Plowing Through the Past

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Antique farm implements

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Just 18 miles from downtown Kansas City, Kan., green pastures flash past the car windows. And if you slow down, take a few turns to the north, you'll come across a modest acreage, covered with... antique farm implements. Some are in rows, some dot the landscape in solitary positions, as though the farmer just dismounted and will return at any moment. Wooden buildings spread out in a small community; train tracks, leading to nowhere, circle the homestead.

The National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, located in Bonner Springs, Kan., boasts one of the largest public displays of agricultural equipment in the nation. The modest museum sites 40,000 visitors a year, but those numbers are expected to increase dramatically due to a planned fundraiser, and with an increase in traffic expected when a Nascar racetrack moves into the lot next door. The contrast between past and present will be heightened, the peaceful air surrounding the grounds presently will be shattered with the noise of the race track, but there's no denying that the track will also help bring visitors to this historical display. Education of the public is the most important goal of this museum, and the staff is gearing up for the racetrack tourists, according to Tim Nimz, the director and executive vice president of the National Agricultural Center museum.

The museum consists of three parts: the main display building; the Museum of Farming where most of the large implements are stored; and Farm Town, USA, an outdoor display of buildings, including a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, train depot, silo and a farmhouse. The Island Creek school-house (from Piper, Kan.), the train depot (Morris, Kan.) and the silo (Tonganoxie, Kan.) are all historical buildings, moved to the National Hall of Fame and preserved on site. Tim is especially proud of the silo.

'It's a six-sided wooden silo, which is pretty rare,' he says. 'It was actually patented in Tonganoxie, Kan., in the 1920s, and it's called the Common Sense Silo.' The rest of the buildings were constructed on the museum grounds, patterned on post-Civil War buildings that might have existed in a western town.

The largest equipment display in Farm Town is housed in the blacksmith shop, which is stocked with anvils, trip hammers, bellows and wheelwright equipment. Iron pieces, the uses of which visitors can only guess, line every available surface of the wooden walls.

Inside the Museum of Farming, the eye is assaulted by the colors and shapes of an incredible spread of implements. Green, red, blue and yellow paint, worn and faded, decorate iron pieces that, for so many years, shaped farmland from West Virginia to Oregon. Potato planters line up next to seed planters and check-row wire. Hand tools hang on the walls above each set of implements, specific to the process that the implements below were invented to carry out. A tour guide, Diana Buck, points out the thing that all these machines have in common.

'They really illustrate the so-called 'Modern Technology' back then, how much work it was to farm,' she says. There are corn cutters and binders, from John Deere to McCormick. Probably the oldest implement in the display is the 1838 John Deere plow in this building. (This is not to be confused with the 'Truman plow' in the Founder's Room inside the main museum, which is most likely a John Deere plow that President Harry Truman inherited from his father.) Toward the back of the building, past the display of buggies, cream separators, and hearses, there stand three huge old threshers: A Birdsall clover huller, an Avery Yellow Fellow, and a JI Case thresher. These monsters make visitors seem tiny by comparison. The Avery still boasts some of the hand-painted scrollwork so common on early machinery, when the functional was also made to be beautiful. Across the aisle from the threshers sit several miscellaneous items. A fence-weaver rests in front of a horse-drawn oil tank (used to oil the dirt roads). Next to that sits a McCormick vertical corn binder with stalks of corn resting amiably in its metal-toothed jaws.

The far aisle of the building is the tractor row, the bulk of which is made up of a donated collection that held, in part, two Titan tractors. One, a huge mammoth of a tractor, is the 1908 Titan 12-20 with its IHC logo proudly, if faintly, displayed. It was originally owned by John Morgan, of Winfield, W.Va., and was last on display in the 1955 W.Va. State Fair, the 25 hp water-cooled engine still running strong. Among the other items in the row: a Minneapolis 17-30 type B, capable of pulling three plows; a 1912 Victor gas engine on wheels, a 1916 Mogul Tractor and a 1919 International 8-16. Housed in between the Titan 12-20 and a more modern 1960s era AC gleaner-combine, is a variety of grain mills and corn crushers. One, manufactured by L.B. McCarga Feed Mill Co., St. Joseph, Mo., was known as 'Famous Lightning.'

Inside the main display building, smaller items have been catalogued and displayed for visitors. A large hall in the middle of these displays highlights the Hall of Fame of Agriculture. Displays range from Squanto, the Wampego Indian who first showed the pilgrims how to cultivate crops like corn; to Norman Borlaug, a plant geneticist who won the Nobel Peace prize in 1970. There are 35 honorees all in all, some familiar, all with plaques, pictures, and biography information on the wall.

Once out of the Hall of Fame, look for household exhibits, with vacuums, stoves, butter paddles and Victrolas, as well as sewing exhibits, laundry collectibles, musical instruments and toys. The highlight of the toy display is a glass case full of mechanical and still banks, the collection dating from the civil war to the 1930s.

Downstairs, museum displays are set up in small rooms ranging from the veterinary office, circa 1920, to the blacksmith's shop and the leather tack room, complete with a glassy-eyed plastic horse sporting a saddle used on the Chisholm Trail, circa 1870. The dentist's office is a chilling display of ancient machinery, and leaves no wonder as to why whiskey was the favorite anesthesia of the period.

Even the stairways serve as display rooms: wall hangings feature with cooper's tools, blackened wrenches, barbed wire and dolls. The museum's collection was built with donations, but no donations are being accepted currently.

'We're full,' says Diane Buck. 'Some of the larger items just take up so much space.' They do hope to expand the displays at some point in the future. Tim Nimz explained the fund-raiser that is kicking off this calendar year:

'We have priorities. Our first one is probably the infrastructure of the buildings. [The Museum of Farming] building is probably 30 years old and this [main] building is probably 35 years old. After that, we'll start addressing the displays, one by one.' He expects the fund-raising to take two or three years, but adds that work will begin as funds became available.

The museum serves not only as a historical site for walk-in tourist traffic, but plays an important role in the education of Kansas City area youths.

'Education is the most important part of the museum,' Tim says. 'Most of these kids are urban, inner-city kids and this is their first exposure to production agriculture.' The museum hosts school field trips regularly, giving the kids hands-on experiences, and even teaching school for half a day in the one-room school-house in Farm Town.

Boasting a wide variety of implements, tools, machinery and household collectibles, the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame is a fitting place to educate youngsters about the trials and progress of a nation's past, while doing a fine job of reminding the rest of us as well.

'They really illustrate the so-called 'Modern technology/ how much work it was to farm.' Diana Buck, tour guide, speaking of the many farm implements in the Museum of Farming

National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, Bonner Springs, Kan. 913-721-1075; 630 Hall of Fame Dr., 66012; www.aghalloffame.com Hours: Mon. -Sat. 9 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Sun. 1 p.m. -5 p.m. Mid-March through Nov. (except major holidays); 18 miles west of downtown KC; admission prices apply.