Prefer your history lessons to be accompanied by the bleating of sheep and the smell of fresh manure? Welcome to the wonderful world of living history farms.
The country cousin of living history complexes such as Colonial Williamsburg and Plimouth Plantation, the mission of most living history farms is to preserve and pass on rural traditions through historically accurate experiential learning. That said, many of these rural traditions — like canning and chicken-keeping — practiced at these open-air agriculture museums have been embraced by suburbanites and adventurous urbanites looking to master self-sufficiency at home, just like grandma did.
Still, there's a lot to learn and love about living history farms. While kids can revel in the hands-on demos and petting-zoo atmosphere, adults will no doubt appreciate discovering a specific region's rich agricultural history. And, really, there's nothing as delightful as encountering the friendly local bank teller, moonlighting as a bonnet-wearing volunteer historical interpreter: "Funny to see you here, Mr. Clark. Can I tell you more about the corn crib that you're standing in front of? Or perhaps you'd like to sample a johnnycake?"
We've rounded up 12 terrific, time-hopping American living history farms from coast to coast. Most, but not all, are institutional members of ALHFAM — the Association for Living History, Farm and Agricultural Museums. And there are so many good ones out there, we bet we've missed a few.
1. Ardenwood Historic Farm (Fremont, California)
The Patterson House is a Queen Anne-style country house constructed in 1857 that still stands on the grounds of Ardenwood Historic Farm. (Photo: Ray Bouknight/flickr)
It's easy to forget that before the rise of Silicon Valley, the southern stretch of California's East Bay region, including the Santa Clara Valley, was a fruit-producing powerhouse in which prunes (and grapes and pears and cherries), not Apple, dominated.
Aside from a few isolated pockets that remain agrarian in nature, the region's agricultural legacy has all but vanished. And then there's Ardenwood Historic Farm. Located a quick drive across the bay from Palo Alto in the city of Fremont, Ardenwood offers a refreshingly no-tech escape to the turn of the last century. Staffed by docents clad in Victorian garb, this working organic farm has been a perennially popular spot for both school field trips and weddings since opening in 1985. Highlights include the Patterson House (pictured above), a Queen Anne-style country manse constructed in 1857 by original owner George Washington Patterson; a horse-drawn railway; manicured Victorian gardens and gazebo; walnut orchard and cattle-grazed pastures; and a bustling farmyard complete with granary, blacksmith shop and a bounty of photogenic critters. And while picnicking, birding and/or enjoying a leisurely constitutional along the farm's trails are fabulous ways to take in the pastoral splendors of Ardenwood, "modern recreational equipment" (Frisbees, bikes, skateboards, Rollerblades and balls of all shapes and sizes) is strictly verboten.
2. Barrington Living History Farm (Washington, Texas)
Visitors can fully immerse themselves in the historic nature of Barrington Living History Farm. (Photo: Brant Kelly [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)
For a state of such considerable size and agricultural prominence, the number of living history farms in Texas is, well, surprisingly dainty.
However, such institutions that do exist are notable ones, including Barrington Living History Farm, a Texas Parks & Wildlife-operated facility at Washington-on-the-Brazos Historic Site — aka the "Birthplace of Texas" — in bluebonnet-heavy east-central Texas. Centered around the upper-crust mid-19th century homestead of Dr. Anson Jones, the last president of the Republic of Texas before the briefly sovereign country was annexed in 1845, Barrington Living History Farm is a total trip — a trip back in time. Cotton, corn and cattle rule at Barrington, and visitors are encouraged by the farm's costumed interpreters to dig in and help run the joint, whether it be driving oxen or harvesting crops. While the implements and techniques employed at Barrington Living History Farm are period, the farm itself is relatively new, having opened to visitors in 2000.
