North Dakota's "little treasure on the prairie" rural heritage museum gives a glimpse at America's past
When Lowell Johnson received a call from a California man offering to organize the antique wrench display at the Dale and Martha Hawk Museum, he thought it was a joke.
Who would travel 2,200 miles to a rural Wolford, N.D., museum to put the tools in order? “He told me what material he would need, and I just thought, well ...,” Lowell, president of the museum’s board of directors, recalls.
The man suddenly appeared on Memorial Day 1999 ready to work after making the trip from California.
“He had never been to the museum,” Lowell says, “but his friend had, and this California man just wanted to do his part.”
It’s funny how that sort of thing happens with this prairie museum. The museum’s previous curators left after Labor Day 2002, and Richard and Emily Roberts, an RVer couple from Texas enchanted with North Dakota, enjoyed the museum so much that they volunteered to help. They’re now the de facto curators and live in the farmhouse where the museum founders, Dale and Martha Hawk, lived until they passed away in 1985 and 1997 respectively.
The museum began decades ago when Dale and Martha traveled in their 1947 Ford implement truck searching for old farm tractors, implements, cars and trucks – anything old that would add to the museum. Dale’s intention was to build a collection of restored farm machinery, but as he grew older and realized the collection he built could be dispersed, his thoughts turned toward the construction of a museum.
The Hawks’ hard work left a legacy of old and rare farm items, the choicest of which may be the Hackney Auto Plow. It’s one of only three known to exist, and the only one of the three that still works. Dale once proudly paraded the Hackney, but a few years back, the board of directors decided against that since the machine is so valuable. Hackney descendants heard of the machine and 27 of them held a weekend family reunion at the museum during the summer of 1998. “That machine had to be Dale Hawk’s favorite,” Richard says. “Almost every old photo with Dale in it shows him sitting on the Hackney.”
The museum also houses a rare Nilson Senior tractor, a Model 24-36, which was manufactured about 1919 by the Nilson Tractor Co. of Minneapolis, Minn., and sold new for $2,475 (roughly $26,000 in today’s terms). There’s also an elusive 8-16 Mogul tractor, which Dale was restoring when he died. The painting was finished, but the Mogul’s gas tank and fuel lines needed work, so Lowell, Richard and others finished the restoration this past winter. Locating restoration parts frustrated the men, but most of the missing parts were eventually found. The actuator bracket in the transmission was actually located in the machine’s toolbox. A couple of pieces of flatiron were cut, holed and sized to fabricate the Mogul’s bracket. Now it’s fully restored and on display.
Minnie monster: 35-70 Minneapolis tractor
The museum’s pride and joy is a monstrous 35-70 Minneapolis tractor, which weighs 23,000 pounds with rear wheels almost 6 feet high. The 35-70 is now a local landmark, Richard says, because of its prominent position outside the museum for more than 50 years.
This past winter Richard, Lowell, Eldon Held and Lloyd Bush decided to complete its restoration. “Finishing that tractor was a real struggle,” Richard admits. Dale took the engine apart before he died, so the gargantuan machine was stubbornly pulled with other tractors out of the ground where its massive weight had firmly planted the old tractor. Finally in the shop, caked-on dirt and grease removal was a real chore. “It was hard as concrete,” Richard says. “We used hammers and chisels to get the cake off.”
They repaired the 35-70’s wooden cab with cottonwood planks that they cut at the museum’s sawmill. Once repaired, the giant Minneapolis moved to its new quarters inside the main museum building. No longer in its familiar spot, people began to ask where the tractor had gone, and they were redirected to its prominent new home. The tractor sits on heavy lumber to prevent the building’s concrete floor from cracking under the Minneapolis’ weight.
Taking over the museum was an eye-opener for Richard. “We’re familiar with old tractors in Texas, but not anything as old as you’ll find up here,” he says. “A Farmall F-12 or F-20 or a Fordson would be the oldest you’d find down there, and big things like this Minneapolis 35-70 you never see, or the older Gray tractor or Mogul or Titan.”
Dale Hawk also built his own unique tractors, and one strongly resembles a John Deere Model L. “Dale built that one using a Model T truck rear end and a John Deere engine,” Lowell says.
