A few lucky homeowners have either inherited land obtained through homestead acts or have claimed property in modern free land programs.
Many families with the wherewithal to leave dense cities during the pandemic have headed to country homes to shelter in a bigger space. But a handful of families are in a position to do this to an even greater extreme, settling into remote places that they or their ancestors received through free land programs.
Robert and Marne Sheldon, for example, can only access their second home by helicopter, and it is in a place where they are the only ones with lodging: the area that comprises Denali National Park in Alaska’s interior wilderness — although the park technically surrounds the family’s land.
Mr. Sheldon’s father, Don Sheldon, claimed the 4.99-acre property under the United States Homestead Act in 1953, six years before Alaska became a state. He chose a nunatak, a glacial rock outcropping, where he built a mountain house that he would rent out and use as a base to survey the Alaska Range and to conduct mountain rescues.
From 2015 to 2017, the younger Mr. Sheldon built a 2,000-square-foot chalet with floor-to-ceiling windows and hammocks hanging off the side of the nunatak. The Sheldons rent it out as a luxury getaway that is just 10 miles from the summit of Mount Denali, the tallest peak in North America.
The couple’s three sons, ages 23, 21 and 18, are “training in everything from glacier travel to avalanche rescue,” said Mr. Sheldon. “It’s neat to see the next generation of Sheldons do the things my father envisioned.”
Free land programs have been part of America’s DNA for centuries, encouraging families to settle in more remote or challenging environments. The nation’s early land grant programs gave away land that had been seized from Native Americans. But land grants exist not just in history, they continue to provide opportunities for Americans to live in stunning locations or to pick plots in areas not yet settled. Many who have chosen this path feel like explorers or cherish the opportunity to build dream homes. Now they are finding an added, unexpected benefit: seclusion and security during a pandemic.
Some families, like the Sheldons, have inherited land in surreal places.
The Sheldons live primarily in Talkeetna, Alaska, a town with a population of under 1,000 that is 22 air miles (and 152 car miles) from an entrance to Denali. The family’s land in the park consists of a big amphitheater basin surrounded by mountains over a mile tall. There are ice falls that are impossible to pass because of crevasses up to 400 feet wide and 700 feet deep.
Mr. Sheldon still can’t believe land this majestic belongs to his family. “Because my father obtained this land before Alaska was a state, we have rights to the land that other people don’t have,” he said. “We can sample the land; we could mine the whole thing if we wanted to; we could sell the land if we wanted to, but we just aren’t going to do any of that. We are going to protect it.”
In 1905, in the Coachella Valley of Southern California, Louis Wilhelm, a land developer, traded two mules and a buckboard wagon with a private landowner for the Thousand Palm Canyon. The next generation sold their shares of the property to a conservancy, which turned the land into the Coachella Valley Preserve. One of Louis Wilhelm’s sons, Harold Wilhelm, traded his share for 835 acres in the Indio Hills, which is a few miles from the conservancy. Harold Wilhelm’s granddaughter, Ronda Reil, is a part owner of the property, which sits on top of the San Andreas Fault and is known as the Wilhelm Metate Ranch. In some places, she said, you can see the earth’s plates merging.
“There are canyons with fossils, canyons with plates crashing, canyons that house animals, canyons with trees,” she said. “I am still amazed by some of the stuff that happens with the formation of the rocks. We had a big rain and one of the canyons that is really narrow had these huge chunks of car-sized rectangular cubes coming down.”
She knows this land is special. But it’s also home, a place she’s always known. “I know all the names of the plants and everything,” she said. “It’s just what we learned growing up.” She was a teenager when the family acquired the ranch sitting on the fault line, and she has wonderful memories riding a dune buggy and running around the canyons, discovering new places.
While she doesn’t currently live on the land (she could, but it gets too hot in the summer) she regularly hikes and holds outings there with family and friends. Roger Federer filmed a tennis commercial there.
Modern free land programs give Americans the chance to claim the best plots in areas not yet settled. A handful of cities across America still have modern free land programs in place. Smaller towns with dwindling populations, especially in the rural Midwest, are using them to entice people to move there and bring fresh life to the communities. This spring, the city of Duluth, in Minnesota, gave away lots to designers to come up with innovative solutions for the city’s affordable housing shortage. For these cities, free land programs are a win-win, a chance to utilize a resource they already have to encourage positive economic growth.
