Friday, February 25, 2011

The Rural Electrification Act Provides a 'Fair Chance' to Rural Americans

Think about how reliant you are on electricity. There was a time where not all Americans had equal access to electricity.

by Gene Finke

In the 1930’s U. S. Senator George Norris of Nebraska was concerned that the descendents of homesteaders and other people living in rural America did not have access to electricity. Norris lamented that in rural America the men and women were “growing old prematurely; dying before their time; conscious of the great gap between their lives and the lives of those whom the accident of birth or choice placed in towns and cities.”

On May 20, 1936, Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act which was one of the most important pieces of legislation passed as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. This law allowed the federal government to make low-cost loans to farmers who had banded together to create non-profit cooperatives for the purpose of bringing electricity to rural America. Seventy-four years earlier to the day on May 20, 1862 President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act which offered free land for those willing to move to it and cultivate it.

Both of these Congressional Acts were created for the same purpose. President Abraham Lincoln when speaking to a Special Session of Congress on July 4, 1861 best explained that purpose when he said it was the purpose of our government “to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.”

The Homestead Act is one of the greatest examples of the U. S. government trying “to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to give everyone a fair chance in the race of life.”

Norris and other senators and congressmen believed that access to electricity would revolutionize the rural way of life. Therefore, in 1936 Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act to give rural Americans a ‘fair chance.’

For more information go to History of Public Power in Nebraska

[Previously published in Nov. 2007, Mr. Finke has updated this article for Homestead Congress readers.]

Friday, February 18, 2011

From “the Great American Desert” to the “American Breadbasket”

In 1806 Lieutenant Zebulon Pike, exploring at the direction of President Thomas Jefferson labeled the Great Plains of the United States as the “Great American Desert.” In 1820 Major Stephen Long on another expedition seconded this opinion when he reported “it is almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence.” Such was the belief most Americans held about the Great Plains well into the 19th century.

For people of a European background, the terms "desert" or “barrens” were often used to describe treeless lands whether they were arid or not. It was long thought that treeless lands were not good for agriculture; thus the term "desert" also had the connotation of "unfit for farming."

The exact location of this “Great American Desert” was not clear, Carey and Lee's Atlas of 1827 located the Great American Desert as an indefinite territory in what is now Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas. Others thought the desert included an area 500 miles wide lying directly east of the Rocky Mountains and extending from the northern boundary of the United States to the Rio Grande River. Generally, in the first half of the 19th century most people thought the land between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains was a desert.

Zebulon Pike’s influence was large, after his 1806 expedition he wrote "From these immense prairies may arise one great advantage to the United States, that is: The restriction of our population to some certain limits, and thereby a continuation of the Union. Our citizens being so prone to rambling and extending themselves on the frontier will through necessity be constrained to limit their extent to the west to the borders of the Missouri and Mississippi, while they leave the prairies incapable of cultivation to the wandering and uncivilized aborigines of the country."

This idea that the area west of the states of Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa was unfit for citizens of the U.S. was so prevalent that it led to the establishment of an “Indian Territory” where Indians from east of the Mississippi River would be moved as a result of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Dozens of tribes were moved and promised lands they could keep “forever” in what are now the state of Nebraska and Kansas. The Indian tribes already residing in those areas were not happy to have new neighbors. “Forever” proved to be only 20 to 40 years as most of these Eastern tribes and many of the “Plains Tribes” were moved again to a reduced in size “Indian Territory” [the present state of Oklahoma]. This happened because the Americans finally realized the Great Plains could be productive land for agriculture.

And what a great agricultural area it has become. The eastern area of the “Great American Desert” normally has more than enough rainfall to produce abundant corn and other grain and agricultural products. And the western area of the “Great American Desert” blossomed in the 1940s, when mechanized pumping was introduced and people began to tap the great water reservoir of the Ogallala Aquifer [sometimes called the High Plains Aquifer] that lies under the area. The formerly dry land flourished under abundant irrigation water from below ground. More and more wells were drilled and pumping capacity dramatically increased. Center-pivot irrigation was introduced, which resulted in huge, lush green circles of agricultural crops on the dry brownish landscape. Large-scale, mechanized pumping of groundwater transformed the agricultural productivity, the society and culture, and the economy throughout the area of the Aquifer.

Today, the Great Plains once known as the Great American Desert along with the Corn Belt that begins east of the Great Plains and extends out onto them from America’s primary grain belt region and are the breadbasket to America and much of the grain-hungry world.


Andrist, Ralph K. 1964. The Long Death. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Carlson, Paul H. 1998. The Plains Indians. College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press.

Foreman, Grant. 1972. Indian Removal. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Foreman, Grant. 1934. The Five Civilized Tribes. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press.

Nordin, Dennis S. & Scott, Roy V. 2005. From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur. Bloomington, Indiana: University of Indiana Press.

Ridder, Mary. 2007. Root of Change: Nebraska’s New Agriculture. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Webb, Walter Prescott. 1931. The Great Plains. New York: The MacMillan Company.