More than just tractors
The museum also includes half a dozen old steam traction engines, as well as stationary farm engines, but there’s much more than tractors, steam engines and gas engines. The museum contains thousands of farm implements such as grain reapers, threshers, cultivators, grain drills and horse buggies. There’s also right- and left-handed walking plows, named for the direction they turned the soil.
A horse-drawn flamethrower, used to burn weeds on fallow land in the 1930s, also occupies the museum. Dale Hawk once said it worked well – unless the wind switched and blew flames back on the horses.
A number of old buildings occupy the museum’s grounds, including a one-room school-house, the Henry Johnson general store with a corner post office and pioneer goods, a clock building with more than 400 clocks, the Prairie Arts Center that houses antique furniture, and Order of Odd Fellows memorabilia building that holds art and a former law office with dolls and more. The museum also contains a water-pumping wheel, designed like a hamster’s treadmill, to be powered by a dog. Another museum building contains a large horse power that once powered a grain elevator.
One museum building holds a room with miniature toys handmade by several local craftsmen behind a huge glass window. The little steam engines, threshers and other miniatures work using compressed air. “Just flip a switch,” Lowell says, “and everything will sit there and run.” The owners and Dale Hawk passed away before it was finished, and the heirs won’t allow the display to be run for fear it could be damaged. The display was designed so full-grown people could walk on the road inside to place the machinery or do any work that needed to be done.
A 1/2-scale miniature house and farmstead built by John Becker also is displayed in the museum. Each cedar shingle is individually cut, the siding is made of separate boards, and the windows and doors all open and close.
So much stuff, so little time
People are amazed by how much stuff the museum’s 18 buildings can hold, Richard declares. “We have people who come and make the rounds in 45 minutes – which is unusual – and we’ve had folks come and stay all day long, camp here overnight and come back in the morning for another half day,” Richard says. “Sometimes some people start out saying, ‘If we don’t get through it all today, would it be OK if we stay overnight and come back tomorrow?’ as if there’s something wrong with it. That always makes us feel so good.”
For example, a man from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, shot 16 rolls of film his first day, and came back to shoot more film the next day. The majority of visitors are from the upper Midwest, mostly North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin, but some come from elsewhere in America as well.
“This place is just amazing to us,” Richard says. “This couple, Dale and Martha Hawk, was able to do what they’ve done out here, in terms of the amount of stuff they collected, and the amount of restoration they got done. It seems overwhelming that a single couple could amass this.”
Lowell Johnson says he doesn’t exactly know how to describe the museum. “I guess I’d just call it a treasure on the prairie,” he says. FC
For more information: The Dale and Martha Hawk Museum, HC 1, Box 19, Wolford, ND 58385; (701) 583-2381; online at www.hawkmuseum.org.
Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and the author of several books on antique farm toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56569; (320) 253-5414; e-mail: email@example.com.
Crops Keep Museum in Business
Editor’s note: In 1984, the year before Dale Hawk died, the author interviewed him at his homestead in rural Wolford, N.D., today’s site of the Dale and Martha Hawk Museum. He discussed his desire to have his vast array of old farm implements, tractors and miniatures made into a museum.
“I spent more money than I care to think about – and 28 years of my life – finding, transporting and building my own museum,” Dale said. Part of his impetus was his arthritis, which forced him to quit farming and take up a hobby. He was always interested in the old machines, and he always wanted to own as many as he could to display for posterity. As a result, he worked in the museum from sunrise to sunset, cleaning, oiling, scraping, painting, repairing and restoring a wide variety of old farm machinery, almost all of which predates 1930.
Hawk was an avid collector, but he also had a keen sense of humor. When he talked about buildings to house all the artifacts, he said he and “a kid” erected one of the buildings themselves. “So me and the young kid in the area – he’s 80 now,” the 81-year-old Hawk said while chuckling, “built the first 160 feet of the building.” Today, the building is 300 feet long.
Dale dreamed of leaving the museum as a legacy. “I tried to give the museum to the city of Rugby, (N.D.), (about 20 miles away) but they didn’t want it,” he said. “And then I tried to donate it to the state, but they didn’t want it either.” Finally, North Dakota’s then-governor, Allan Olson, gave the museum a new lease on life by establishing the Dakota Hawk Foundation, a nine-man board, which includes the governor. Income from five quarter-sections of land planted with wheat, barley or canola currently help fund the museum. – Bill Vossler