Visitors to the Wessels Living History Farm near York, Neb., take a trip to the 1920s, when the Christmas tree was decorated with real candles and butter on the table had been churned from cream that morning. A wood-burning stove is ready to be fired up in the kitchen. Upstairs, a little boy’s clothes are laid out on the bed and antique Lincoln Logs are strewn on the floor, as if a child had just been playing with them.
Caroline Gaudreault gives tours during Christmas on the Farm, an event designed to capture the holidays from the 1920s. Every afternoon, visitors drop by for a glimpse into the past. The tree in the front room is cedar and a boxy style of tree that was popular at the time. Gaudreault said decorations included dollhouse furniture, baby shoes and American flags.
“For the first time, people in the 1920s could buy things that were manufactured, so they’d put them on the tree,” said Gaudreault. “But manufactured Christmas bulbs were expensive and would have been considered plain and boring. People liked opulence.”
The Wessels Living History Farm is a gift from David Wessels, a York farmer who died in 1993. Wessels never married and left a large part of his estate to the York Community Foundation, including 160 acres of farm ground. In his will, Wessels directed that proceeds from the sale of his assets be used for agriculture education and to create a living history farm. The farm is located in York County, south of interstate 80 and highway 81.
The site includes a house that originally belonged to Wessels’ parents and that David Wessels and his brother lived in for a time when they moved into town. The house was owned by York College and was being used by the fire department for training purposes. The building had already been used for six controlled fires before York College agreed to donate it to the Wessels Living History Farm. The house was moved in 2002 and remodeled to reflect the style of the 1920s.
Tours and special events draw visitors to the farm all year long, said Dale Clark, education coordinator. But the Wessels Living History Farm has a worldwide audience. Before the physical site was established, the Wessels estate was used to fund an extensive educational web site. The multi-media web site features a variety of resources that provide a comprehensive view of farming through the decades. Pictures, videos, podcasts and classroom lesson plans bring the past to life for hundreds of visitors from around the globe. Clark said the web site gets over 100,000 hits every month from as many as 200 countries.
“I think David Wessels would be extremely pleased,” said Clark. “The farm is a hands-on education for those who can visit in person. And the web site tells the world what it was like to be on a Nebraska farm from the 1920s to the present.”
The farm also includes a red, timber frame barn that was typical of the era. A tractor museum features 20 restored tractors, a “pull-behind” combine and several stationary engines. Clark said the house was probably adapted from plans sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. between 1908 and 1940. The “Maytown” model cost $752 and came with plans and materials.
School groups make regular trips to the farm during the year and a variety of classes are offered at the farm during the summer. For example, last summer, children and adults learned how to make candles, cooked on a wood stove, shot their own silent movies and made crafts out of recyclables. The farm was also used for family fun days, weddings, melodrama performances and a barn dance. The farm is a work in progress and future plans include an event center for meetings, displays and offices.
A large contingent of volunteers helps keep the farm and website running. Clark and Gaudreault are the only paid employees. Clark taught school and worked in another museum and came out of retirement to work at the Wessels Living History Farm. Gaudreault graduated from York College with a degree in history so her job at the farm is a dream come true.
“It’s the perfect job. In fact, it’s not really a job at all,” she said. “I’m here and I’m learning and I’m getting paid to do something I love.”
You can pay a virtual visit to the Wessels Living History Farm at www.LivingHistoryFarm.org. ❖