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USA Radio
Urbandale, Iowa

Living History Farms

Learn first hand what life on the prairie was like

An afternoon at Iowa’s Living History Farms is like a going back to school, but immensely more enjoyable. Learn first hand the story of how Iowans transformed lush tallgrass prairie into tilled farmland that produces more corn, hogs, chickens and eggs than any other state in America.

This rich chapter in agricultural history is told across these 550 acres, not through glass exhibits and rusty farm tools, but through costumed interpreters who bring to life three working farms from 1700, 1850 and 1900, replete with the crops and animals they raised. An 1875 frontier town includes a general store and a blacksmith.

The ‘300-year walk’ takes you through three farms that look, feel, and smell like the real McCoy. It begins at a 1700 Ioway Indian village with bark lodges and small patches of squash, beans and corn that women farm with wooden and bone tools. Further along in time, farmers at the 30-acre 1850 Pioneer Farm represent a time when the deep roots of the prairie were first being broken up by oxen pulling iron plough. Farmers relied on multipurpose heritage breeds like the Devon cow, good for milk, meat, and ploughing, and on subsistence farming, growing corn, wheat and potatoes, mostly for their own use. By 1900, farmers found draught horses to work much faster and started to raise commodity corn (still Iowa’s main crop, along with hogs [this is an animal?] and soybeans), making enough money to build pretty white farmhouses. There’s a bright yellow-and-red horse-drawn Buckeye Mower out in the field that is the precursor to the latest newfangled farm gadgetry you’ll see at today’s Iowa State Fair.

Farms relied on small towns like Walnut Hill, the museum’s 1875 community that demonstrates the need for craftsmen like broom makers and cabinet makers before the railway brought inexpensive mass-produced goods from factories in the East. The small town’s big draws were Mrs. Elliott’s Millinery, Greteman Brothers’ General Store and the Church of the Land. 

Production growth, technological advances and the rise of big agribusiness have decimated Iowa’s small farming towns, but the grounds’ modern Henry A. Wallace Exhibit Center explains how some communities are trying to rebuild themselves in order to survive the new century. It includes interactive displays on changes in livestock, farming technologies and food preparation over the last 100 years.

There are even 12 acres of reconstructed tallgrass prairie, which, before it was ploughed under, was so tall that men on horseback could literally tie grass over their mount’s neck. Once frightening to settlers because of the sweeping fires that tore across the land, the prairie is nearly extinct now—less than one-tenth of one per cent of Iowa’s native prairies remain.

This trip idea can be found in:

1,000 Places to See in the United States & Canada Before You Die®

Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.

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