Prairie Public Television, Fargo, North Dakota, 2010, 60 minutes, DVD.

Winner of the Regional Emmy Award of the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

In 1862, for an $18 filing fee and five years of labor, the land-hungry of all nations could lay their claim to 160 acres of virgin prairie. The stories of those who succeeded and those who failed are told in this television production from Prairie Public.

“In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act and created a world of opportunity,” said Kim Stenehjem, producer of the documentary. “Some failed. Some scraped by. Some succeeded and put down roots that shaped the region. Homesteading examines the diversity of the settlers’ ethnic, social and economic classes and their motives for taking up the challenge of breaking virgin prairie and wresting a living from it.”

Stenehjem and the Prairie Public team shot footage in Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota locations, then added interviews with historians, stories told by the descendants of homesteaders, and dramatic readings from pioneer diaries and letters to create the documentary.

Stenehjem said that Homesteading also explores the roots of the conflict surrounding public domain land and the forces that shaped the opening of the frontier. “The Homestead Act signed by President Lincoln was a long time in coming because the idea of a government land giveaway was not universally supported,” she said. “It was bitterly opposed by slave-holding agricultural concerns in the southern states. In fact, the only reason that the Homestead Act of 1862 was passed was because the southern opponents seceeded from the Union and weren’t able to block passage of the legislation any longer.”

The documentary also address the Great Land Boom that was made possible by the railroads, the Native American tribes who lived on the Great Plains, and the catalog of challenges that pioneers faced — disease, drought, illness, death, prairie fire, isolation and loneliness.

Stenehjem notes, however, that there were also successes and triumphs as many pioneers established a thriving society on the prairies. “The Homestead Act made it possible for many disenfranchised people to own land for the first time and they took up the challenge. Women homesteaded. Immigrants came from all over the world to stake a claim. Freed slaves took up land. Urban poor and small sharecroppers came west and were able to take charge of their own destiny for the first time.”

The production is funded in part by the North Dakota Humanities Council, North Dakota Council on the Arts, the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the citizens of Minnesota, and the members of Prairie Public.

Interview Subjects and Family Homesteading

Robert King, Bismarck N.D. Robert King’s grandmother, Alma Thompson King, won the right to file a homestead claim on a quarter section of school land north of Sanish, N.D. Mrs. King came to North Dakota from her family’s homestead in Park Rapids, Minn.

Cap Renner, Richardton N.D. The grandfather of Caspar “Cap” Renner’s wife came from Alsace Lorraine and Bohemia to homestead 20 miles south of Richardton. A skilled mason, Georg Schreiber walked to and from Dickinson to work in construction during the week ? using his wages to support his family while his wife and children kept the homestead going.

Kevin Carvell, Fargo N.D. Kevin Carvell’s grandfather, Emil Svihovec, was one of seven brothers who immigrated from the Czech Republic to claim homesteads on adjoining quarter sections on the Hettinger county line south of Mott.

Steve Kinsella, St. Paul Minn. The ancestors of Steven Kinsella fled the Irish famine and established successful small farms in Minnesota. Unfortunately they chose to give up those farms during the last Dakota Boom to try large scale farming on homesteads in the Bowbells N.D., area only to be defeated, like so many, by drought and crop failure in the ‘30s.

LaRae Frieze, Jamestown N.D. LaRae Frieze’s grandmother came from Hungary to an arranged marriage with a homesteader north of Mott, N.D. After coming through Ellis Island, she worked for several years in Ohio before coming to Dakota Territory, where she lived the rest of her life with the husband her sister selected for her.

Thomas H. Koehnlein, Detroit Lakes Minn. Tyra Schanke, the aristocratic Swedish grandmother of Thomas Koehnlein, chose not to return to her native land after the untimely death of her beloved physician husband. Instead she and her husband’s nurse took up adjoining homesteads near Tioga and established successful ranching operations.

Carol Just, St. Louis Park Minn. Carol Just is proud to acknowledge that all her great-grandparents were homesteaders in the German-Russia triangle in south central North Dakota. Two of her great-grandmothers claimed land in their own names.

Deb Marquart, Ames Iowa. Like many immigrants, the great-grandparents of Debra Marquart had very different reactions to the challenge of homesteading the unbroken prairie. Her grandfather’s excitement to have the opportunity to build something from the ground up was not reflected in her grandmother’s shock and dismay at the prospect.

Mark Opp, Eureka S.D. In the 1880s, Eureka, South Dakota, was known as the “Wheat Capital of the West.” Eureka was the end of the line for the busy Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific railroad. Its trains hauled out 4,000,000 bushels of wheat a year and hauled in car after car of Germans From Russia immigrants like Mark Opp’s great-grandparents.

Margit Walstad, Williston N.D. Margit’s parents came from Norway in search of land to call their own. Her parents worked first on an established farm until they were able to save up enough money to claim their homestead. Margit was born in the family’s first sod house.

Douglas Kindseth, Rosemount Minn. The great-grandparents of Douglas Kindseth left behind their status as tenant farmers in Decorah Iowa to take up land in northwestern Minnesota. After an arduous eight-week journey by buggy and ox cart, they found land in Norman County where members of the family still run farm operations on the original homestead.  


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