Muscling Through Time: the Pasto Agriculture Museum

The Pasto Agriculture Museum at Penn State University is preserving artifacts that demonstrate the central role of muscle power, human and animal, in the history of farming.

agriculture museum - horse drawn roller

Many exhibits at the Pasto Agriculture Museum are of devices invented to capture and employ animal power. This primitive, wooden, horse-drawn roller uses tree trunks to press broadcast seed into contact with the soil.

Photo: Farm Collector Magazine Staff

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Ever wonder how small grains were harvested 6,000 years ago, or how corn was bundled to be hand-tied for shocks, or how our ancestors bored tapered holes for barrel bungs without power drills? Answers to those questions and more can be found at the Pennsylvania State University's Pasto Agriculture Museum near State College, where Museum Curator Dr. Darwin G. Braund will show you the tools of the time.

"Everything in our museum is both B.C. and B.E.," Braund explains with a smile, as he demonstrates how an antiquated, one-horse treadmill can supply power to a stationary threshing machine. "Before computers, and before electricity or engines, we are all about muscle power here." All joking aside, the museum's oldest pieces are about 6,000 years old. "We have the remains of three clay sickles that were collected in what is now Iraq," Braund says. "They date to about 4000 B.C. (before Christ), and were likely used to harvest small grains by members of the Ubaid cultural group that lived in southern Mesopotamia at the time."

It is hard to imagine cutting grain with a clay sickle, much less that the pieces survived to the present day, but it should come as no surprise that even ancient people searched for an easier way to harvest crops. "Agriculture has played a big part in human civilization," Braund says. "We have come pretty far in 6,000 years." And while most of the museum's more-than-850 pieces are from a time much closer to the present than to clay sickles, they collectively form a portal through which the work of living in the past can be clearly understood. "With our current technologies and social structure, people are more separated from their agrarian roots than ever before," Braund explains. "One of the Pasto Ag Museum's goals is to help bridge that gap."

Food from the farm

There's no doubt that life is easier today, perhaps even too easy. One look at the Pasto Ag Museum's meat processing exhibit and it quickly becomes clear that having sausage for breakfast 100 years ago wasn't as easy as heading off to the grocery store the night before. Rather, the process would have begun months earlier by raising a slaughter hog, or at least bartering for one. Butchering and processing that hog into breakfast sausage and other valuable food items was a hands-on process that made use of many specialized tools. For example, right after killing, the hog was dipped in a caldron of scalding water to loosen the bristles from the hide. The hide was subsequently scraped to remove the bristles. What do you use to scrape a scalded hog carcass? A hog scraper, of course. The Pasto Ag Museum has quite a collection of those once ubiquitous homestead tools.

With meat processing well underway, some cuts went into brine, some into the smokehouse, and some went into a container to be later chopped, seasoned, and stuffed into salt-preserved sections of the hog's intestines to make sausage. The museum's meat processing collection includes a number of wooden, iron, and steel sausage presses, and iron or steel chopping and grinding tools — all of them hand-powered. One primitive hand-cranked sausage press, fabricated almost entirely from walnut, uses an ingenious capstan with sheave reduction to winch the plunger into the device's body.

The fat and fatty scraps produced during butchering were tossed into a large kettle to render out the lard. Rendering is the process of melting the fat and separating it from the meat so that it will store without spoiling. Not surprisingly, the Pasto Ag Museum has caldrons, lard presses (used to press the water from the fat and to form it into blocks), and skimmers used to remove the cracklings from the melted fat. Cracklings were a treat prized then as now, but 100 years ago they weren't available in a bag at the convenience store.

The museum's food-producing collection includes apple butter kettles with integral paddle-shaped stirrers, butter churns, cheese presses, cream separators, home-sized milk coolers, egg graders and many other artifacts related to the processing of animal or plant products into everyday food stuffs.

Labor of Necessity if not of Love

While some folks still make their own apple butter or cheese today, Braund points out that not too many years ago, people were more intimately involved in the production of their food, and they did it all without electricity or petroleum power of any kind. But it still required a great deal of power to make it happen.

The most ready source of power on the early American farm was human power, and plenty of stories are told of the physical hardship a family member's departure or passing imposed. Human power was important enough that the likelihood of easy and plentiful births, in addition to native physical strength, were often major considerations when young men considered potential wives. Marriage most certainly was for love, but it was for labor too.

The Pasto Ag Museum celebrates the continuing human quest to do more with less labor, but in an archaic time-frame. For example, early cultivators of small grains just threw seed onto the ground, but it was not an efficient method, nor did it result in a terribly even stand. One of the earliest seeding developments was the broadcast seeder that relied on a fluted spinner beneath a seed reservoir to cast seed out in a predictable pattern as the planter walked across the field. While most broadcast seeders used a hand crank and small gearbox to activate the spinner, a different design existed. The Pasto Ag Museum has a primitive version of this device that uses a wooden spinner powered by the sawing of a bow, much like that of a violin. The bowstring, looped over the spinner's shaft, causes the shaft to turn as the bow is worked.

When it was time to harvest, small grains were cut with sickles and scythes, raked into bundles with wooden rakes, and hand-tied. Later, cradle scythes were used to cut and collect the grain in bundles in a single operation. Hand- or leg-powered corn knives were used to cut standing corn, and it might be laid on a shocking horse before being tied with the help of a corn shock cinch. Small grains were threshed with hand flails and cleaned by tossing the mix into the air, catching the grain as the wind blew the chaff away; corn was husked and shelled with hand-held hooks and pegs.

Step a little further toward the present and the hand-cleaning or -shelling of grain is carried out with the help of human-powered machines such as hand-cranked corn shellers and fanning mills. The Pasto Ag Museum's collection includes fine examples of these tools, and many others that point the way to using animals as engines.

