Living on free land

  • >> Alyson Krueger, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-06-14 12:54:11 BdST

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The Sheldon family’s land is in a big amphitheatre basin surrounded by mountains over a mile tall. Chris Burkard

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 access their second home only 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.

Robert Sheldon’s father, Don Sheldon, claimed the 4.99-acre property under the US 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 conduct mountain rescues.

From 2015 to 2017, Robert 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,” Robert Sheldon said. “It’s neat to see the next generation of Sheldons do the things my father envisioned.”

Free land programs have been part of the country’s DNA for centuries, encouraging families to settle in more remote or challenging environments. 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.

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 its 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 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-size rectangular cubes coming down.”

She knows that this land is special. But it’s also home, a place she has 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.

Although 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 members 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 the United States still have free land programs. 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, Duluth, Minnesota, gave lots to designers to come up with innovative solutions for the city’s affordable housing shortage. For these cities, free land programs are a chance to utilise a resource they already have to encourage 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 neighbourhoods.”

“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, Minnesota, in mid-March, just as the coronavirus lockdown was beginning. She and Brad Laine, 26, a driver for FedEx, live there with their newborn son.

Claremont, in the southeastern part of the state, 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,” Connor LaPointe, the city administrator, said. “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.

Osceola, Iowa, with a population of around 5,000, is also giving away empty lots. “People get to choose,” said Bill Trickey, executive director of the Clarke County Development Corp., 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, 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 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,” Misty Schiltz said. “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.”

Of course, the more remote the land, the harder the challenges. 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.

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.”

c.2020 The New York Times Company