Farming through the Centuries

History, Iconic Communities, On the Road, Traditions
on April 11, 2009
Photo by Vicki Cox Tony Kuehn has been an interpreter since 1992 at Living History Farms.

Wide-eyed children surround a pigpen and chicken coop and gaze at a windmill and barn at Living History Farms, a working museum in Urbandale, Iowa (pop. 29,072). The unhurried setting re-creates the lifestyles of hard-working Iowans during three time periods-the 1700s, 1850s and early 1900s.

"Can we climb the windmill?" asks one curious child. "There's a spider!" exclaims another. "Eeew, this smells," says a third youngster.

"They're doing exactly what we want them to do," says Tony Kuehn, 41, a museum interpreter who brings the area's rich agricultural history to life. "They're absorbing the environment."

Dressed in faded blue overalls and a collarless denim shirt, Kuehn demonstrates what life was like on a farm in 1900. He guides visitors inside a 119-year-old barn that was moved piece by piece from Stratford, Iowa (pop. 746). Inside, they see milking stations and farming tools and pet 1,800-pound Percheron draft horses resting in their stalls. In the barnyard, Kuehn invites visitors to shuck corn, pump water from a well, shovel manure and groom horses.

"I see kids having a good experience and learning something," Kuehn says. "One of the most valuable things we can pass on is an understanding of how we get our food and how agriculture plays such an important role within our country and lives. Once things were very different. It wasn't like going to the grocery store."

Inside a framed two-story, 126-year-old farmhouse, interpreters preserve vegetables in Mason jars and cook meals on a wood-burning cook stove. Visitors join in washing clothes on a washboard, kneading bread dough and making soap.

"Some kids come here completely divorced from the agricultural lifestyle," says Lindsay Fox, 24, wearing a long-sleeve, floor-length dress and sunbonnet as she describes farmhouse duties. "It's a shocker for them to learn that pie crust and soap are both made from lard. I love those eeew moments."

The three working farms, along with a 19th-century town, comprise the 550-acre Living History Farms. Open since 1970, the museum is experienced by 144,000 visitors during its May-to-October season and off-season special holiday events and historical dinners. The setting showcases 350 years of Iowa agricultural history, incorporates the science and skills of livestock husbandry and crop production, and employs the labor and love of more than 170 staff members and 1,300 volunteers.

The nonprofit farms began with William G. Murray, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University who envisioned an interactive museum about the history of agriculture.

"We want people to be completely immersed in a different time period and get a feel for the way things were," says Ruth Haus, 42, the museum's president.

Inside the 1700-era American Indian compound, visitors can scrape a deer skin, grind corn in a wooden mortar and examine a summer bark lodge. At the 1850 pioneer homestead, they can crosscut wood or spin wool near the one-room log cabin and a pair of working oxen. The Walnut Hill town display emphasizes connections between farming and town life in 1875. Sixteen houses and shops, including a millinery, blacksmith shop, general store, and doctor and law offices line wood-plank sidewalks. Visitors can clean or set type at the Advocate newspaper office or bind brooms at Beem's Broommaker.

"The shops and people in them are fabulous," says visitor Stephanie Egger of Galva, Iowa (pop. 368). "Kids get to see how technology changed from farm to farm."

Kids also get a taste of farm life. Touring the 1900 farm, a smiling Aly Tangeman, 7, of Gilbert, Ariz., kneels beside a pig pen, staring eye-to-eye with several hogs that suddenly shake off their mud. Her brother, Jake, 10, laughs. "I liked it when the pigs threw mud on my sister," he says.

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