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.

| March 2005

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.