Down on the farm: 6 of the US’ best agricultural museums
Monday, July 27, 2020
If you’ve ever tended a backyard garden or tried to raise a few chickens, you know that farming is hard, dirty work. Keeping America’s kitchens supplied during the coronavirus pandemic has made things even harder for farmers — earning these most essential of essential workers the respect and appreciation of an entire nation.
America was built on agriculture and the number of farms in the U.S. peaked in the 1930s at more than 7 million. Today that number is but 2 million and, while farmers and ranchers represent just a little more than one percent of the nation’s workforce, they are still managing to feed all the rest of us. Quite an amazing feat when you think about it.
For those interested in learning more about how American farms and ranches perform such a miracle, there are a number of farming and agricultural museums around the country that help tell the story. Here are six of them.
The Farmer’s Museum, Cooperstown, New York
Cooperstown is, of course, famous as the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But there’s another museum — just minutes away — that celebrates what really put Cooperstown on the map: farming. Long before baseball was ever played here, Cooperstown was a busy center for growing hops, an essential ingredient in the brewing of beer.
Life on the farm is the theme of this family-friendly museum and its many exhibits feature an array of farming implements. Resident craftspeople demonstrate the skills required to sustain life on a 19th century farm. Kids love the interactive barnyard that crawls with all kinds of farm animals. Special events take place nearly every weekend, including the annual October Tractor Fest that brings together more than 60 vintage tractors.
Steppingstone Farm Museum, Havre de Grace, Maryland
Susquehanna State Park sits alongside its namesake river in a region of northeast Maryland that’s noted for its fertile soil and prosperous farms. The park, in fact, preserves one of the area’s original farms that today features demonstrations of rural crafts that farmers would have practiced from the 1880s through the 1920s.
Steppingstone Farm visitors can watch woodwrights and blacksmiths at work, join kitchen demonstrations and interact with a variety of friendly farm animals. Special events are staged year-round and the annual Fall Harvest & Craft Festival in September is one of the most popular.
American Farm Heritage Museum, Greenville, Illinois
Located just off I-70, about 45 miles east of St. Louis, this museum complex became a reality in 2002 when a group of nearly 60 local farmers, collectors and civic leaders resolved to build a museum to help preserve the region’s illustrious farming heritage.
It wasn’t long before buildings began popping up on the 17-acre donated site, including the Lil’ Red Barn Museum, loaded with farm implements and artifacts essential to farming life. A much larger 200’ by 100’ main building was added in 2005 to serve as a venue for the museum’s busy schedule of special events. A tractor shed displays an array of tractors and other farm machinery.
Also on the grounds is the American Heritage Railroad. It’s a tribute to the contribution of railroads to the development of area agriculture. There’s a mile-long section of 13” gage track, a fine collection of both steam and diesel engines and a variety of rolling stock. The Armed Forces Museum is a more recent addition, displaying more than 40 historic military vehicles.
Bart Garrison Agricultural Museum of South Carolina, Pendleton, South Carolina
Named after one of its founders, the late State Senator T. Ed “Bart” Garrison, this museum is dedicated to South Carolina’s impressive agricultural heritage. Its mission is to foster agricultural education while confirming agriculture’s positive impact on the state’s economy.
Most of the events and activities here are geared to entertaining and educating youngsters who find plenty of opportunities to get their hands dirty while gaining an understanding about how food gets from the farm to their tables. Visitors can observe a working beehive, milk Clarabelle (a mechanical cow), explore a model tobacco farm and operate a cotton gin.
Other attractions and activities include attending class in a one-room schoolhouse, checking out the large collection of tractors and interacting with dozens of farm animals. Stars of the show are a pair of American guinea hogs (Daisy and Petunia) — a heritage breed found on the National Endangered Livestock List. The museum is about to open its restored 9,000-square-foot Iron Oak Barn, formerly the McGee Mule Barn — a historic barn once used by one of the largest mule trading operations in the South.
New Mexico Farm & Ranch Heritage Museum, Las Cruces, New Mexico
Las Cruces’ most popular visitor attraction chronicles the 4,000-year history of agriculture and rural life in New Mexico. The museum presents indoor exhibits and demonstrations devoted to farming and ranching methods and machinery. Outside are 47 acres of gardens, orchards, vines and pepper patches where experts work to develop some of the world’s hottest chili peppers – and there’s a zoo-worthy assemblage of farm animals and native critters.
The Wheels and Gears exhibit in the Museum’s Heritage Gallery displays an exceptional collection of wagons, coaches and buggies from different eras in the state’s history. Cultural events and special exhibits take place nearly every week and guided tours are always available.
California Agriculture Museum, Woodland, California
The California Agricultural Museum is home to America’s most unique collection of tractors and farm implements that together brilliantly depict the evolution from horse-drawn, to steam driven, to fuel-powered machinery. Gallery after gallery reveals collections of giant harvesters, combines, wheel and crawler-track tractors, trucks, wagons, art and photo exhibits.
Interactive exhibits, special events and field trips tell the history of farm to table in America’s breadbasket, dating back to the Gold Rush era. The Kid’s Zone features a fleet of pedal tractors and mini-Caterpillars along with exhibits specially designed to capture children’s imaginations. The museum is located 15 minutes from downtown Sacramento and is open Wednesday-Sunday.
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