“Especially now after this pandemic, local governments are really hurting financially, and one of the few things we have at our disposal that is locally controlled is property,” said Jason Hale, a senior housing developer who oversees planning and economic development for the City of Duluth. “Free land programs are an opportunity to increase property taxes and fill out neighborhoods.”
“Picking out land is fun,” said Morgan Laine, 22, an assistant manager for Walmart, who moved into a four-bedroom home that she and her husband, Brad Laine, built on free land in Claremont, Minn., in mid-March, just as the coronavirus lockdown was beginning. She and Mr. Laine, 26, a driver for FedEx, live there with their newborn son.
Claremont is a small city in the southeastern part of the state. It has a population of 547 and a post office, a bar that serves food, a gas station, and two parks. “An ethanol production company is the largest business in town,” said Connor LaPointe, the city administrator for Claremont. “It employs a few people.”
In an effort to spur economic development, Claremont has 15 quarter-acre lots that it has been trying to give away since 2013. The lots are on an abandoned real estate development, and takers must meet an income threshold and agree to build a permanent home within 18 months. “We get calls three or four times a week,” said Mr. LaPointe. “A lot of people lose interest when they find out they can’t put a shed or their animals on the land.”
As only the third client to participate in the program, Mr. and Ms. Laine had their pick of land. They loved walking around the development, choosing the exact plot they wanted. They settled for one in the back that had more privacy. “We had to think down the road and picture what was going to be there,” she said. “I kind of felt like an explorer.”
Osceola, Iowa, a city with a population of around 5,000, is also giving away empty lots around the city. “People get to choose,” said Bill Trickey, the executive director of the Clarke County Development Corporation, which runs the free land program. “There are empty lots right next to the golf course or down the street from the elementary school. We gave away a property on a lake on the south side of town. They built a nice home there.”
One of the couples who participated in the program is Misty and Bryant Schiltz, ages 30 and 31. She works part time at Allegiant Airlines, and he is a commercial flooring installer. They have three children, 9, 8, and 6. They found a lot across the street from his parents’ house and they hope to break ground soon.
Without having to pay for the land, they are able to build their dream home. “On the main floor we will have the dining room, the living room, the kitchen, the laundry room, the office, and the master,” said Ms. Schiltz. “We have a vaulted ceiling, and it’s so open. We are going to have these really nice living areas that aren’t separated by walls. I am assuming we will live here forever.”
Mr. and Ms. Laine decided to build a home in Claremont after not finding a home in the area that met their priorities. “My husband wanted a big garage because he is a motor-head geek,” she said. “For me, I was picky about the bathtub.” Now they have a four-bedroom home with two baths and a three-car garage.
She can see why few families have chosen the same path. “It was a lot harder than I expected,” she said. “Our title company, I think they hated me by the time we were done. I called them every day for a week and a half to get our paperwork before they closed for the pandemic.”
And of course, the more remote the land, the harder the challenges. Ms. Reil doesn’t live on her family’s land in the Southern California desert, but her uncle has a cabin there, where he must bring his own water and use a generator for electricity. To help pay the property taxes on the land, the family leases land to Desert Adventures, which runs Red Jeep Tours.
Mr. Sheldon also faces problems on his free land in Alaska: “It sounds silly but water is a major problem. You’re in a sea of ice, but you have to turn that into liquid form, and it uses a tremendous amount of energy.”
Unlike settlers who explored the wild West and were plagued by diseases like cholera and dysentery, Americans who now live on free land are enjoying one advantage: a place to escape coronavirus.
Ms. Laine said it’s been helpful to live in an underdeveloped neighborhood during the pandemic. “You don’t have to worry about people being on top of you,” she said. “It would be nice to see this neighborhood develop, but maybe not to full capacity.”
The remoteness of many of these places and the low population density limits the risk of coronavirus.
Lincoln, Kansas, a city of 1,300 people, has 19 free lots available. In early May it had zero Covid-19 cases, which Kelly Larson, the executive director of the county’s economic development foundation, attributes to their way of life. “We are such an agricultural-based community, we just have so much space,” she said. “I go three or four mile walks and don’t see a soul.”
Ms. Reil’s land in the California desert has become even more valuable to her now that national and local parks are closed. “It’s been really great because I can go run around in the open whenever I want,” she said.
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