Friday, August 19, 2016

Des Moines Living History Farms

Living History Farms: Des Moines, Iowa

Visitors enter the millinery shop at the 1875 town of Walnut Hill, part of several attractions at the 500-acre Living History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa.

Living History Farms, a 500-acre outdoor museum covering 300 years of the agricultural past, is one of the finest attractions of its kind for adults and children in the United States.

The museum has four sites — a 1700 Ioway Indian farm, an 1850 pioneer farm, a 1900 horse-powered farm and the 1875 town of Walnut Hill — housed on its property in Urbandale, Iowa, 8 miles west of Des Moines.

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When we stopped at the entrance to Walnut Hill, a tour guide suggested we take a tractor-towed cart to the farms to save some energy.

At the tractor pickup, a large crowd of 4- and 5-year-old children awaited a tour. The guide told us the museum is open daily from May 1 to Aug. 28, with schools rushing to visit before classes end for the year. The venue is open for a second season from Aug. 31 to Oct. 21, though its days are more limited during that period.

Part of the appeal is the expertise and enthusiasm of the staff that includes students from local colleges as well as retired seniors. They wore period dress but were not re-enactors, interacting with visitors while answering questions about how things were done in the time period.

When the cart dropped us off at the 1700 Ioway Indian farm, we explored three shelters: one for deep winter, one for summer and one for when they were following the buffalo. A large drying rack held beans, corn and squash, which the Ioway people would bury in jars to use during the cold season.

A walk through the woods brought us to the 1850 pioneer farm, complete with a cowshed, a chicken coop, a smokehouse and a small log cabin. Two women in the cabin were preparing onion bread and steak — steak because a raccoon had gotten into the smokehouse and ruined the pork that had been inside. The recipe for the bread sounded so good that we asked for it. The ladies said steak was relatively uncommon at the time, noting pork was the primary meat pioneers consumed.

Two re-enactors prepare onion bread and steak for dinner

Rather than ride, we walked along a long path to the 1900 horse-powered farm. Great changes had been made in 50 years. This farm had a large barn and other smaller buildings, a windmill and many more animals. The house had four rooms downstairs and two upstairs.

A worker makes a corn broom at the Living History Farms. The brooms are built with corn that produces a sturdy straw rather than traditional ears.

We recognized the equipment from our own childhoods, including a wood stove and butter churn. The lady of the house was making brandied carrots and planned to serve it with steak.

An employee inside the barn briefed us about Living History Farms visits during the cold season, when exhibitions are closed. People can stop in for meals cooked in the style of the various periods.

After we rode the cart back to Walnut Hill, we first observed fifth-graders seated in a classroom with girls on one side and boys on the other — as was the style in 1875.

Our next stop was the broom factory, where we learned about a strain of corn that produces a sturdy straw rather than ears. A woman in the factory was making a variety of brooms using several machines. The brooms were for sale in several places around the village at prices much higher than they would have been in 1875.

When we visited an implement dealer’s building, we were familiar with much of the equipment. However, we were fascinated by devices for planting seeds, washing clothes and churning butter. One particularly amazing butter churn harnessed the power of a dog running on a treadmill to turn the plunger in the churn. The dealer said people also could put a sheep on the treadmill.

The guide told us that businessmen had been overcharged for equipment because it was so difficult to transport.

A group of farmers that called themselves the Grangers decided to unionize to buy the equipment for lower rates.

At the doctor’s office, we got a good overview of medicine in 1875. Most of a doctor’s work was done on the road, and he only spent one day a week seeing patients in his office. He mixed many of his own medicines and carried them in a saddlebag.

Probably the hardest job we saw was done by the volunteers setting type for the weekly newspaper. Both women working on the newspaper were knowledgeable, and we learned a lot. For example, how did they keep up on national and international news? Who were their sources?

It turned out that a major paper in a nearby city with proper contacts would send them the inside two pages already printed with articles. The local worker had to write and print only pages one and four of the paper. At 300 papers a printing, it was hard to break even. The paper made its profit by handling other printing jobs for people in the community.

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