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In Homestead Act Revival, There's 'Land for the Landless' Again

Many small towns in the American Great Plains are losing population as young people leave home and never return. School enrollments decline to the point that the towns lose their schools, which prompts even more families to leave. But some communities are taking a bold step to attract new residents. They're reviving the old idea of giving away free land.

The tiny town of Kenesaw -- population 800 -- in the middle of the farm state of Nebraska -- is offering quite a deal. If you'll agree to move there and put up a house, it will give you the land to build it on, free of charge.

The idea, which towns like Ellsworth, Kansas, and Crosby, North Dakota, are also embracing, is inspired by the Homestead Act of 1862, a law that changed the course of U.S. history. Not far from Kenesaw, a national monument preserves a log cabin and one-room schoolhouse from days when the government gave settlers more than 110-million hectares of free land in return for a promise that they'd farm and build homes there.

Todd Arrington is a National Park Service historian. "It was really the epitome of the American Dream," he says. "It allowed women, African-Americans, immigrants of any ethnic background to make claims. 'Land for the landless,' as the saying went at the time -- people who really had no other means to acquire land. When we say 'free land,' that's in monetary terms only. You certainly paid for it with blood, sweat, and tears."

Mike Inglehard, a village councilman in Kenesaw, got to talking with some friends about how to give new life to the dusty old town. "My attitude is that if you aren't growing, you're going backwards," he says. "The Homestead Act was brought up because we want to keep our school growing. There's been talk for years about merging schools together. We have a great school. We want more kids for our community. You have to have places for people to live. We were in here visiting one day, and Mark just said, 'Well let's just give the lots away. Young couples, just starting out, if they're given a $10,000 lot, what a great way to start to be able to build a home. Thus we have the Homestead Act."

"Mark" is town banker Mark Keiser. He, Mr. Inglehard, and 5 other citizens bought some land on the edge of Kenesaw and divided it into 15 lots. "I think we first were going to price those at $5,000 a lot," Mr. Keiser remembers. "And pretty soon we just decided we'd be a lot better off if we get 15 homes out there immediately. We give 'em the lot, and then they have to go secure their lot to build a house." Mr. Keiser figures that once the homes are occupied and their owners pay taxes, the town will get about $30,000 in revenue each year. That's money it can spend on the school and streets and sewers.

More important an asset will be the new homesteaders themselves -- like farm mechanic Josh Teel, 25. He has taken one of the free lots and is building a house with an extra-large garage -- something he could not find in existing homes and couldn't have afforded anyway. "I wanted a smaller community," he says. "So I went around and looked at a bunch of houses, and I couldn't find anything I really liked or appealed to me. And I hadn't really thought about building a house until I heard about the Homestead Act. And like these guys said, it gives you a little more incentive. The lot is free, so it's one less thing you gotta buy."

The old, historic Homestead Act was still going strong when Kenesaw mayor Herb Hodge was born 82 years ago. He says his village's version of the program is an offer that's hard to beat.

"Most young people don't really have the amount of money to put down on a home. And that's one of the reasons that most of them are renting homes," he says. "But when you give them a lot that's worth $10,000, that counts as a down-payment on that home. A lot of 'em wouldn't have any resources to build a home."

The leaders of little Kenesaw, Nebraska, know that 15 new residents and their families alone won't be enough to save their school or rejuvenate the village. But it's a start, they say. And they've set aside another plot of land for even more 21st century homesteaders.