Friday, May 27, 2011

Homestead Attitude: Fiddle Fest

If a fiddle is a violin with attitude then this competition is the perfect way to get the summer started with the right attitude. Homestead National Monument of America hosts an annual fiddling championship every year on Memorial Day weekend, and this year stands to be one of the best!

The competition is geared towards all ability levels and begins with Deborah Greenblatt teaching a free workshop in the morning. She was the first woman to win the Nebraska State Fiddling Championship, the first woman to win the Mid-America Fiddle Championship and is a member of the Mid-America Old-Time Fiddler’s Hall of Fame.

Greenblatt finds the atmosphere at the Monumental Fiddling Championship and Acoustic Band Contest to be inviting and nurturing for all levels of musicians. It is a day for fiddlers of all ages and experience levels to come together much like they did when the first pioneers arrived in the 1800’s and began settling the prairie. The sounds of fiddlers were often heard whenever homesteaders got together and those same sounds will be heard on May 28, 2011, at the eleventh annual Monumental Fiddling Championship and Acoustic Band Contest.

Greenblatt enjoys the jam sessions. “They inspire and entertain each other on stage and play nicely together in the many jam sessions that erupt all over the landscape,” said Greenblatt. Over the years she said that many musicians have told her they were inspired to begin to play because of the performances and jam sessions they observed at the Monumental Fiddling Championships.

The competition is also free and offers fiddlers the chance to be judged in a non-threatening environment. Each participant is given comments by the three judges. Professional musician and high school band director Nathan LeFeber has been a judge several times. “From the great music that is made, to the prizes and trophies, to the free fiddle they give away each year it is no wonder folks are coming from miles around to compete in this contest,” said LeFeber.

Competition helps musicians get better. “Give folks a high standard and then let them work at trying to achieve their best with the hopes they might be in the top three. That is what competition in music is all about,” said LeFeber.

Seventeen-year-old Joe Ferizzi from Dearborn, Missouri, finished second in the adult division in 2010. Ferizzi enjoys the thrill of competing, the chance to meet new people and hear new songs. “If I hear a song I like at competition, I will go home and do my best to learn the song,” said Ferizzi. He also thinks it helps a musician deal with the suspense of being on stage.

His grandpa also played the fiddle and influenced his decision of instrument. “My grandpa played the violin and one day when I was six I was sitting in the kitchen with my parents and they saw an ad for violin or piano lessons. When they asked me if I would rather play the violin or the piano I quickly said violin.”

Not only is Ferizzi an accomplished fiddler he is also an outstanding violinist earning straight ones in each category at state competition last year.

The event also attracts families that enjoy fiddling together. In 2009 Carl Cook from Independence, Missouri, won the Senior Division and his daughter, Cecelia Cook, placed third in the Junior Division.

Following the morning workshop participants will break for lunch and prepare for the competition in the afternoon. It is also free for both participants and spectators. The one rule which makes this competition unique is that all songs must have been written between 1863, when the first homestead was filed, and 1936, when Homestead National Monument of America was established.

The day ends with the announcement of winners and an opportunity at a paid gig for the evening finale. Trophies are given to the top three finishers in the Junior and Senior Division and the Acoustic Band Contest. Leigh F. Coffin, Jane M. Coffin, & Leigh M. Coffin Foundation have been long term supporters and provide the prize money and opportunity for the winners to choose a fiddle.

The winner of a Tune Writing Competition which is held in conjunction with the Nebraska Chapter of the American String Teachers Association is also announced. And the best left-handed fiddler and the youngest fiddler are recognized.

“But win or not there are no losers at this competition,” said LeFeber, “ For young and old, it is a great time!”