3. Billings Farm and Museum (Woodstock, Vermont)
A cow takes a little sit-down at Billings Farm and Museum. (Photo: daveynin/flickr)
Covered bridges. Historic inns. Clapboard churches. A village green flanked by immaculately maintained Greek Revival homes. Grazing farm animals for as far as the eye can see. You truly can't get more postcard-perfect pastoral than Woodstock.
The cow pie-studded centerpiece of this picturesque New England burg, a town driven by environmental conservation and historic preservation (being something of a pet project of the Rockefellers certainly hasn't hurt), is Billings Farm and Museum. "Gateway to Vermont's rural heritage" and home to 10 Jersey cattle families boasting particularly prolific udders, the museum itself is housed within a restored 1890 farmhouse and a complex of historic barns. As a living history museum and a 250-acre working dairy farm, hands-on learning (followed by extensive hand-washing) is de rigueur at Billings, which, in addition to regular exhibits and collections, features robust event programming including Foodways Fridays, Wagon Ride Wednesdays, Ice Cream Sundays and Time Travel Tuesdays. The farm's annual quilt exhibition is also a top draw. Also not to be missed is the adjacent Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park, a unit of the National Park System with a distinct focus on conservation and environmental stewardship.
4. Claude Moore Colonial Farm (McLean, Virginia)
Claude Moore Colonial Farm is like camping but with colonial costumes. (Photo: tofer618 [CC by 2.0]/Flickr)
Boasting all the hallmarks of an agriculture-centric living history museum, Virginia's Claude Moore Colonial Farm — previously known as Turkey Run Farm in honor of its resident fowl — is unique in that it's the only privately funded and operated unit of the National Park System.
While casual day-trippers are provided with a taste of what life was like for an 18th century family of tenant farmers (one word: grueling), the farm is best known for its experiential learning programs in which visitors can really take a step back … to 1771. During the farm's immersive weekend-long Colonial Living Experience, participants get down and dirty on the farm during the day and, in the evening, hunker down in primitive cotton tents. Meals are prepared over an open stove while restroom facilities consist of a hole in the ground (the "small anachronism of toilet paper" is allowed although stray leaves are encouraged). "Some approximation" of colonial garb is required. Basically, it's camping with a historical role-play twist. And for teens who would rather harvest tobacco and clean out animal pens on a volunteer basis than work a part-time job at the mall, there's the "not for the faint of heart" Junior Interpreter Program.
5. Coggeshall Farm Museum (Bristol, Rhode Island)
New England, land of fried clams and unforgiving winters, is considered a mecca for living history enthusiasts. But seriously, you can't drive 20 miles without passing a candle-making demo or a dude wearing a tricorne hat.
Among the finest of New England's ag-centric living history institutions is Coggeshall Farm Museum, a late 18th century salt marsh tenant farm in Rhode Island where visitors are invited to "step back in time, share our hearth and help us sustain a way of life that gave birth to the American dream." Centered around a 1799 farmhouse — "a time capsule nestled in the Federal Period, on the cusp of major social and technological change" — the 48-acre site strives for authenticity and an overall immersive experience. That said, visitors should be advised not to arrive at the farm wearing pristine white sneakers or designer duds, as they're bound to get wicked dirty during an afternoon of milking cows, making hay and mucking around an heirloom kitchen garden. In addition to regular sea shanty sing-alongs (maybe not the best first date idea) and hearth-cooking workshops, Coggeshall Farm serves as the backdrop for the Rhode Island Wool and Fiber Festival, a handicraft bonanza featuring contra dancing and a community cook-off.
6. The Farmers' Museum (Cooperstown, New York)
The Empire State Carousel foregoes the horses for animals 'representing the agricultural and natural resources found in New York State.' (Photo: Martin Lewison/flickr)
In Cooperstown, a lakeside village that's overrun with wild-eyed preteen boys and their exhausted adult chaperones, there's much more to the museum scene than baseball.
