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Woster: Modern-day homesteaders could be headed to Chamberlain

That isn’t quite on the scale of the Homestead Act, but you get the idea.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

CHAMBERLAIN, S.D. — It may not be the Great Dakotas Boom of the 1880s, but my hometown has a deal going that could turn some folks into modern-day homesteaders.

The Great Dakota Boom was a time when developers were enticing folks to move west to places like the Dakota Territory. The Homestead Act, signed into law in 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln, offered public land in 160-acre plots to adventuresome souls who would pay a modest filing fee and then go through the physical business of “proving up’’ the land claim.

Proving up meant the homesteader had to live on the land, build a house, make necessary improvements and work the land to receive final ownership. A story I read on a history site said that nearly 4 million homesteaders settled land in at least 30 states over the century-plus after the act was signed into law.

The act was officially repealed in 1976, but a cousin who moved to Alaska a few years after that told me folks up there could still get land by living on it and clearing some timber. I can’t confirm that, but my cousin seldom told me things that weren’t mostly true, so there must have been some factual basis for what he said.

How does a 160-year-old federal law fit into my hometown’s activities? Well, the city has a development going up on the bluffs near Interstate 90 and the rest area that includes the sculpture, Dignity. To encourage people to take spots in the new development, called Smokey Groves, a give-away of 11 lots is planned . That isn’t quite on the scale of the Homestead Act, but you get the idea.

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The Homestead Act was intended to spur growth and development. Supporters of Chamberlain’s land deal think it could do the same thing on the Missouri River bluffs. In return for receiving the land, the individual agrees to build on the property within a year, I read in the Mitchell Republic. A raffle-style selection process will be used if more people want lots than are available. Chamberlain’s mayor, Chad Mutziger, is quoted as saying people want to move to the area, but housing is limited.

When I lived in Chamberlain, the new development site was bare land – no interstate, no nearby hospital, no school buildings, no athletic field. Just over the hill toward the river, we used to tromp around in the cedar draws picking chokecherries. Sometimes we’d find a clearing and cook hot dogs over a campfire, pretending we were deep in the woods far from civilization. One of those clearings was called Smoke Grove. It wasn’t far from town, and it was near the addition being developed now.

My folks didn’t homestead when they moved to Chamberlain just before I started third grade, but I always figured they got pretty lucky with their land deal. We found a story-and-one-half house a block off Main Street in what I’d call the southern part of town. The family stories I’ve heard say we got the place for $13,000, and my dad plunked down cash for the deal.

I walked from there to school to start third grade in the fall of 1952. Most kids walked in those days, unless they lived out of town. Even in high school, when I sometimes borrowed the family Chevy to cruise Main in the evenings, I walked to school most days. The parking lot below the high school had a dozen or so cars, Fords and Chevys, mostly. Farm kids and a handful of faculty members used the lot. The rest of us hoofed it.

The house where I grew up is still there. The street number has changed since we lived there, but it’s the same place. We lived there while each of us kids got our education, and my mom lived there until about 2000, when medical problems forced her to sell and move to Sioux Falls.

Most of 50 years and a family raised, schooled and sent into the world from that place. Not bad for a $13,000 investment. Maybe the people interested in the free lots up on the Smokey Groves development will find that kind of luck.

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