The museum building was constructed in 2003, but the collection started years prior. And Don McKinley is happy to show how every item worked on the farm, from the first modern grain drill — planting and burying seeds in one pass — to the cream separator.
Temperatures well above 100 degrees. Bracing, arid winds. Rations running thin, as the Great Depression tightened its grip across the nation.
Ira and Mary McKinley’s entire family worked diligently to keep their rural Iowa farm productive during the 1930s. Today, one of the children who performed tasks on that farm, Don McKinley, has joined his daughters, Cathy Huber, and husband Marvin Huber; and Connie Palmer and husband Wayne Palmer to preserve what agriculture looked and sounded like during the Great Depression. That era brought often unfathomable hardship for many families, but it also coincided with a great sea change in the way farmers performed their work.
From floor to ceiling, a 48 foot by 120 foot building displays the various tools, machines, methods and the progression of that revolution. When gas-powered tractors and their attachments replaced steam and the horses that preceded them, productivity and efficiency surged on the farm.
The museum building was constructed in 2003, but the collection started years prior. And McKinley is happy to show how every item worked on the farm, from the first modern grain drill — planting and burying seeds in one pass — to the cream separator. Butchering equipment, house furnishings and other items convey nearly every aspect from a 1930s Midwest farmstead, five miles north of Quincy, Ill. There’s no other collection quite like it, McKinley said.
A brief video paints the picture of what farming during the Great Depression was like as McKinley grew up. Newspapers articles noted 105 degree heat coupled with dry 35 MPH winds in the region. Every member of the family had a job to do, often using a gas-fueled John Deere tractor to power implements that saved back-breaking labor. The McKinley farm grew corn, wheat, oats, alfalfa and clover. The men and boys worked on the farm all day, and the women and girls canned foods, cooked and took care of the baby.
McKinley motioned toward a restored 1936 John Deere tractor, gleaming in its signature green and yellow paint.
“If it wasn’t for this, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” he said. “You’re seeing an evolution of tractor power.”
Marvin Huber pointed out the details of a restored 1927 Huber tractor, which represented state-of-the-art power and technology at the time. The tractors and countless implements reflected the very best equipment you would see on an 80 to 120-acre Midwestern farm in the 1930s.
As Cathy Huber and McKinley showed a grain drill patented by the Van Brunt Brothers, they explained that Passenger Pigeons used to pluck the seeds out of the fields before they could be buried. The Van Brunt design used chains to bury the seeds, prompting numerous companies to mimic the design — bringing the Van Brunt brothers a lot of money in patent infringements.
But the Passenger Pigeon’s story ended when the last bird died in 1914, after humans hunted the species to extinction.
“We literally took the species off the face of the earth,” McKinley said.
McKinley said this was a powerful reminder of why it’s crucial to be mindful of nature and how we interact with it.
Huber showed her collection of horse bits, telling the story about how she worked to get a complete military collection by seeking examples from Afghanistan. Her opportunity came through a colonel with the U.S. Special forces who had served in the region. When she received the bits in a small bag, she was surprised to see that they dated back to the 1890s and were made in England.
“Well yes,” the colonel responded.
He explained that British forces left them behind during previous tours in the region, and lack of resources and the proper technique resulted in the pieces remaining in use for more than 100 years.
Throughout the museum, examples of a revolution are on vivid display — an era that ultimately led to the precision farming of today.
McKinley recalled picking one ear of corn at a time by hand when he was a child. Early powered corn pickers could gather 42 bushels in one hour; a modern John Deere 7860 combine will pick and shell 4,200 bushels in an hour. McKinley said he never expected to witness such a large improvement in productivity and efficiency in his lifetime.
No matter what was required for a task on the farm, innovation marched on as the gas-powered revolution forever changed the way farmers did their jobs.
“Necessity is the mother of all invention,” McKinley said.
The museum is free to the public, and is open by appointment only. For more information, please call 217-223-5099 or 217-224-9249, or visit https://www.facebook.com/1930sAgMuseum/ .
Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at email@example.com