A sort of hayseed sister museum to the fabulous Fenimore Art Museum down the road, the Farmers' Museum features all the requisite trappings of an open-air rural heritage museum: corncribs, blacksmith shops and one-room schoolhouses; bonnet-clad lasses weaving, spinning and churning; oodles of antique farm and craft tools; and enough baby farm animals to keep 21st century youngsters content for hours. With its painstakingly preserved historic structures and collection of over 23,000 artifacts, the museum, established in 1944, is one of the oldest living history museums in the U.S. It's also home to an attraction that, while not completely off-theme, isn't something you'd likely find on a 19th century New York homestead. Billed as a "museum you can ride on," in lieu of horses the Empire State Carousel — one part merry-go-round, one part magnificent work of interactive folk art — features a loon, a beaver, a bear, a trout, a raccoon and 20 other hand-carved critters "representing the agricultural and natural resources found in New York State." If you've ever dreamt of spinning around in circles while mounted atop a giant squirrel, you've come to the right place.
7. Georgia Museum of Agriculture & Historic Village (Tifton, Georgia)
The Georgia Museum of Agriculture & Historic Village is home to a turpentine still from the 1890s. (Photo: muffinn/flickr)
The Georgia Museum of Agriculture & Historic Village is located 3 hours south — and a world away — from Atlanta's urban grind in Wiregrass Country, a culturally rich region where rattlesnakes, red-eye gravy and skin-roasting weather reign supreme.
Spread out across a 95-acre site in Tifton, home of Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College which has operated the facility since 2010, the museum — formerly known and still often referred to as the Agrirama — is more or less a rural folkways-celebrating agricultural theme park divvied up into several distinct areas, each populated by lovingly restored historic structures and enthusiastic staffers donning antediluvian garb: a traditional 1870s farming community, a progressive 1890s farmstead, an industrial sites complex and a rural Main Street complete with feed store, print shop and mercantile. There's also, go figure, a peanut museum (and a gristmill, turpentine still (pictured), cane shed and cotton gin). And no visit to Tifton is complete without a visit to the GMA County Store where visitors can pick up a jar of mayhaw jelly, pecan roll candy and an iron triangle dinner bell hand-forged in the village's blacksmith shop.
8. Kline Creek Farm (West Chicago, Illinois)
The mega-fluffy Southdown sheep are a popular attraction at Kline Creek Farm. (Photo: Wendy Piersall/flickr)
Illinois, soybean-, pork- and pumpkin-producing powerhouse of the American Midwest, is positively lousy with living history farms and open-air agriculture museums, many of them operated by local park districts. And that's nothing but a good thing.
Among them is Kline Creek Farm, a 19th century farmstead-replicating a DuPage County institution that's been on the suburban Chicago field trip circuit for over 25 years. Centered around a restored 1890s farmhouse and barn, visitors are invited to participate in the usual, old-timey activities — wagon rides, pie baking, sheep shearing, ice harvesting, etc. — at this 200-acre working farm though regularly scheduled programming, kids day camps (they'll never look at household chores the same way again) and special seasonal events including an annual, historically accurate County Fair held each Labor Day weekend. And while Kline Creek Farm, located within the sprawling Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, is home to a variety of friendly critters including chickens, draft, courses, cattle and mega-fluffy Southdown sheep.
9. Kona Coffee Living History Farm (Captain Cook, Hawaii)
The coffee mill at the Jona Coffee Living History Farm is just one feature that brings to life the story of a pioneering immigrant tenant farmer from Japan. (Photo: Frank Schulenburg/Wikimedia Commons)
For dedicated coffee guzzlers, however, the Big Island is as about as close to paradise as one can get. The perpetually sunny volcanic slopes of Hawaii's Kona district are home to hundreds of small, family-owned coffee plantations and the country's only living history coffee farm, the aptly named Kona Coffee Living History Farm. Operated by the nonprofit Kona Historical Society and staffed by presumably well-caffeinated costumed interpreters, the carefully preserved 5.5-acre farm, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, brings to life the story of a pioneering immigrant tenant farmer from Japan, Daisaku Uchida, who cultivated macadamia nuts and Kona's now-coveted coffee beans alongside his family at the beginning of the 20th century. Even those who aren't necessarily big go-juice drinkers will no doubt leave the farm both enlightened and inspired. And for those who do, a visit to the farm's gift kiosk is an obvious must.