Wishart, David J., Editor. 2004. Encyclopedia of the Great Plains. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Brownville-Fort Kearney Trail goes through Homestead

The Colorado Gold Rush of 1859 lead Brownville, Nebraska merchants to begin shipping goods to Denver and Central City areas of Colorado. They had much competition from merchants in the Nebraska towns of Omaha, Plattsmouth, Nebraska City, Peru, and St. Deroin and the Kansas and Missouri towns of St. Joseph, Atchison, Leavenworth, Independence, and Westport. The Brownville merchants established a “feeder trail” that ran from Brownville to Tecumseh to Beatrice before joining the main line of the Oregon Trail near the crossing of Big Sandy Creek in what is now Jefferson County, Nebraska. This feeder trail became known as the Brownville-Fort Kearney Trail.
by Gene Finke

In some sources, the Brownville-Fort Kearney Trail is referred to as a “military road.” If that is true it means some of the Brownville Merchants were contracted to supply Fort Kearney, Fort Laramie, and other military facilities. It also means the U. S. Army probably sent out a group of infantrymen to make improvements along the Trail. These improvements may have involved lessening some grades, but primarily would have been improving stream crossings. The largest crossings would have been at the Little Nemaha, Big Nemaha, and Big Blue Rivers; these streams usually had large wild spring floods so building bridges over them would have been an exercise in futility. But the Army may have built some bridges on the lesser streams. At the very least they made the banks less steep so the large freight wagons pulled by many yoke of oxen could cross the streams easier. At least once, and probably more than once, the Brownville Merchants financed improvements along the Trail. It is also possible that the merchants of Tecumseh and Beatrice made improvements at the stream crossings in their areas.

Hugh Jackson Dobbs writes in the History of Gage County that the Trail crossed the Big Blue River at the Market Street ford in Beatrice, swung northward along the river, and then traveled northwesterly crossing Cub Creek before starting its route along a high prairie ridge for 22 miles before crossing Little Sandy Creek and joining the main line of the Oregon Trail at the crossing of Big Sandy Creek.

Today, beginning at the Highway 4 curve on the northwest edge of Beatrice you can drive almost the exact route the Trail took from that point to another point just short of the junction of Highways 4 and 15 nine miles west of Plymouth, Nebraska. The one exception would be through Homestead National Monument of America. There the Trail crossed through the center of Daniel Freeman’s property and not around the north edge like today. This wayside on the walking trail just west of the Heritage Center at Homestead shows where the Trail went and gives an explanation of the activity on the Trail.


Dobbs, Hugh Jackson. 1918. The History of Gage County. Lincoln, Nebraska: Western Publishing and Engraving Company.

Lass, William E. 1972. From the Missouri to the Great Salt Lake: An Account of Overland Freighting. Lincoln, Nebraska: Nebraska State Historical Society.

Mattes, Merrill J. 1969. The Great Platte River Road. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.

Lavender, David Sievert. The Overland Migrations: Settlers to Oregon, California, and Utah. Washington D.C.: National Park Service, The Department of Interior.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Homestead's Artist in Residence: Mel Mann talks about the process (Part 2)

Mel Mann talks about the application process for
Artist in Residence program at
Homestead National Monument of America (Part 2)

Homestead National Monument was created by an act of Congress in 1936 “…as an appropriate monument to retain for posterity a proper memorial emblematical of the hardships and the pioneer life through which the early settlers passed in the settlement, cultivation and civilization of the Great West.” Although part of the National Park System, Homestead is not a grand landscape but rather a historical site. Comprising the 160 acre homestead proved up by Daniel Freeman (one of the first in the nation), the Monument works to teach visitors about the Homestead Act, the people who took advantage of the cry “free land” to start a new life, and some of the difficulties they faced and overcame.

Knowing there are no sweeping vistas for landscapes or towering mountains or ancient trees, I decided my story needed to be about something Homestead uniquely symbolizes. As part of the stewardship of the Monument the decision was made years ago to return the prairie to an original state, one similar to what Freeman saw as he explored the area looking for a new home. Now the second oldest restored prairie in the nation, the land became the subject of my story. The wide open prairie with its border of hedgerow trees and creek side forest became the vista I needed to show the scope of the park. The details of flora and fauna seen by looking closely in the park tells the story of how small elements work together to result in the larger environment. Against this, signs of man’s efforts to use the land, live on the land and finally respect the land through continued stewardship.

The staff at the Monument carries out activities supporting the mission of this place, both the natural and human aspects, and I was able to involve myself and my camera in several. Following the naturalist for the bird and deer count carried out by volunteers, photographing local students collecting water samples for quality testing, creating pictures of people in period costumes making candles, holding a spelling bee, and weaving cloth. Removing non-native species from the prairie and planting heirloom corn using true horsepower. There was even a ceremony re-opening a historic homestead cabin attended by the granddaughter of one of the settlers, connecting the reality portrayed in old black-and-white glass plate images with the modern world of National Parks.

For my first presentation I told the stories of three western photographers of the period – William Jackson, Arundel Hull and Solomon Butcher – who hauled their large-format cameras and glass plates across the Plains and western mountains to record what they saw, leaving us iconic images that resonate in our minds when we think of homesteading or western exploration. My second presentation showed images I’d made of the Monument along with pictures of other results from the Homestead Act – land-grant universities, agricultural cooperatives, railroad lines and grain elevators. All aspects of how we adapted to what the land was teaching us while we were changing the very look of the land. My final piece will somehow incorporate this story into an image.

Experiencing this National Monument changed my perspective on the Homestead Act from a simple paragraph in a history book to a realization of how this action of giving away land changed the natural and social landscape of America. Seeing it through my viewfinder helped me learn to look beyond the landscape and see how story develops based on how I compose an image, watch for the best light, put the right subject in the frame or even arrange photographs in a certain order.

I encourage my fellow RMSP artists to research this opportunity at parks they are interested in or have a desire to learn about. With more time to invest in a park you will gain new insights about its character and features, insights that will urge you to better photography. Additionally, you will meet people who can give you story ideas based on their in-depth knowledge of the park, a knowledge usually based on a love of the area and what it represents for us all. More ideas and greater insight – a bountiful combination for any photographer!