Friday, May 20, 2011

1862: An important legislative year

In 1862 the 37th Congress was in session, the union had dissolved into a bitter civil war, and the future of the United States was uncertain at best.  President Lincoln issued a proclamation in January of that year authorizing “unified aggressive action against the Confederacy.”  The number of casualties rose exponentially as battle after bloody battle began to take its toll on both Union and Confederate armies.  Chaos had engulfed the nation.  Surprisingly, in the midst of such dire circumstances, the 37th Congress and President Lincoln continued working on legislation for expanding the country westward.  Three of the top one hundred documents in the history of the United States were passed and signed in 1862, and they became the framework by which the U.S. would expand its boundaries to the Pacific Ocean.

The first act passed was the Homestead Act.  The legislation was passed by Congress and signed by President Lincoln on May 20, 1862.  The Homestead Act was signed as Union troops were rushing to Washington D.C. to protect the nation’s capital city from Confederate forces.  The Homestead Act provided for 160 acres of public land, most of which was located west of the Missouri River, to individuals willing to build a home and live on it for five years.  During those five years you had to “improve” the land.  After five years, and meeting the requirements, the government turned over title of the land to the homesteader.  The Homestead Act spearheaded a wave of human migration unlike any other in history.
The second act passed was the Pacific Railway Act, signed on July 1, 1862.  The provisions in this legislation authorized a transcontinental railroad to run from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Sacramento, California down to Oakland, California.  For the first time, the United States had a plan and authorization to connect the East with the West.  The railroad was completed seven years later.  The railroad drastically reduced the amount of time it took to travel across country.  People and commodities could now be transported quickly over long distances, making such ventures as homesteading more economically viable.
The third act in this series was the Morrill Act.  The Morrill Act was signed on July 2, 1862 and provided for public lands to be sold by individual states to raise funds to build agricultural and mechanical colleges.  The Morrill Act had a twofold effect on the development of the West.  First, most of the public lands given to states were in western territories.  Each state was given 30,000 acres of public land for each congressional representative.  For example, if the state had two senators and one representative, for a total of three, then they would receive 90,000 acres of public land to sell.  The state was then to build a public college from the funds they generated from the land transactions.  Second, the colleges were to promote the agricultural and mechanical arts.  The research and curriculum advanced by these colleges enhanced agricultural and industrial practices. 
 Each piece of legislation contributed to the westward expansion of the United States in different ways, taken as a whole, they provided the land, education, and transportation to support western development Congress was seeking.  In the end, these three pieces of legislation did transform the United States, and as the sesquicentennial of these Acts approaches, many are looking back in an effort to understand the impact that this legislation had on the country.  Some speculate that 1862 was the most important legislative year in U.S. history… what do you think?  

Friday, May 13, 2011

Homestead's Grassland Birds

During the 2010 breeding bird survey 61 different species of birds were identified at Homestead National Monument of America.  Similar diversity of birds was seen during the 2010 Birds and Bagels events.  So why does the National Park Service care about what species of bird are using the monument? 
This data when combined with previous year’s data will help to answer many questions.  Without monitoring we would not know if the numbers and diversity of birds were increasing or decreasing.  It would also make it impossible to assess how our management actions are affecting the birds. 

From the 2010 data we know that 10 different species that utilize the monument were identified by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in a publication titled Partners in Flight North American Landbird Conservation Plan, as being of continental importance.  Another 10 or so species are grassland bird species. 

Homestead is an island of prairie within the sea of agriculture.  For many species, especially those that rely on grasslands, Homestead appears to be a refuge.  While many habitats, even urban ones will provide a home for orioles, robins, mourning doves, etc. because of habitat requirements grassland bird species (those species that use these grassland habitats during the breeding season for courtship, nesting, foraging, rearing young, and roosting or resting) are unable to adapt to urban and cultivated landscapes.  Less than 5% of the prairie that was here when the first Europeans arrived remains in its natural state.  This reduction in acreage has led to severe fragmentation of the grassland ecosystem.  For that reason grassland birds are the group of birds whose numbers are declining the fastest in the United States, almost half (48%) of the grassland bird species are of conservation concern (

The protection and restoration of grasslands is vital to reversing the downward spiral in the numbers and diversity of grassland bird species.  The Friend’s of Homestead are doing their part in helping to reverse the trend.  This year will mark the third growing season since 140 acres of cropland was planted with a mixture of over 100 species of tallgrass prairie plants.  With native species it has been said that the first year they sleep, the second year they creep and the third year they leap.  As the area becomes more dominated by prairie plants it should attract more wildlife including grassland birds.  Hopefully future monitoring of the bird population will confirm this.