Beasts of Burden

Humans have turned to their animal companions for food, power and even shelter for thousands of years. For most of those years, animal power was mainly used to carry or pull things, but more recently the animal's pulling power was converted to rotational or reciprocating force, used to power implements much like the belt pulley on a stationary engine or a tractor's PTO. Marvelous examples of two very different solutions to the problem of capturing animal power for stationary work are displayed at the museum: the treadmill and the sweep.

When folks think of churning butter, they typically envision human-powered devices. However, one of the museum's single-dasher barrel churns is connected to a small treadmill through a lever and fulcrum. Power was provided by sheep, goats, or dogs. "Most people think of powering devices with belts," Braund explains as he spins the flywheel on the tiny treadmill. "In this case, the flywheel acts as an eccentric to move a lever up and down through the fulcrum." And the end of the lever not attached to the flywheel is attached to the churn's dasher, which effectively mimics the human motion of raising and lowering the dasher by hand. Some vintage washing machines were powered the same way.

The museum's larger Buckwalter-Champion single-horse treadmill, manufactured by Schaeffer Merkel & Co. of Fleetwood, Pa., is connected to a Model 313 stationary threshing machine of the same manufacturer using a more conventional flat belt. The well-used but wonderfully cared for treadmill even has a speed control governor to help keep the flywheel spinning at a constant rpm, which was key to threshing and cleaning the grain.

One of Braund's most cherished horse-powered implements is a Model OK Panama hay press dating to 1905. The device uses a 12-foot, two-horse or two-mule sweep to power the 16-foot-long plunger. Essentially, mules were hitched to a long pole connected to a hub that causes the baler's plunger to reciprocate as the animals walk in a circle around the hub. The sweep power has many different designs, with and without gears, but all were used to convert animal movement into either reciprocating or rotational power. Braund says that in addition to the pair of mules, it took at least four men to operate the baler — so humans still burned plenty of calories making it work.

Other unusual animal-powered devices in the Pasto collection include a number of horse-drawn forks. Heavy, two-pronged manure forks were hitched to an animal and used in beef barns or feed lots to break up and move the hard-pack manure. Forks for loading hay into the mow also relied on the pulling power of animals. Complex grapple-style hay hooks hang from the museum's rafters, while more conventional horse-pulled, hay-hoisting devices are displayed on the wall. Wagons, reapers, sleighs, bobsleds and other horse-drawn (or oxen-drawn) equipment round out the animal-power exhibits.

Among the most primitive animal-drawn implements at the museum is a homemade field packer. Although the wooden framework on this elegantly simple device is carefully fit and pegged, the rollers themselves are obviously cut from pieces of tree trunk. An 1880s one-horse, dump-style hay rake with beautifully formed tines and decorative cast iron seat, and an early 1900s Yellow Jacket horse-drawn potato sprayer built by the Field Force Pump Co. of Elmira, N.Y., also stand out. The sprayer, with its bull-wheel-powered pump, illustrates how animals were used for motive force, as well as to provide power to the implement.

Cool Collection

"Winter was an important time at the farm," Braund says. "Ice was needed to keep the evening's milk cool overnight, and timber needed to be harvested, but winter was fun too." With that in mind, Braund designed a special exhibit at the Pasto Ag Museum in 2004 called Winter on the Farm.

The exhibit's centerpiece is a replica icehouse that Braund constructed, complete with double walls and sawdust for insulation. The icehouse was a focal point for early American farm life. It was filled during the winter through a highly anticipated process that began with harvesting the ice blocks, and ended with packing them carefully into the structure, insulating them with sawdust. While the ice served an important purpose on the dairy farm, the cold truth of the icehouse is that it offered some relief from late summer heat. Cold drinks and ice cream were impossible in August without a well-packed icehouse.

Tools used for harvesting and hauling ice are broadly represented at the museum. For instance, a horse-drawn ice scorer, used to lay out a grid on the frozen lake, is displayed next to a pair of horse-drawn ice plows. The ice plows made the first deep cuts into the ice, using the scorer's shallow groove as a guide. Chisels, peaveys, pikes, axes, ice saws, ice tongs and other tools used to free the blocks of ice and move them around are also part of the museum's collection.

Winter on the Farm is about much more than ice harvest. Braund's exhibit includes skates, children's sleds, candle-making tools, foot warmers, and stoves for heating and cooking. And no vintage winter scene is complete without at least one light and fast passenger sleigh. Braund had his own restored 1836 Albany Cutter on display in 2004 along with a pair of beaver-hide driving gauntlets. "I will probably take the sleigh home," Braund says. "But most of this stuff is a permanent part of our collection."

Pointing the Way

The Pasto Agricultural Museum was formed in 1979 as a project of the Agricultural Alumni Society of the Pennsylvania State University at State College. In 1980, the museum facility was named after Dr. Jerome K. Pasto, who took a special interest in preserving Penn State's collection of historic landmarks and antique farm implements during his tenure as associate dean.

One important aspect of the Pasto Ag Museum's collection is its large number of original-condition pieces. "We are always on the lookout for excellent original examples of very old tools," Braund emphasizes.

The museum's exhibits were loaned or donated by about 150 friends and Penn State alums, including Braund, who has been curator for more than a decade. The facility is open during the university-sponsored Ag Progress Days every August, and by appointment from April 15-Oct. 15. FC

For more information: (814) 863-1383; e-mail: or visit the Pasto Agricultural Museum online.

Oscar "Hank" Will III is an old-iron collector and freelance writer who retired from farming in 1999 and from academia in 1996. He splits his time between his home in Gettysburg, Pa., and his farm in East Andover, N.H.