Living on Free Land

Source: NY Times
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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.

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