The author shares the story of fifty families who found free land in Kansas from watching a television ad.
Marquette, Kansas — Tammy Young was watching television at her home near Riverside, California, about an hour east of Los Angeles, when she saw an ad about a town in Kansas that was giving away land. Young, her parents, and her daughters, ages 11 and 13, got in the car and headed for the Smoky Hills of south-central Kansas.
The town is Marquette, a village of brick storefronts and old homes where a big Saturday night event means the stores stay open until 9 p.m. and somebody wins a $100 gift certificate.
Young and her family are among about 50 families that have responded to the offer of free land in Kansas, a free building lot for anyone who would build a home and live in it for at least a year.
The land giveaway, a takeoff of the 1862 Homestead Act that brought about a million settlers to Kansas, has increased Marquette's population from 527 people in 2000 to nearly 700 now. And it has brought a whole lot of attention to the town.
"We've gotten oodles of publicity," says Mayor Steve Piper. "I've done some 20 television interviews and been on national TV six times. For a town this size, that's unheard of."
But more importantly, the town has managed to stop the slow hemorrhage of people that caused it to lose its high school in the 1980s and was threatening its grade school.
In 2003, the city council was chewing on this problem when it came up with the idea of the land giveaway.
"We were having a discussion on growth and some of the other towns around us had several new homes," recalls Piper. "We didn't have any new homes. And somebody asked, ‘Where would you build one?'"
Next thing you know, town leaders were forking out $100,000 for 50 acres of cornfield that they immediately began turning into 80 free building lots, complete with utilities. Within six months of that fateful city council meeting, the first houses were going up.
Marquette is not the only Kansas town to come up with this notion. The town of Minneapolis, Kansas, has been offering building lots for a nominal fee of $1,500 since 1999. But perhaps because of its extensive publicity, Marquette has become a destination for leaders of other small towns looking for a way to grow.
Of course, that growth hasn't all been smooth. The influx of newcomers has brought a little culture shock on both sides. For example, the land giveaway has brought the first minorities to an area that was, Piper says, "about 99.9 percent white." A few of these Hispanic families speak only Spanish, which has presented the town with an assimilation problem.
For Young, her chief complaint is the food.
"My kids are very Mexican-food oriented," says Young. "Here there's a lot of Swedish food. It's difficult to find things to cook."
But they love their new Norman Rockwell lifestyle. Young's daughters, for example, were amazed that they could leave their toys in the yard without fear of theft and that they could walk safely around town.
"And if they're doing something wrong," Young says, "everybody in town knows."
For nearly half the families who moved to Marquette, that small-town atmosphere kept them around, even though they discovered they weren't able to come up with the money to build on the free lots.
"I got a Christmas card the first year a family moved here that said, ‘Thanks for giving us a chance,'" Piper says. "That family never was able to build a home but they're happy to be here."
Meanwhile, the town of Marquette is now preparing to give away commercial land. One of the town's founding families has donated 25 acres and the town hopes to generate more local jobs through its new program.
And if the jobs get people here, Young believes, the lifestyle will keep them here.
"This is a very calm, soothing area," she says. "This is where we want to be."
To get more information about Marquette, Kansas, and the program, see the town website at www.marquetteks.us/freehomesite.htm
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