Homesteaders ideally sought land that was situated near a water source. Quarter sections that had a stream or pond on them were ideal because the worry for water was immediately nullified. As lands began to be distributed and homesteaders moved farther west, water sources became less abundant.

This caused two problems. One, the homesteader had to expend a great amount of time and energy traveling to and from a water source. Once they arrived they were limited only to amounts they could efficiently carry back with them. Secondly, they were limited to only a certain number of animals they could supply adequate amounts of water for. Combining wasted energy and limited animal stock; homesteaders could be crippled by efforts to maintain fresh water supplies.

This problem was alleviated for many homesteaders when they discovered the abundant ground water that existed under the majority of the Great Plains. The aquifer, named the Ogallala Aquifer, provided the much needed fresh water homesteaders were seeking. Initially the aquifer served two purposes.

First, and most importantly, homesteaders now had access to fresh water without having to waste the time and energy seeking out fresh water supplies. This provided for more time that could be spent trying to improve their claims. Increased time in the fields allowed for expanding farms; expanding farms provided for larger production; more production increased the chances of a homesteader being successful.

Secondly, homesteaders were able to provide fresh water to livestock. Increased amounts of livestock provided an abundant, renewable food supply. Byproducts from livestock were important to the success of homesteaders as well. Hides provided for clothing and blankets and waste made excellent fertilizer.

It would be difficult to overstate the important role water played in the success, or failure, of homesteaders. A homesteader’s ability to prove up their claim, and really, life and death, hinged on their ability to maintain a fresh water supply. I do not know if Bernard Frank’s quote is applicable to all of human history, but there certainly appears to be a bit of truth with respect to the history of homesteading in the United States.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Homestead's Artist-in-Residence: This land, not some other

Mel Mann pictures shows how Cub Creek is a high bank creek, approximately 35 miles long, traversing Gage and Jefferson counties, NE, and meandering through the original Freeman land patent, now Homestead National Monument. In keeping with the mission to educate the public, Beatrice Middle School students assist the park rangers with monitoring water quality.

Mel Mann captured the harmony of the whispering water and over-head blind of burr oaks in this photo while shooting at the park as an artist-in-resident. While not the same scene the Freeman's witnessed over a hundred and forty years ago the scene does offer the same moment of dappled quietness.

Mel Mann's next photo is of the south boundary of the park, Freeman's Osage-orange hedgerow. The tree native to Texas was used to contain live stock. Vigorous pruning was needed to shape the trees into a living fence. Both an exotic plant and an important cultural artifact, the Osage-orange covers about five acres of the park.

White-tailed deer can be found year around on the prairie. The park conducts an montly deer count with 12 being counted in September. Last February there were over 100 counted.

Read more about Mel Mann's artist-in-residence experience by opening the link.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Celebrating President Woodrow Wilson

Since 1951, the arrowhead has been the official logo of the National Park Service. The Sequoia tree and bison represent natural resources, the mountains and water are emblematic of scenic and recreational values, and the arrowhead shape represents historical and archeological resources.

Woodrow Wilson knew the answers to very important questions. What does a world at war need? To where does a nation turn in times of war?

by Luke Phillips
Southeast Community College

Today we live in a connected world and a country at war and can enjoy the benefits of Wilson’s remarkable insight. As I researched Scotts Bluff National Monument I noted Woodrow Wilson’s involvement in the process of preserving the area. I found this to be a curious sidetrack for a man attempting to bring peace to a world at war, so I continued my research to find out why he did so. Having learnt of the praiseworthy achievements of President Wilson, today I show you that he is worthy of ongoing esteem.

He can be admired for many things which he did, but today we will focus on his role in creating world peace in the aftermath of WWI and the creation of the National Park Service which has ensured a lasting comfort for all Americans who have lived in war-ravaged times.

Wilson is most often remembered because of his involvement in creating peace after WWI. It was a defining moment in the history of our world that has had continuing impact. He was a pacifist and thus reluctant to involve the U. S. in WWI (McNeese, 2000).

The war began in 1914 and quickly escalated to include many European countries (McNeese, 2000). The US remained neutral but was compelled to join the war in 1917 as Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant ships (Wilkinson, 2010). Wilson asked the House of Representatives to declare war April 2, 1917, but only in hope of peace. He delivered his Fourteen Points speech January 1918. By the time a ceasefire was declared on November 11, 1918, Wilson’s Fourteen Points were well known by international leaders (McNeese, 2000).

The Fourteen Points threshed out the details of peace and established a “general association of nations… under specific covenants.” Many were compromised in writing the Versailles Treaty (Fourteen Points, 2009). In 1919, the Treaty of Versailles was signed by both sides which officially ended the war and established the League of Nations. The resulting peace was much fairer than the allies wanted because of Wilson’s leadership (McNeese, 2000).

His fourteen points created the League of Nations (McNeese, 2000). The League of Nations was Wilson’s lofty effort at sustaining world peace. World peace is something that we desire but have not yet achieved. Wilson accurately envisioned peace as an ongoing effort. Jackson David quotes Wilson’s attitude towards peace in his 2009 USA Today article Both President and Nobel Laureate: “Mankind has not yet been rid of the unspeakable horror of war… But it is the better part of wisdom to consider our work as one begun. It will be a continuing labor.”

