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Stepping back into living history

Courtesy Coggeshall Farm Museum

As the 18th century drew to a close, America was an agricultural economy dominated by small, often self-sustaining family farms. That was about to change dramatically over the next half-century as the industrial revolution began to take hold.

At Coggeshall Farm Museum in Bristol, R.I., costumed interpreters freeze a moment in history caught between those two eras.

“We are interested in trying to interpret the agricultural processes in New England before the industrial revolution,” said Justin Squizzero, director of historic interpretation at the museum, which depicts a coastal tenant farm in 1799.

Squizzero said the year was selected for two reasons. The earliest documented evidence of the farm is from 1799, and the last year of the 18th century was on the cusp of the industrial revolution.

“It was the end of the agricultural period,” he said. “Things would dramatically change in the next 30 to 40 years.”

Coggeshall Farm Museum is one of several living-history museums around the country that preserve the nation’s rural and agricultural heritage, much of which has been lost to industrialization.

Coggeshall Farm Museum
Bristol, R.I.
The 48-acre museum is on the same site as the original farm, although much smaller. The site includes the restored original farmhouse, both original and reproduced outbuildings, an heirloom kitchen garden and livestock from the period, such as cattle, sheep, swine and horses.

Costumed interpreters conduct daily chores and activities similar to what would have been done in 1799. “Typically, whoever is in costume is carrying out the same type of work on the farm as 200 years ago,” said Squizzero.

That can include hearth cooking, gardening, food preservation, farming, tending to livestock and making fence posts. And there are many opportunities for visitors to help out.

“The goal that we all have is to include visitors as much as possible in what is going on,” said Squizzero. “It is not about the visitors watching us dip candles; it is about visitors doing the same thing with us. Within bounds, we get people dirty.”

Squizzero said the staff is willing to work with a motorcoach group that would like to take part in its Breakfast in the Barnyard program, in which visitors come an hour before opening to help with the morning chores, such as turning out the sheep and chickens, feeding swine, and brushing and milking cows. It is followed by a breakfast of 1790s-style johnnycakes.

“It gives the visitors a chance to be up close with animals,” he said.


Billings Farm and Museum
Woodstock, Vt.
At the Billings Farm and Museum, groups can get a comprehensive look at 19th-century New England farm life and a modern dairy farm.

“We are an operating dairy farm and a museum of Vermont’s rural history,” said Susan Plump, public relations coordinator for the museum.

“In the museum, which is the old cow barn, we actually show what farm life was in the late 19th century. It goes through all four seasons of farming.”

On the second floor of the museum are re-creations of farmhouse settings, such as the kitchen, dining room, parlor, bedroom and pantry, along with re-creations of a one-room schoolhouse, a church and a general store.

“We don’t do maple sugaring, but we have a large display in the museum,” said Plump. “We have an icehouse and a vignette that shows ice cutting. There are orchards on the farm, so there is a large display about making apple cider and peeling apples.

“It is quite extensive and shows a lot of what farms were like then.”

The farm, developed in the late 19th century by Frederick Billings as a model operation, still milks more than 65 Jersey cows and has working draft horses, Southdown sheep, heritage breeds of chickens and a pair of oxen.

From May 1 to Oct. 31, there is a daily introduction-to-milking program in midafternoon, followed by the milking of cows, which visitors can observe.

“All of our programs pretty much have to do with farm life and animals,” said Plump. “Our up-close programs invite visitors into the cow stalls to touch and feel the animals or to take the sheep out of the pen.

“We also can do horse-drawn wagon or sleigh rides, or hands-on activities. For example, you can help make butter or ice cream.

“We also have the 1890 farmhouse that Frederick Billings built for the farm manager as a showcase house; the manager would invite the public in. It had a lot of new innovations and technology for that time, such as gas lighting and running water — there is actually a flush toilet and bathtub in the house.”

Horne Creek Living
Historical Farm

Pinnacle, N.C.
During special events at the Horne Creek Living Historical Farm, visitors get a look at farm life in the early 20th century with costumed interpreters shearing sheep, baking pies, shucking corn and plowing fields with draft animals.

“We are trying to portray what a rural farm family would have gone through in 1900 to 1910,” said Jason Bowen, horticulturalist at the state-operated site.

The farm includes the original 1880 farmhouse, which has been restored and furnished to reflect the early 1900s, several outbuildings, orchards, cultivated fields and representative livestock.

Guided tours can be provided for groups. “What you would see on the tour are the tobacco barn, the house, a fruit house, corn crib, double-crib feed barn from about 1850, smokehouse, tobacco-curing barn, and fruit and vegetable dry house,” said Bowen.