So the next time you are at the monument take some time and drive around the section, slowly with your window down, so you can hear the calls of the many birds that have already made the southwest quarter of section 26 of the Blakely Township their home and see the prairie plants leaping!

Friday, May 6, 2011

Creation of Homestead National Monument of America

Homestead National Monument of America recently celebrated its 75th anniversary this past March. This milestone, and the program I gave in recognition of the anniversary, led me to the learn more about the creation of the Monument. So often, we take for granted that things are the way they are because that is the way they are, but that attitude prevents us from appreciating and understanding why things are the way they are. I have been at the Monument for a little of a year now and this was the first time I was able to examine in depth the creation of Homestead National Monument of America.

Many people believe March 19, 1936 was the beginning of the Monument. That was the day President Franklin Roosevelt signed the legislation that officially provided authority to establish a “memorial emblematical of the hardships of pioneer life through which the early settlers passed in the settlement, cultivation and civilization of the Great West." However, prior to Congress passing and the President signing this legislation, efforts had been actively trying to establish a permanent site recognizing the homesteading era.

Early stories claim that Daniel Freeman, who is recognized as the first homesteader ever, promoted the idea as early as the 1880’s to have his homestead recognized as a national site and protected in order to serve as an symbol of the homesteading era. Other accounts claim Dan Freeman was approached by other interests wanting to ensure his site was recognized, but that he declined. While that history is a bit muddled, we do know that in 1909, just weeks after Daniel Freeman’s death, a coalition of citizens in Beatrice, Nebraska began to advocate for recognition of Freeman’s homestead.

The early movement was hindered by the lack of political support at the national level. Nebraska representative Edward H. Hinshaw introduced legislation as early as 1909 seeking the establishment of a park, but these efforts failed at various points in the process. Support within the community of Beatrice remained strong but were often confronted with the reality that national recognition may not come. One advocacy group, the Daughters of the American Revolution, was determined to see the site obtain some type of recognition. The initiated a movement to have a stone statue be placed on Freeman’s homestead. They were successful in their efforts and in 1925 they placed a stone from the old capitol building on the site with a plaque that reads:

This stone from the old state capitol at Lincoln, Nebraska marks the site of the first registered homestead of the United States. Erected by Elizabeth Montague Chapter: Daughters of the American Revolution Beatrice, Nebraska

The DAR Monument, as it has come to be known, is still standing in the tall grass prairie to this day as the first physical memorial to the homesteading era.

Coincidentally, it was 1925 that a U.S. Senator from Nebraska named George Norris became involved with the effort. He advocated for the establishment of a national park at the site of Daniel Freeman’s homestead for nearly ten more years before Homestead National Park Association was formed by prominent leaders in Beatrice, Ne to assist the Senator in his fight. After a renewed local commitment coupled with the political backing of Senator Norris and Representative Henry Luckey, the formal legislation was finally passed by Congress and signed by the President in 1936. But, Congress failed to appropriate any funds to purchase the land designated to be the site of Homestead National Monument of America.

For two years Homestead National Monument of America existed only on paper. It was not until 1938 that the funds were provided to buy the land from the Freeman family. The process was long and at times bleak, but ultimately successful because of the commitment and passion of the local citizenry of Beatrice. When President Roosevelt signed Public Law 480 of the 74th Congress it officially “established” Homestead National Monument of America, but to many the site was already emblematic of the homesteading era that forever changed our country.

by Blake Bell
Homestead Historian