Sue McCabe couldn't wait to get her hands in the soil when she moved to Marquette, Kan., two years ago and settled on the first piece of land she's ever owned. She planted a vegetable garden, 30 rosebushes, 12 fruit trees and a row of sunflowers in her backyard and turned her half-acre homestead into a home.

"Sometimes you just have to go by faith,” says McCabe, 49, who had never set foot in Kansas before moving from Lancaster, Pa., to Marquette to take advantage of the town's free land.

She and her husband, Paddy, 49, are among hundreds of modern-day homesteaders being lured to the Great Plains by the promise of free parcels of land in rural towns such as Marquette (pop. 542); Hendrum, Minn., (pop. 315); Chugwater, Wyo., (pop. 244); Crosby, N.D., (pop. 1,089) and Kenesaw, Neb. (pop. 873).

The McCabes decided to strike out and move west after seeing a television news story about Marquette's land giveaway. They filed an application online and handled all the arrangements by telephone and fax for building their 1,450-square-foot ranch house, which cost $80,000.

"Where we were, it was very crowded and very expensive,” Sue says. "We never could have afforded a house.”

Marquette and other towns are staking their hopes of survival on modern homesteaders like the McCabes and a land deal reminiscent of the nation's Homestead Act of 1862 that settled the frontier. That government-land giveaway awarded settlers 160 acres after they lived on and cultivated the land for five years. Modern landholders, too, must build a house and live in it. Although requirements differ in each town, all have the same goal of repopulating the community and keeping businesses and schools open.

In Marquette, "the school was the driving issue,” says Mayor Steve Piper, the town's third-generation grocer. "We were going to lose it.” He and five other business leaders formed the Marquette Development Co., bought 50 acres of farmland for $100,000, and divided it into 80 lots with streets and utilities. In November 2003, they offered the first 20 lots to people willing to build a house and live in it for at least a year.

Allan Lindfors, a city councilman and banker, can't stop smiling as he recounts what happened. "We thought if we could build 20 houses and bring in 10 children in 10 years, it would theoretically help,” he says. "The first lots were gone within four months.”

By last summer, Marquette had given away all 80 lots and begun developing 20 more acres. The town's population boomed by a third. "It's bigger than we ever anticipated,” Lindfors adds.

Also surprising, he says, is that prospective newcomers aren't deterred by the scarcity of jobs in town. "We explain that you may have to drive 30 miles to Salina or 70 miles to Wichita, but that isn't a problem.”

The McCabes, both nurses, didn't have work lined up before moving, but both found part-time jobs within three weeks. Paddy landed a full-time position within six months at the Hutchinson Correctional Facility 40 miles away. Sue, who also is a hairdresser, converted a room of their new house into the town's only hair salon and keeps busy with $8 shampoos and sets.

The former urban dwellers say they've adjusted to the rhythm of small-town life where the Marquette Farmers State Bank locks up for lunch at noon and the only grocery store, Piper's Fine Foods, closes at 6 p.m.

"It's calmer here,” Sue says, "and the people are so friendly. You have to wave in Kansas.”

Small-town charm

The neighborliness also sweetened the free-land deal for the McCabes' neighbor Tammy Gladding, 35, a widow with two daughters who packed up and moved halfway across the country from San Bernardino, Calif., in 2004.

"I wanted a safer place for my kids,” says the mother of Tara, 10, and Taylor, 12. Gladding's parents heard about the free land and the family drove to Marquette to check it out. All of them were impressed.

"This felt right the minute I saw the area,” Gladding says. The small class sizes at Marquette Elementary School especially appealed to her; Tara's enrollment boosted the fourth-grade class to 10.

"The first week I moved here, the lady running the swimming pool asked me if I'd like to volunteer for the EMS service,” Gladding says. She did, and plans to use her EMT training in a hospital job. "I knew more of these people in the first month than in 10 years of living in California.”

Gladding works part time at City Sundries serving 65-cent corn dogs and 94-cent cherry phosphates at an old-fashioned marble soda fountain.

The small-town charm attracted her parents, Debi and Jeff Gruwell, of Riverside, Calif., who bought a 1920s-era house in Marquette last June and eventually may build on a free lot.

"It's not hustle-bustle,” says Jeff, 57. "I could not believe the traffic. There isn't any.”

Cash bonuses and incentives

Other Kansas communities are attracting newcomers with more than free land. Ellsworth County gives cash bonuses for children enrolled in the county's public schools, up to $3,000 per family, which is applied to the down payment for the home loan. In two years, 17 families with 36 children have taken advantage of the county's "Welcome Home Plan.”

"We do require that they make a trip here first,” says Anita Hoffhines, the county's economic development director, who gives tours to prospective homesteaders in the prairie towns of Wilson (pop. 799); Ellsworth (pop. 2,965), Holyrood (pop. 464), and Kanopolis (pop. 543).

"If they're moving from the city, they're giving up some amenities,” Hoffhines says. "We don't have sushi bars or malls with 20 movie screens, but your kids can ride their bikes to the pool.”

In Hendrum, Minn., which began offering free land in 1994, volunteers cleared dilapidated houses from tax-delinquent properties so the vacant lots could be given away.

Homesteader Tom Kristensen, 53, says his free lot in Hendrum gave him hope after suffering a stroke in 2003 and retiring early from his insurance job in Dallas. He built a 1,200-square-foot home for $70,000 and moved in last June. "It's cheaper than rent,” he says.

In Chugwater, Wyo., "darn near free land” is available for $100 through the Chugwater Housing Incentive Program.

"We want to stay progressive and build up our housing stock,” says Dixie Slider, the program's administrator. "All of our housing is about 50 years old.”

Heather and Lawrence Garringer, tired of living in a Detroit suburb, staked their claim last summer for a building lot in Chugwater. Lawrence, 26, a construction worker, drew the plans for their 1,600-square-foot house. Heather, 25, stays home with Liam, 19 months, and Kaitlin, 5.

"I'm excited,” Heather says as she packs to move 1,300 miles west to put down roots. "I hope the town grows with us.”

That's exactly what Chugwater and the other homestead towns scattered across the Great Plains are counting on.

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