“We have two orchards: the Hauser orchard, which is pretty much like they had it, and a Southern heritage orchard with 800 trees and 400 different varieties. It is the only state-supported apple orchard that we know of.

“You can check out all the animals, walk through the house, and there are a lot of farm implements scattered around the property.”

Bowen said the corn-shucking frolic in October is the site’s signature event. “It gets bigger each year,” he said. “Ten thousand to 12,000 people came last year. We make molasses with a horse-drawn press, cook food the old-fashioned way and have woodworking.”

Barrington Living History Farm

Washington-on-the-Brazos, Texas
“We are a re-created cotton farm,” said Mark Sanders, lead agricultural interpreter at Barrington Living History Farm. “We are part of Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park.”

The park, which is at the site where the Texas declaration of independence from Mexico and its constitution were signed when it became a republic in 1836, also includes a visitors center, a large gift shop with Texas-themed items and a re-creation of Independence Hall, where the historic documents were signed.

The farm is a re-creation of the farm operated by Anson Jones, a doctor, pioneer Texas settler and the last president of the republic before it became a state in 1844.

“We have a target date of 1850, when Anson Jones was running his farm,” said Sanders.

The interpreters, who wear period clothing, use Jones’ daybook and accounts as guides in their daily work, which mimics what would have been done at the same time of year in 1850.

Visitors can learn how to drive oxen, help plant and harvest crops, and try their hand at spinning or soapmaking.

Jones’ original house, which he built in 1844 about four miles away, was moved to the site in 1936 as part of the Texas centennial celebration. “There is a re-created kitchen out back,” said Sanders, “along with a smokehouse and chicken pens.”

Living History Farms
Urbandale, Iowa
Living History Farms in suburban Des Moines, Iowa, covers more than 300 years of Midwestern agricultural and rural history at three re-created farms, a 19th-century frontier community and a state-of-the-art exhibition center focused on 20th-century agriculture.

The farms include the 1700 Ioway Indian Farm, which has a re-created bark lodge, gardens with beans and melons, and demonstrations of food being prepared on an open fire.

“We start with the earliest farmers,” said a guide.

The other farms are the 1850 Pioneer Farm, where interpreters cultivate corn, potatoes and wheat, the three main crops on the Iowa frontier, with oxen, and women in a log cabin go about frontier domestic chores, and the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm, where Percheron draft horses are used to pull the machinery.

The re-created 1875 town of Walnut Hill has more than a dozen shops, businesses and homes along its boardwalk main street, where artisans demonstrate cabinetmaking, blacksmithing, broom-making and newspaper publishing.

Except for the Ioway Indian farm, the interpreters are in period costume and go about chores and activities consistent with the time of year visitors are there.

“Chores change with the season and from day to day, even hour to hour,” said the guide. “If you come in the morning, they will be doing morning chores.”

The Wallace Crop Center uses artifacts and interactive technology to chronicle the evolution of agriculture through the 20th century to the computer age.

Tours begin in the visitors center, where a large exhibit room with wood beams, skylights and exposed brick gives an overview of the site.

Tractor-drawn carts take visitors to the farms and Wallace Crop Center from boarding spots in Walnut Hill. Groups have several tour options that range from more than three hours to tours of just the town.

Slate Run Living
Historical Farm

Canal Winchester, Ohio
The Slate Run Living Historical Farm depicts the interdependence between late-19th-century Midwestern farms and the outside world.

“We talk about a central-Ohio market farm in the 1880s,” said Ann Culek, manager of the living-history farm, which is part of Columbus, Ohio, Metro Parks. “We emphasize that this is not a self-sustaining farm. They were tied into producing not only for themselves but selling to the railroad and the area, and bringing things back from the outside.

“This was not a little pioneer farm out in the middle of the woods.

“We do it through costumed staff. We avoid special events and are able to stick pretty tightly to what the daily and seasonal farm life would be, to what this family was doing at the time,” she said.

“We may be interpreting threshing or washing or working in an heirloom garden. We have horses who do most of the work; it was still horse-powered, pregasoline engine.

“We make meals for the staff and volunteers; we cook on a woodstove every day.”

The site also has a Poland China hog, Merino sheep, ducks, chickens, turkeys and geese.

The Gothic Revival farmhouse, built in 1856, is restored to the late 1880s. Visitors can tour the living room, parlor and kitchen.

“We are trying to have visitors feel like they have walked into somebody’s farm of that time period,” said Culek.

Culek did advise that for groups, the site is remote and has limited facilities.