Living History Farms

After our amazing weekend diving into the world of modern farming, our next stop was to learn more about farming the way it used to be done. Before the climate controlled tractors and combines that harvest 12 rows at a time, like those we experienced in Stratford, people were farming land in central Iowa by much more simple means. A visit to the Living History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa formed a perfect segue between our farming focus and our new study of pioneers and the Oregon Trail.

1700: Ioway

The Living History Farms feature three different farms, wonderfully and pedagogically laid out in time line form. Visitors first arrive to a typical farm as the native Ioway tribe would probably have lived. There were models of the types of homes they built in the summer and winter, as well as a small field growing their typical crops of corn, beans, and squash. The best part of this farm, according to Emelie and Peter, was learning how to put up a small teepee such as would have been used on hunting trips.

Exploring the Ioway summer house

1850: Pioneers

Continuing down the path from the Ioway farm, we followed the time line through 150 years of history, from 1700 to 1850. Significant events in world and US history were marked at intervals along the path to help us appreciate how much the world changed in those years. The farm in 1850 was an example of a pioneer farm that had only been settled for a few years. The house was a single room with a sleeping loft for children. This farm was also actively farmed according to technology and practices common among the pioneer settlers in 1850. Lunch is prepared every day for the staff in the 1850 farmhouse kitchen, using only the ingredients and tools available to the pioneers. When we arrived to tour the farm, two women were cleaning up from this meal and washing dishes. This authenticity really added a lot to the experience! The guides weren’t just wearing period costumes and standing among replicas. They were actively farming the land. The tools were actually being used for daily tasks. The guides taught from experience and not just from reading about it in a book.

pioneer house
The pioneer farmhouse


pioneer kitchen
Cleaning up after the staff lunch

1900: Horse Power

Again we wandered the “time travel path” through 50 more years of history. The American Civil War came and went, and the transcontinental railroad united the country from sea to shining sea. A couple of generations after the pioneers built their farms, the Midwestern farmers were able to farm more acres thanks to advances in technology and equipment. At the 1900 farm, we toured a much larger farmhouse as well as multiple barns, equipment sheds and other buildings. This farm is also still farmed according to the technology and practices of the day, and included much more livestock and horse driven farm tools, such as plows, sowing machines and harvesting machines. Peter was particularly interested in testing the equipment, sitting in each machine and figuring out how it worked and what it was used for.

1900 farmhouse
A much bigger farm


farm equipment
Figuring out how it works

Leaving the 1900 farm, we continued along the time line trail back to a visitor center. Along the walk were displays showing the advances in farming techniques and technology in the last 100+ years, including the rise of gasoline powered equipment, that helped us connect everything we had just seen with our time spent on a modern farm.

1875 Walnut Hill

The other side of the Living History Farms is the fictional town of Walnut Hill, built and managed as a Midwestern town would have been in 1875. There wasn’t time left before closing to be able to visit all the stores and see all the tradesmen and women doing their jobs. But those we were able to see were very well-done and we learned a lot!

The School

There was no teacher present at the school, but there were resources and suggestions available for playing school in the 1875 one-room schoolhouse. The kids each got a slate and a reader at an appropriate level for them. The classroom rules on the blackboard were as follows:

1. Be quiet.

2. Sit up straight.

3. Stand when reciting.

So they each took a turn standing to read a lesson from their readers aloud, while the other sat up straight and listened quietly. It was fun! And there was much more that we could have done, but we wanted to see more of the town, so we moved on.

one room schoolhouse
Reading lesson


one room schoolhouse

The Broom Works

Start to finish, brooms are made here using broom corn grown on-site. The shopkeeper explained the process and showed various brooms in different stages of completion, but the one she was working on was just ready to be cut to length. Peter got to help hold it in position as it was being cut. A good broom should be able to stand on its own!

broom making
Such a good helper!

The Law Office

The main job of a lawyer in a small town like Walnut Hill was the sale and purchase of real estate. We learned about how different it was to become a licensed lawyer back then, and that Iowa was the first state to issue a law license to a woman!

1875 lawyer

The Bank

The banker showed us this check, which was a new idea at the time, and one that most people were uncomfortable with or even suspicious of. Coins made more sense than paper. Imagine what they would have thought about all of our electronic transactions today!

1875 bank

The Print Shop – The Advocate

Last year, we saw Ben Franklin’s printing office in Philadelphia. It was a mistake to think, “Seen one old printing press, seen them all.” Of course the technology and techniques advanced in the hundred years between Franklin’s press and The Walnut Hill Advocate’s press. We were able to compare and contrast with what the kids remembered seeing last year. At The Advocate, there were no roped off sections or requests to observe from a distance. We were free to move about the shop and look up close at everything.

print shop

The Blacksmith

We also learned a lot at the blacksmith. Again, it’s easy to assume you already know most of this one, but when he started talking he corrected a lot of misunderstandings. In 1875, horseshoes and nails and other items you’d typically associate with a blacksmith were much more cheaply made in factories and therefore most people bought them mass produced in the general store. Blacksmiths would spend most of their time doing repairs on these items, or customizing the store-bought products.

He decided that Emelie was old enough to be taken on as an apprentice. Once she started pumping the bellows, he shared that this would be the apprentice’s only job at the beginning – all day, every day, for as long as the blacksmith deemed appropriate. From this the apprentice built up his strength, learned patience to tolerate repetitive work, and was able to spend hours upon hours observing the work of the blacksmith. Blacksmiths were well-paid at the time, so this apprenticeship was much sought after and parents were willing to send their 8 year old sons away from home to live and work there.


The Drug Store

Lucky us! We arrived just in time for the medicinal leeches to be fed! There was much to be learned about medicine and the medical knowledge of the day, but nothing could compete with those leeches. Leeches don’t need to eat very often. In fact, they can go several months between feedings. The feedings are not daily events at the Living History Farms, so we were really excited to be there on the right day at the right time!

medicinal leeches


medicinal leeches
Ready for my close up!


There was more to see and do at the Living History Farms than we could do in a single day. We were forced to leave with several things undone. In our experience, this was one of the most hands-on, authentic and interactive living history/open air museums we have been to. Admission was under $50 for our family, so it’s also considerably cheaper than some other, better-known museums. We would absolutely go back if we found ourselves in the area, and we would wholeheartedly recommend anyone else to spend a day there. You won’t be disappointed!



3 thoughts on “Living History Farms

  1. Så otroligt intressant. En hel del av jordbruk med häst minns jag med glädje från min barndom. Men allt det andra! Praktiska minnen som varken ni eller barnen glömmer. Det här var verkligen kul att läsa. Det tyder på att allt är väl med er. God fortsättning! k

    1. Hej! Ja, det är bra med oss! Så roligt att du fortsätter läsa och tycka det är kul! Det här kommer vi absolut att minnas! Vi är så tacksamma att kunna ge våra barn en sådan utbildning. Önskar dig allt gott! Alltid roligt när du hör av dig! /C

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