Living History Farms
Living History Farms brings history to life in unimaginable ways. Located on a 500-acre plot of land west of Des Moines, this interactive museum drops visitors into the heart of the Midwestern agrarian past. Museum-goers can interact with the costumed employees as they explore an 1850 Midwestern pioneer farm, the 1875 Town of Walnut Hill, and other historic recreations. Overall, a trip to Living History Farms introduces visitors to the story of how Iowan settlers transformed the land and fertile prairies into one of the most productive farmlands in the world. Although the employees are costumed, they are all historians or experts, and they are happy to explain modern issues and non time-specific topics to guests as they go about their farming duties. With an at-your-own-pace atmosphere, visitors can explore the Henry A. Wallace Exhibit Center or the four Farm Sites as they please.
Backstory and Context
History of the Museum
Living History Farms was the brainchild of Iowa State University agricultural economist Dr. William G. Murray, who sought to give the public a museum where they wouldn’t have to enjoy exhibits from behind a piece of glass. Instead, Murray wanted the public to experience where history was lived.
The museum opened in 1970. Since then, Living History Farms has continued gathering artifacts and replications for its massive facilities. Many of the artifacts and other items gathered are used in the Farm Site reproductions, where visitors can experience authentic locations, farming equipment of old, and much more.1
The most popular aspects of Living History Farms are the four Farm Sites located across the 500-acre museum. These sites take visitors on a journey that covers 300 years of agricultural history. The “oldest” site is the 1700 Ioway Farm, which showcases the farming methods that local Native Americans used until the Europeans arrived. This living exhibit showcases the roles of men and women in Ioway culture, while it also illuminates farming methods used to grow corn, beans, and squash.
The 1850 Pioneer Farm presents the story of European settlers making their livings on the Iowa frontier. Thus, the farm on this site shows a specific transition in history from trying to survive to making a profit.
The 1900 Horse-Powered Farm starts to resemble more modern farming methods with horse-drawn plows and hay presses. Lastly, and possibly the most popular site at the museum, the 1875 Town of Walnut Hill transports visitors into a bustling frontier community, complete with 18 shops, businesses, and homes.
After spending the day at the farm sites, the Henry A. Wallace Exhibit Center presents the evolution of farm life from WWI to the modern age.2
Special Events and Day Camp
Throughout the year, Living History Farms hosts a variety of special events as well as outreach programs for the community’s youth and families. For example, some special events held at the museum could include Hands-on Fun, Victorian funerals, corn harvests, harvest wagon rides, and much more.
During the spring, summer, and winter school breaks, Living History Farms also sponsors Day Camps. Appropriate for all ages, these camps teach participants about life and heritage in Iowa, and some of the activities at the summer camp can include playing an 1875 version of baseball, building a covered wagon, making solar oven cookies, and others.3