Gold may have driven many settlers to the central Sierra Nevada foothills in the late 1800s. But for Bonnie Summers’ ancestors, free land kept them here.
Summers and her husband, Ron, have a home on part of the property that her grandparents first acquired as homesteaders in 1926. Located in the hills just east of Sonora, most of the property is still in the family and a point of pride for Summers.
“They were comfortable here,” Summers said earlier this week. “She (my grandmother) always said it was just like living in the old country.”
They will travel next month to Nebraska, where the National Homestead Monument of America is celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Homestead Act, which opened up much of The West to settlement. Bonnie Summers will represent California in a ceremony that will involve most of the 30 states where homesteading was allowed after 1862.
Summers’ grandparents, Angelo and Elena Bonavia, acquired 160 acres located in what is now the Apple Hill area in 1912 through the Homestead Act. They lived and farmed on the land and raised 11 children there, remaining on the property their whole lives. Today, the original house and barn still stand, though they have received additions and alterations.
The property was since divided among family members, and Summers said most of it is still owned by cousins and other family members.
“(My mom) always said to be sure and do something with that land,” said Bonnie. “It really means a lot to me.”
Under the Homestead Act, potential property owners could claim 160 acres of government-owned land. The act required claimants only to pay a filing fee, improve the property by building a structure, and farm the land for five years before filing for ownership. The act was repealed in 1976.
Advertised as free land at the time, homesteads are often associated with frontier states like Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Nebraska. But according to the Homestead National Monument, 10 percent of the land in California was part of a homestead. More than 66,700 homesteads existed in the state, totalling almost 10.5 million acres.
Both Bonnie and Ron Summers have ancestors who homesteaded, Ron’s family in Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska. Bonnie was aware since she was young that her grandparents’ place was settled as a homestead.
She spent a lot of time visiting the property as a child, though she is learning more about their pioneer days as she researches family history.
“All of my years growing up, school holidays I spent with my grandma. We’d sit on the porch and talk for hours,” she said.
Angelo did some gold mining, and Elena worked for the family of a prominent doctor. They met at a Sonora boarding house and later married, living near Power House Creek before settling on their homestead.
Summers said her grandfather Angelo talked about growing vegetables on the land and taking them up to a market in Twain Harte or Pinecrest to sell to gold miners or other workers. She recalled one story they often heard about him refusing to take currency from a customer, as he was used to accepting gold for payment. His young son had to convince him it was OK to take paper money, Summers said.
Both Bonnie and Ron Summers say they’re proud of their family heritage and its connection to the Homestead Act. The legislation played a major role in the country’s westward expansion. Though they both said they know homesteading is rarely associated with California, let alone the Gold Country.
“You don’t think of your grandparents of being pioneers,” Summers said. “But you can imagine, even coming to Ellis Island and having to take the train all the way here … it was a wild time. It’s kind of mind-boggling to think about what they went through.”