Museum trio in the Pacific Northwest preserves agricultural heritage in bountiful region
The Eastern Washington Agricultural Museum recalls the farmstead of old, housed in a modern red barn-like shed with a vintage windmill out front. In addition to display space, the facility contains a reference library, kitchen and restroom.
Antique farm machinery and agricultural heritage are alive and well in these United States. Public and private museums dot the countryside: Draw a circle on the map, and chances are good of finding at least one museum celebrating our agrarian past within it. In the Pacific Northwest, stretch that circle to about 250 miles wide, and you’ll hit three fine museums. Each brings the region’s agricultural heritage to life in unique and memorable ways.
Think dreams don’t come true? Visit Pomeroy, Wash., and think again. Home to more than half of Garfield County’s population of 2,300, Pomeroy is also home to the Eastern Washington Agricultural Museum. Dedicated in 2008, this agricultural heritage museum is proof of what can happen when a group of people catch a dream and hold on tight.
Intent on preserving the history and heritage of local agriculture, volunteers began planning for a museum in 2004. A blend of state aid and nearly unanimous local support put the museum on the fast track. Pomeroy FFA members wrote personal letters to state officials seeking funding; volunteers donated sweat equity to convert salvaged steel, lumber and roofing from an old pea cannery into seed money; and local entities jumped on the bandwagon in any way they could. Construction of a 72-by-120-foot building was completed in 2007. By 2011, supporters had set their sights on a second building.
Today, the museum is a comprehensive collection showcasing the area’s agricultural heritage. A 1932 26x38 Harris Harvester combine pushes at the building’s ceiling. Nearby is a wagon unique to the area. Known as a “wide ax,” it has exceptionally wide rear axles (the rear wheels are outside the wagon box), lending stability on steep hillsides. A seven-arm horsepower sweep dating to about 1850, salvaged from a local farm, is a noteworthy part of the outdoor collection. A reconstructed tower stands near the building’s entrance, a remnant of the Judkins bucket tram that once transported grain from Pomeroy-area fields to a warehouse 2,000 feet below on the Snake River. Like many pieces in the collection, all are handsomely restored.
Take the museum’s John Deere hay loader, for instance. “It was made out of three loaders,” says David Ruark, museum secretary. “It was a project taken on by three guys; each had a specialty area. We’re not blessed with a large number of people here (the museum is supported by 90 members) but our members certainly have many talents.”
The fact that so many pieces in the collection came from the immediate area gives the displays a uniquely intimate feel; it is easy to picture the original owners in your mind’s eye. Volunteers are relentless in their quest to secure relics of local importance. They are a “can do” group, ready to mount salvage operations to remote and sometimes precarious locations. Success is tied to the fact that more than a few local farms apparently opted out of war-era scrap drives. “A lot of the older generation never got rid of things,” David says. “I know of one farm that donated four generations worth of stuff.”
Some of those relics are put through their paces during the museum’s annual Spring Farming Days event, which features demonstrations like horseshoeing, wheel making, plowing and planting. It’s then that the dream comes to life. For this group, the story behind each local treasure is as worthy of preservation as the piece itself. Imagine a campfire where stories are carefully passed from one generation to the next. In Pomeroy, that flame burns bright.
For more information: Eastern Washington Agricultural Museum, P.O. Box 326, Pomeroy, WA 99347; for hours, contact Gary Cole, (509) 843-3748, or David Ruark, (509) 843-3506. Spring Farming Days, April 7-8, 2012.
Visiting Pomeroy? Don’t miss the beautifully restored Garfield County Courthouse built in 1901. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the courthouse is topped by a statue of Lady Justice but unlike nearly all others in the U.S., this lady wears no blindfold. And drop in on the Pataha Flour Mill, just up the road in Pataha. Established in 1878, the mill last operated in 1943. Today it’s a bustling local attraction, housing a restaurant and eclectic collections (including branding irons, cameras, musical instruments and a Wurlitzer organ). A self-guided tour gives a very good look at the mill’s original interior works.
When you visit the Central Washington Agricultural Museum in Union Gap, Wash., don’t expect an imposing edifice with climate control and track lighting. The vast majority of this museum’s collection is housed outdoors on the site of a former farm.
A vintage windmill and a six-sided wood silo serve as welcome committee at the facility’s entrance. Nearby a special exhibit focuses on antique irrigation equipment. “That’s important here,” says Nick Schultz, museum president. “Without water, this area is still a desert.”
Then you’re off and running. Motor through a unique drive-through exhibit where old equipment (everything from horse-drawn implements to bobsleds to a military cargo wagon) lines both sides of the drive lane, allowing everyone in the car a good look.