10. Living History Farm at the Museum of the Rockies (Bozeman, Montana)
The sewing room of the Living History Farm in display at the Museum of the Rockies (Photo: Tim Evanson/flickr)
The Museum of the Rockies: Come for the dinosaur bones, stay for the costumed interpreters giving basket-making demos.
While it can't hold a hand-dipped taper candle to the museum's famed paleontological collections in terms of popularity, the Living History Farm at the museum, a working Montana homestead centered around an 1899 log farmhouse relocated to the Smithsonian-affiliated museum's Bozeman campus in 1989, comes pretty darn close. Open seasonally (May – September) sans admission fee, the Living History Farm celebrates the Treasure State's agricultural heritage through a range of special events, workshops and daily programming geared to preserve rural traditions while passing them on to future generations. An estimated 20,000 visitors descend on the homestead's heirloom garden, chicken house, orchard, blacksmith shop, wheat field and root cellar each year to get the low-down on self-sufficiency, Big Sky-style. For the last two summers, imbibing adults have flocked to the Living History Farm's historic Tinsley House for Hops & History, a beer tasting series that gives historical context to a range of tasty local brews.
11. Living History Farms (Urbandale, Iowa)
In addition to a blacksmith's barn, the Living History Farms has also building dedicated to a druggist and a millinery. (Photo: Jim Bowen/flickr)
Located smack dab in the middle of America's hog 'n' corn-heavy agricultural heartland, the 500-acre Living History Farms is the petticoat-clad grand dame of Midwestern open-air farm museums, boasting not one but three farm sites — the 1700 Iowan Indian Farm, the 1850 Pioneer Farm and the 1900 Horse-Powered Farm — along with Walnut Hill, a late 19th century frontier village complete with blacksmith (pictured), druggist and millinery.
While Living History Farms' agrarian delights are enough to keep some folks occupied for multiple days, with careful planning, a decent pair of sneakers and a pre-visit trip to the Starbucks across the street, the farm(s) can be conquered in several hours. In addition to regular daily programming led by costumed interpreters, the museum's events calendar offers something for everyone including day camps, historic dinners, harvest wagon rides and a variety of adult education classes ranging from "Ox Droving" to "Victorian Hat Trims." The museum, located just outside of Des Moines, also serves as a popular wedding venue. Rest assured, Walnut Hill's 130-seat "prairie gothic" Church of the Land comes with a pump organ and central air conditioning.
12. Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm (Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania)
Two reenactors stare at the fields of the Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm. (Photo: Aaron Smith/flickr)
In Pennsylvania's Pocono Mountains, there exists a place where visitors can take a step back in time without hopping into a heart-shaped hot tub.
Established in 1963 by the Wicks family as a means of "preserving the past for our future," Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm remains true to its 18th and 19th century agrarian roots. Spread out over 100 acres, Quiet Valley is home to a handful of historic structures and a multitude of critters — the same kinds of livestock and fowl (horses, chickens, goats, turkeys and the like) that you'd find grazing the property back in the 1760s when the land was first farmed by German émigré Johan Zepper and his clan. In addition to regular homestead-y workshops and demos (think basket making, sheep shearing and sauerkraut preparation) led by "family members" dressed in period garb, this education-centric nonprofit hosts numerous special events throughout the year including the Pocono State Craft Festival (August) and the Farm Animal Frolic (May). And then there's October’s annual Harvest Festival, northeast Pennsylvania's premier event in which to feast on homemade scrapple while mingling with Civil War reenactors. And don't forget the quilt raffle, pony rides and cow flop bingo!