Iowa man builds The Barns museum around horse-drawn implements, buggies and wagons
J.R. Pearson couldn’t help it. A wagon and buggy maker by profession as well as a collector, for nearly 20 years he watched piece after piece of agricultural history fade away at rural auctions. Recognizing the historic value of the old relics, J.R. began purchasing unique implements to add to his collection. Then came the creation of a museum – The Barns – in his hometown of Marcus, Iowa, making the implements available to those who share his interest in farming and history.
“I try to find items that are as old as possible, in workable condition and somewhat unique,” J.R. says. “If they need restoration I do the work myself.” The vast majority of the collection, which was first opened to the public in 2008, consists of horse-drawn items. Signs placed throughout allow convenient, self-guided tours. Visits are available by appointment.
Rare, one-of-a-kind antiques add to the museum’s appeal. “One of my favorite pieces is an International Harvester breaking plow with original paint that I found in Gilbert, Minn.,” J.R. says. “The man I bought it from used it on his own land there. It originally came from Canada. It has a 20-inch bottom. It takes four horses to move it. It’s made to be heavy so it wouldn’t flip when they were breaking sod. It probably weighs 600 or 700 pounds.”
A pair of stalk cutters is also prominently displayed. One is a Louisville model; the other is a Leidy. A collection of wagons and wagon seats is another highlight of the museum. John Deere, Montgomery Ward, Mitchell and Triumph are among the lines featured.
A Studebaker wagon in the museum is a fine relic of a legendary era in American industry. John Studebaker, son of German immigrants, was born in 1799 near Philadelphia. He married a local girl, built himself a Conestoga wagon and headed west to Ohio. His sons, Clement and Henry, formed the Studebaker Blacksmiths and Wagon Makers Co. in 1852. By 1872 the company was known as the largest vehicle builder in the world.
In the 1906 publication The ABC’s of Corn Culture by P.G. Holden, an ad proclaimed Studebaker Wagon Makers to the American Farmer. “The unparalleled success of the American Farmer is largely due to his insistence upon having the best of everything, in tools and machinery,” the ad proclaims. “He is shrewd enough to know that this, in the end, is cheapest. By meeting the demand for first-class farm vehicles and by utilizing every known means of improvement in materials and machinery, the Studebakers have achieved and maintained supremacy as makers of wagons to the American farmer.”
A 1905 wooden manure spreader is another special piece in J.R.’s museum. As a repeat buyer at a northern Missouri auction, J.R. became acquainted with the auctioneer. “He asked if I needed anything else,” J.R. recalls. “He told me he had a wooden manure spreader that he’d bought from his neighbor. He thought it was from around 1900 and said it was in very good condition.”
The spreader was housed just two miles from the auction site. Long stored inside, the piece was in excellent condition; original markings made it easy to date. “International Harvester bought out Cloverleaf in 1904,” J.R. explains. “This spreader says IHC on the bottom and Cloverleaf on the side, so we’re pretty certain it’s a 1905 model. The beaters are steel embedded in wood.”
A 1907 advertisement for the Cloverleaf spreader describes the implement as designed to handle manure without wasting it. “It takes you 20 minutes to spread a lot of manure by hand which an IHC spreader will spread in 3 to 5 minutes,” the ad claims. “The machine does all the work. You simply drive the team.”
From 1865 through 1921, labor-saving mechanical agricultural devices revolutionized farming. Manure spreaders, for instance, allowed farmers to pitch manure directly into the spreader from the barn or barnyard. But those manufactured in the 1890s were heavy and cumbersome.
With early spreaders, manure was forked into a swath directly behind the rig, with most of the manure lying in narrow bands across the field. The material was too thick to be thoroughly incorporated into the soil and often resulted in the grass or crop being “burned.” To remedy the situation, farmers used peg-tooth drags or similar implements to scatter the manure, but that was a tedious, time-consuming process.
Later models featured angled paddles and beaters, and a “light draft” design to lighten the load on work horses. As technology evolved in the early 1900s, wheel size was reduced to ease loading. Early spreaders required farmers to lift every forkful of manure almost chest-high; lower, wide-rimmed wheels made of steel rather than wood eased that problem. All of those features are evident in the 1905 Cloverleaf in J.R.’s museum.
A fire horse harness is among the unique items in J.R.’s museum. Milford, Iowa, auctioneer Dick Long donated the piece, noting that it was rarely seen while it hung in his barn. “I brought it home and oiled it up,” J.R. says. “It’s designed to hang from the ceiling, so that’s how it’s displayed, suspended from the ceiling with cables. The collar opens with one pin and chains run to the tugs so horses could be quickly hooked to the fire engine.”
An 1890 issue of The Atlantic Monthly includes an essay on “fire horses.” The fire horse’s work, notes the author, “is different from that of any other horse in the world, and it requires a peculiar combination of qualities. The steed must be able to draw an extremely heavy load at a smart gallop; in short, his function is that of a running draft-horse. Engines, with the men who ride on them, usually weigh about 8,000 pounds. Hook and ladder trucks, with their men, vary in weight from 4,350 to 10,600 pounds, the only truck which reaches these last mentioned figures being hauled by three horses harnessed abreast.
“Sometimes a tough spiral spring, made of steel, is inserted in the trace of a fire horse’s harness, near the whiffletree, the object being to lessen the strain at starting. This extremely ingenious device enables the horses to exert their strength against a yielding connection, instead of a dead weight.”
Fire horses weighed an average of 1,400 pounds. Short-legged and short-backed horses were favored because they were seen as more nimble, “take shorter steps, and recover themselves more easily than longer-legged and longer-striding animals.”
The author described a typical firehouse scene when the alarm sounds at midnight:
“The horses are lying down, out of sight and fast asleep; the men are upstairs in bed – all save one who dozes in a chair beside those mysterious telegraphic instruments grouped in a corner near the front door ... an alarm sounds and the scene changes. In a corner of the ceiling near the door passes a shining brass pole. The men throw themselves on this pole and come down like a flash of lightning. The horses scramble on their legs, the doors in front of them fly open, and out they rush, their heavy, iron-shod hoofs thundering across the floor. Each horse goes to his place (the engine driver is on the seat and drops the harness down onto the horses). Two or three men snap the buckles together, fasten reins to the bridles and off they go. Half a minute is the maximum time they have to leave the house. The ordinary time is 15 or 20 seconds.”
Many other horse-drawn pieces fill J.R.’s museum, but he’s nowhere near finished collecting. “A lot of people are astonished at the details of the older farm equipment,” J.R. says. “It’s always fun to see young people’s reactions to the equipment. There are usually a lot of questions about how things were used and how they worked. I never know when I’ll find a piece that I can add. Most of the time, I find it by accident more than a deliberate search. My reward is seeing everyone enjoy the equipment and learn more about agricultural history.” FC
For more information: J.R. Pearson, (712) 229-4809; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Loretta Sorensen is a lifelong resident of southeast South Dakota. She and her husband farm with Belgian draft horses and collect vintage farm equipment. E-mail her at email@example.com.