HOMESTEAD NATIONAL MONUMENT OF AMERICA
A few years ago, I paid $50,000 for 22 Nebraska acres so I could build a house and grow crops. Daniel Freeman bought 160 acres in the same area with the same goals. He paid $18, but I'm sure I got a better deal.
Freeman's purchase came on January 1, 1863, the first claim under the Homestead Act of 1862. Financially, he paid only filing fees, but in terms of facing drought, blizzard, disease and mind-numbing isolation, he paid more than I can imagine.
Under the act, the U.S. government gave away about 10 percent of the country to citizens (and prospective ones). Today, Homestead National Monument near Beatrice (about 40 miles south of Lincoln) stands on Freeman's claim to commemorate
the giveaway. Visitors tour a museum and walk the restored prairie on Freeman's farm to connect with an almost uniquely American idea: that society's poorest members can own land. The offer's takers included families, single women and Europeans escaping their aristocracy's grip on real estate.
Inside the museum, a replica of Freeman's homestead application hangs near papers from January 20, 1868-showing he survived the "proving up" period and now owned the land. I study the documents and recall building my own Nebraska house. Knowing Freeman had no power saw, lumberyard, or even an AM radio to cover the wind's moaning, I feel humbled at his grit.
Then I think of all the failed homesteaders (more than half of them) and decide that even if you never proved up, there had to be some consolation in realizing that no nobleman or corporate baron had a hand in it. When you dragged yourself around a scorched field all day, you were working for yourself, hanging your destiny on your own skills and the acts of God. This nation never promised success as a landowner, but at least it gave everyone with $18 and a dream a chance to try.
THE HENRY FORD MUSEUM, Dearborn, Michigan
Draw inspiration from exhibits about some of America's most brilliant innovators. You can see relics from pivotal moments in history, such as Rosa Parks' historic bus and the 15-millionth Ford Model T (800/835-5237; www.hfmgv.org).
DAYTON AVIATION HERITAGE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, Dayton, Ohio
This site honors the work of flight innovators Orville and Wilbur Wright. The park includes one of the brothers' bicycle shops where they developed the glider and powered flight (937/225-7705; www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/aviation).
The Price of Freedom
VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIALS
Several Midwest states honor their casualties with parks, sculptures and walls. Find one in your area at www.vietvet.org/vietmems.htm.
The Midwest is home to five of the first 14 sites that President Lincoln established as national cemeteries in 1862, including Fort Scott and Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, Camp Butler in Illinois and New Albany in Indiana. Scattered throughout the region are 22 other national cemeteries (www.cem.va.gov/cem).
VETERANS DAY PARADE, Emporia, Kansas
The town where Veterans Day began holds a parade each November,followed by a memorial service at All Veterans Memorial (800/279-3730; www.emporiakschamber.org).
CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR MEMORIAL, Indianapolis
All 3,410 recipients of America's highest military award are honored with inscriptions on curved glass walls in downtown's White River State Park. Every day at dusk, a recording recounts the soldiers' heroic acts (800/665-9056; www.in.gov/whiteriver).
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD SITES
The Midwest was home to many critical stops in this network that helped slaves escape to freedom in the North. Visits provide moving reminders of the courage of escaping slaves and the people who aided them. Find sites near you with the National Parks Service's listing at www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground.
PERRY'S VICTORY AND INTERNATIONAL PEACE MEMORIAL, South
Bass Island, Lake Erie, Ohio
This 352-foot tower commemorates Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's pivotal defeat of a squadron of British warships in the War of 1812, and also seeks to teach visitors about international peace (419/285-2184; www.nps.gov/pevi).
LINCOLN COUNTY HISTORICAL MUSEUM, North Platte, Nebraska
Learn how volunteers at the legendary North Platte Canteen greeted all military trains that passed through between
December 1941 and April 1946. Some 6 million members of the armed forces received sandwiches, coffee and cookies on their way to war (308/534-5640)
BERLIN WALL SEGMENT, Fulton,Missouri
Winston Churchill delivered his famous "Iron Curtain" speech on the campus of Westminster College in this town. Today, you can see "Breakthrough," an 11-foot-tall by 32-foot-long
sculpture created from eight Berlin Wall segments by Churchill's granddaughter, artist Edwina Sandys (573/592-5369; www.churchillmemorial.org).
MOUNT RUSHMORE, Black Hills, South Dakota
The famous likenesses of four U.S. presidents represent the "courage, dreams, freedom and greatness" of Americans. The story of the mountain's carving during the Great Depression
provides its own measure of inspiration (605/574-3171; www.nps.gov/moru).
OKLAHOMA CITY NATIONAL MEMORIAL, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Dedicated to the 168 victims of the 1995 bombing and the rescue workers, the memorial tells the story of the attack
and the resilience of the human spirit. A museum recounts the bombing and aftermath, and the outdoor memorial features a chair representing each victim (888/542-4673; www.oklahomacity