You might ask, 150 years after the creation of the Homestead Act, what would that have to do with me? The link that ties me to the Homestead Act is Eggert Meyer, an extraordinary science teacher. Mr. Meyer — or Meyer as we called him — had a profound influence on my life, and my ever-increasing fascination with science and medicine. For most at this small midwestern private school, Meyer was a towering white-coated enigma — brillant and challenging, yet wise and kind. He was the symbol of learning by doing — experiental learning in today’s education jargon! Ask him for the name of a tree in the nearby park, and he’d send you to find it out for yourself — perhaps with a clue. In those pre-Internet days, real sleuthing was required! His biology and advanced biology classes epitomized just that.
Back to the theme of my post….Our student-teacher relationship lasted 4 years, but we started a decades-long letter-writing friendship that survived our transitions — when I went on to college, and when he and his wife retired permanently to their homestead. On their occasional visits to the city, we’d share a meal and great conversation, and over time, my letter-writing broadened to include his wife. So when I heard that Meyer had suffered a heart attack and would be unable to tend his garden, I offered to drive up and plant it for him. To my surprise, he and his wife accepted my offer. And so, the 80 wooded-acres that Meyer homesteaded, and that I only knew of in story, were about to become reality.
After a 14-hour drive, with the last miles passing through small towns with names like Ten Strike and Turtle River, Washkish and finally Kelliher, I arrived. This was truly my field of dreams! The house was a log cabin – formerly a one-room schoolhouse – that was towed by tractor to the property, and positioned near a grove of cedar trees at the edge of a large meadow and adjacent to a lake. The garden was sandy soil, cleared of grass, leaves and debris — ready to plant. That summer I created their harvest — beans, tomatoes, kohlrabi, squash, lettuces, peas, potatoes, onions and more. That trip changed me. I gained new respect for a man who was indeed a pioneer, and I also understood the implications of what it meant to homestead and own a piece of the American landscape. For someone like Meyer, this opportunity must have meant more than any of us could ever imagine. So on July 4 it is fitting to appreciate how America welcomed many, and offered the gift of ownership in their adopted country in exchange for committment to the land.
Happy Birthday America!
By way of background, the Homestead Act, enacted by Abraham Lincoln, offered 160 unclaimed acres free to settlers who would farm it for at least 5 years. Meyer, who fled WWII Germany, was one of those settlers.