Buildings and sheds dot the 17-acre property. Most are open on at least one side, allowing full view of the treasures within. Visitors are welcome to snoop around an amazingly varied assortment that spans everything from early tracked equipment to tractors on rubber. There’s a woodshop/small engine repair shop, sheepherder’s wagon (from the 1920s to the 1940s, area ranchers raised more than 5.5 million sheep), working blacksmith and machine shop, chainsaws (with two major rivers flowing in from the high country, Yakima was a major lumber center for more than a century), tractors and steam engines, stationary engines, antique trucks and, Nick says with a grin, “roughly four tons of leather harness.”
Items unique to the Pacific Northwest are the museum’s specialty. Track-style tractors, for instance, are used widely in the orchards and on the steep hillsides of the Northwest: You’ll find plenty of them here. The John Deere Lindeman tractor traces its roots to the Lindeman brothers of nearby Yakima; a building at the museum is dedicated to that historic line.
Regional growers required specialized equipment. Here you’ll find everything from a jet-powered device that shot flames 20 feet into the air (to chase frost from orchards) to a 1930s-vintage apple sorting line that’s fired up during the Central Washington Antique Farm Equipment Exposition held each August at the museum. You’ll also find a hops harvester (Washington produces 75 percent of the nation’s hops), an 80-year old pea viner (used to separate pods from the vine, and peas from the pod), wind machines and smudge pots.
At least some of the equipment earns its keep. “We plant two acres of wheat and harvest that with our reapers,” Nick says. “In July we put up 700 bales of hay to sell as a fundraiser.” A non-profit, the museum depends on donations, memorials and grants to support its programs. Local organizations are encouraged to “adopt a building.” Volunteers – like the Central Washington Antique Farm Equipment Club, American Truck Historical Society and the Grange Library – play an active role in everything from maintenance to fundraising. “We have an agreement with the Forest Service,” Nick says. “They deliver logs, we cut them to their specifications on a 1930s-era sawmill and we get half.”
Central Washington Agricultural Museum located in Fulbright Park, 4508 Main St., Union Gap, WA 98903; (509) 457-8735 or (509) 494-9224; www.centralwaagmuseum.org. Central Washington Antique Farm Equipment Exposition, third weekend of August. Restored farm equipment, implements and old-time threshing bee, sponsored by Central Washington Antique Farm Equipment Club, PO Box 9711, Yakima, WA 98909; Todd Monroe, club president, (509) 453-2395.
Make a day of it: The area’s ag heritage is celebrated at the Union Gap museum; learn the rest of the story at the Yakima Valley Museum, 2105 Tieton Dr., Yakima, WA 98902; (509) 248-0747; www.YakimaValleyMuseum.org.
Displays at the Sherman County Historical Museum in Moro, Ore., celebrate early explorers and pioneers, rails and roads, rural life and patriotism. But all roads there inevitably lead to farming. The museum, after all, is deep in wheat country; it even rubs shoulders with a commercial elevator next door.
Highlights at the museum (which is operated by volunteers) include an 1872 Buffalo Pitts Californian separator (the first threshing machine delivered to southeast Oregon’s Jordan Valley), an 1861 Gorham seeder and a header box wagon dating to the early 1900s.
“You’d load the wagon on-the-go from the low side,” says Sherry Kaseberg, museum director. “The wagon would pull along the header to be filled with cut wheat.” Fine original pieces like these and others tell the story of agriculture in the Pacific Northwest in an eloquent, authentic tone.
It’s a story that’s been carefully vetted by museum volunteers. “Before any placards were placed with these displays,” Sherry explains, “there had to be consensus on the wording with all of the people involved.”
Elaborate, beautifully designed displays rival any at leading museums in metro areas. Here you’ll delve into the early days of electrification on the farm, the advance of technology represented by a John Deere no. 36B hillside combine from the late 1930s and the historic value of an early grain sampler. An outdoor display (with the neighboring elevator as a backdrop) traces the life cycle of wheat from seed to harvest; an extensive, meticulously assembled crop display inside shows an astonishing range of wheat varieties.
Volunteers work overtime to improve the museum and spark the interest of the next generation. Once a year, a dozen elementary school students spend the night at the museum for an unusual sleepover. The children participate in hands-on activities like churning butter (which they eat at bedtime on just-baked bread) and tour the museum after dark, using only flashlights for illumination. “I would propose that a child sees more in a dark museum with a flashlight than he does in broad daylight,” Sherry says with a smile. FC
Sherman County Historical Museum, PO Box 173, 200 Dewey St., Moro, OR 97039 (541) 565-3232; www.ShermanMuseum.org. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily May 1-Oct. 31.
Soak up the great outdoors: With the Columbia, Deschutes and John Day rivers nearby, the area offers a full complement of recreational activities: fishing, hunting, hiking, rafting and cycling. Check out www.sherman-county.com.