He envisioned the League providing a means to work at peace diplomatically. The League was an abandonment of the traditional balance of power model. Traditionally, war was avoided by maintaining fairly equal alliances. The failure of this system brought about WWI and ensured that many countries would be involved for many years. The League of Nations was modified after WWII and became the United Nations (McNeese, 2000). For his admirable efforts in closing WWI and establishing the League of Nations, Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1919 (David, 2009).

Wilson should also be admired for recognizing that Americans at home during wartime need National Parks. He founded the National Park Service which had maintained national treasures for our enjoyment ever since. Throughout recent history we can observe increased focus on NP during wartime (Jarvis, 2001).

T. Jarvis, in his 2001 article Stress Value points out that “we have seen again and again… at times of great stress and universal crisis, Americans flock to their public parks in huge numbers.” The parks provide “active recreation” and “passive contemplation of nature, scenery, or other aspects of our cultural heritage.”

Wilson ratified the Organic Act August 25, 1916 which created the NPS (Winks, 1997). President Lincoln protected the Yosemite Valley in 1864 during the Civil War, and from 1872 on many areas were named NP’s (Jarvis, 2001; Winks, 1997). The act provided funding and the organization’s mandate which has remained unchanged to this day. It provides for the conservation of areas of national worth - while funding access for the public to enjoy them (Winks, 1997). Many Presidents have followed suit. Lyndon Johnson added 64 sites to the NPS during the Vietnam War (Jarvis, 2001).

Wilson was wise to learn from the example of Lincoln, and time has proven his actions to be of incredible worth to Americans in time of war and uncertainty. It is amazing that Wilson was able to achieve this while also working for world peace.

Today I have recognized the achievements of President Wilson and shown you that he is worthy of ongoing esteem. He should be commended for his role in creating a fair peace through the Versailles Treaty and the establishment of the much needed League of Nations, and also for the creation of the NPS in such a critical time in US history. Pay tribute to President Wilson, for he knew what the world and his country needed in a time of war.

David, J. (2009, December, 9). Both president and Nobel laureate. USA Today.
Fourteen points. (2009). Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition, (1).
Jarvis, T. (2001). Stress value. Parks & Recreation, 36(12), 2.
McNeese, T. (2000). The age of progress. St Louis, MO.: Milliken.
Wilkinson, S. (2010). Killer U-boats. Military History, 27(3), 26-34.
Winks, R. (1997). The National Park Service Act of 1916: ‘A contradictory mandate?’. G. Wright, (Ed.). Retrieved from

Friday, October 1, 2010

Butterfly Monitoring at the Homestead National Monument

 I am lucky enough to have spent my spring, summer, and early fall this year

Gorgone checkerspots

monitoring the butterflies at the Homestead National Monument near Beatrice, Nebraska.  There are so many types of butterflies—all beautiful and intriguing—that it is difficult to identify them all. 


by Barbara Guenther, Friends of Homestead Volunteer

Lately, there have been millions of Silver Spotted Checkerspots. So many that I have finally learned to know them by heart! We’ve also had many beautiful Monarchs spreading their wings over the expanse of the natural prairie flowers and grasses here. There are numerous Gray Cooper Butterflies, millions of Sulphurs of all colors flitting around, Fritillaries of all colors and designs, Red Admirals that started early in the spring and have since reduced in number, Buckeyes with large “eyes” on their wings, beautiful Painted Ladies, and Skippers of all sorts; Swallowtails, Gossamer-Winged, Hickory Hairstreaks—so many.

It’s indescribable, actually, the multitude of colors and shapes of the butterflies flying back and forth between the prairie flowers, hanging by twos or threes off of the colorful blooms.

Gray hairstreak

Nearly every week, through the Nebraska heat and cool weather, I have driven out there to capture their images on film so I can get help identifying them from the wonderful rangers at the Homestead. I have taken pictures with sweat running down into my eyes or clutching my sweater closer around me for warmth. But, the experience has been exciting and something I look forward to each week.

Brown winged yellow butterfly 

Now, the time for monitoring is winding down and I will miss my weekly trips to enjoy the nature and beauty of the butterflies and the natural prairie. While trekking across the prairie, I have stopped to commune with a deer and have had a wild turkey run across the path ahead of me. The birds and other insects here also abound and grace us with their beauty and diverseness.

Clouded sulfur
But, I will look forward to monitoring the butterflies again next season. I am so glad that I have had this opportunity to help monitor the kinds of butterflies and the times of the season that the varied butterflies enjoy their visit before flying off to other regions.

I hope that you, too, can someday visit the Homestead and see all the exhibits at the Education Center and the new Heritage Center that inform visitors of the population of these parts of the country by immigrants—important people in the settling of America—striving to start a new life in this new country, and that you take a walk through the prairie while you are here, enjoying every aspect of the Homestead National Monument.

I will include some pictures that I have taken so you can enjoy and that perhaps will entice you to visit the Homestead National Monument.