‘Farm Life’ exhibit examines rural living

There is a lot about rural living that I take for granted, having grown up on a 120-acre dairy farm. I assume that everybody has seen a cow being milked, that nobody cares how a manure spreader operates, that there always will be 4-H clubs and small-town poultry parties.

There are places that acknowledge farming history, but Janet Dykema says “unless you had a farm experience, there often is little context” provided for the tools and machinery that typically are on exhibit.

“Most people today are two or three generations removed from this way of life,” notes the director of public programs at the Chippewa Valley Museum, Eau Claire, which recently completed “Farm Life: A Century of Change for Farm Families and Their Neighbors,” a five-year project that cost about $500,000 to put in place.

The National Endowment for the Humanities provided almost one-half of the exhibit cost. It also will help finance a condensed version that will go on tour nationwide, starting late this year.

Why is this all such a big deal? There has been a dramatic decline in the number of Wisconsin people involved in agriculture, notes Frank Smoot, the museum’s director of publications. How dramatic? It was almost 50 percent a century ago, he says, compared to 3 percent today.

“Farm Life” is both a way to acknowledge the past and analyze its impact on rural life in 2005. “It’s a way of life that still drives a lot of what we do today,” Smoot says. “It’s fundamental to the way we see ourselves and define our character.”

This is an ambitious undertaking – the largest and most sophisticated that the 30-year-old museum has pursued. There are four themes: field work, the rural community, the farmhouse and the barn. Oral histories – 86 of them – help keep the focus on people instead of objects.

We learn how technology has changed the way farmers work and interact. Combines replaced threshing crews, tractors replaced horses, electricity lessened the need for hand milking. All changed the rhythm of work.

“The change from horse to tractor on the farm was gradual, but it was revolutionary,” exhibit organizers say. “A person using a machine could do the work of several people, and several people with machines could do the work of a whole neighborhood.”

Greater efficiency obviously didn’t eliminate all challenges. Urban and rural worlds have collided in many ways. A second income – made off the farm – has become typical and necessary. One-room rural schools are extinct; traditional crafts like rug braiding may be on the same path.

Who has chores? What is egg money? Why hold a barn raising? Does anybody still play sheepshead, polka at wedding dances or make from-scratch pies for bake sales?

The answers are here, presented in more than a nostalgic way.

For more about “Farm Life,” go to www.cvmuseum.com or call (715) 834-7871. The exhibit is self-guided, although curriculum-based tours have been developed for student groups.

Want to examine Wisconsin farm life in other ways, too? Here are a few choices.

* The National Dairy Shrine Visitors’ Center, Fort Atkinson, is all about the dairy industry: champion milk producers, the history of ice cream, changes in technology. www.dairyshrine.org, (920) 563-7769.

* The Washington Island Farm Museum, off the tip of Door County, is a nonprofit and charming outdoor enterprise that shows what farming was like from 1870-1940. There are old-time buildings, a garden, antique equipment, farm animals. Open June to October. www.washingtonisland.com, (920) 847-3336.

* The State Agricultural Museum at Stonefield Village, Cassville, takes the story of farming back to the lifestyle of Native Americans. McCormick and Allis Chalmers farm equipment collections are far-reaching, too. Open May to October. www.wisconsinhistory.org, (608) 725-5210.

* Old World Wisconsin, Eagle, is called the nation’s largest outdoor museum of rural life. Like Stonefield, this is a state historical site, open May to October. Staff, dressed in 19th century attire that represent a half-dozen countries of immigration, re-create the work and lifestyles of the era. www.wisconsinhistory.org, (262) 594-6300.

* The National Farm Toy Museum, Dyersville, Iowa, has miniature farm scenes and more than 30,000 historic toys. Why is it here? Dyersville is home to the Ertl Company, the world’s largest farm toy manufacturer. Nearby is the “Field of Dreams” movie site. www.nationalfarmtoymuseum.org, (563) 875-2727.

* For rural lodging options, tours and other attractions, contact the Wisconsin Agricultural Tourism Association Inc. at www.visitdairyland.com or (920) 478-3852.