Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Minnesota Museums Month: The Minnesota Machinery Museum, on the prairie May 1, 2012

THINK OF MUSEUMS in Minnesota, and what pops into your mind?

Probably the Science Museum of Minnesota or the Minnesota Children’s Museum or the SPAM Museum in Austin or any other such notable museum.

During May, “Minnesota Museums Month,” I challenge you to think beyond the obvious to those small town museums that are tucked away in nondescript buildings or along back roads or are mostly unknown except to those living within a region.

The Minnesota Machinery Museum in a 1939 WPA school building in Hanley Falls.

That leads me directly to Hanley Falls, home of the Minnesota Machinery Museum.

I expect already most of you are asking, “Where the heck is Hanley Falls?”

Hanley Falls, a small farming community, sits along State Highway 23 in southeastern Yellow Medicine County, nine miles south of Granite Falls on the southwestern Minnesota prairie.

It is one of those “blink and you miss it” type towns all too often dismissed by travelers simply flying by on the highway. Let me tell you, Hanley Falls is worth several hours of your time to tour this rural life museum which opened as the Yellow Medicine County Agricultural and Transportation Museum in 1980 and in 1994 became the Minnesota Machinery Museum.

For anyone who appreciates our state’s rich agricultural heritage, this museum rates as a must-see in the heart of our state’s richest farmland. I grew up in this strong agricultural region, in Redwood County next door to the east, and toured the museum for the first time in 2009. Yes, even I was unaware of its presence, having left the prairie in 1974 for college and subsequent employment.

You'll see plenty of old tractors and farm machinery, along with vintage cars and trucks.

The Minnesota Machinery Museum, which is somewhat of a misleading name because it’s not all about farm machinery, reconnected me to my rural roots and educated me on the area’s agricultural history. During my 2009 visit, I learned that visitors will discover “the things you would find on a typical farm before the 1950s” with thousands of artifacts primarily from surrounding communities in a several-county area.

An old-style farm kitchen on the second floor of the museum.

All of those artifacts are housed in five buildings, including a sprawling two-story 1939 Works Project Administration school, on six acres. The first floor of that former school, during my visit, was packed with mostly farm-related equipment while the second floor housed the domestic side of rural life.

A vintage embroidered dish towel and old wash tubs, both familiar to me. My mother used a wringer washer with wash tubs during the early years of my life on a southwestern Minnesota dairy and crop farm.

It is the mission of the museum, according to its website, “to recapture a century of stories about farm life. Implements, tools, tractors and gas engines in mint condition along with rural art help you look back to an era when neighbors worked together to harvest their crops, raise barns and build a better life for their families.”

Read those words again. They are the essence of this place—the feeling of community, the sense of neighborliness, the embodiment of that which defined rural life at one time. Yes, that life has changed. Neighbors don’t always know neighbors. Oversized farm machinery has, for the most part, replaced the need for neighbors to work together. Barns are falling into heaps of rotting wood. This museum preserves a way of life that exists mostly in stories now.

This bushel basket in the museum brought back memories of feeding cows.

The Minnesota Machinery Museum is as impressive as any you’ll visit in Minnesota. Take time to seek it out, to turn off the highway into Hanley Falls rather than driving by without even a thought of the historical treasure that lies within this small southwestern Minnesota prairie community.

FYI: The Minnesota Machinery Museum is open May – September from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday – Saturday and from 1 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. on Sunday and is closed on holidays. Click here for more information about the museum.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


10 Responses to “Minnesota Museums Month: The Minnesota Machinery Museum, on the prairie”

  1. hotlyspiced Says:

    How interesting. I love the photo of the kitchen. What a wonderful snapshot of life back then. I would love to have a kitchen that size. My 7 year old has an excursion to a museum on Monday. I put my name down to be a helper but only two were needed and I wasn’t chosen. Ah well, next time. (And secretly, I’d prefer to go to the museum on my own and not with 30 Year 2 kids!) xx

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      The museum kitchen was one of my favorite rooms, too. When I toured the museum, I didn’t even have enough time to get to all of the buildings. Of course, when you’re taking photos and talking to the museum director and more, the pace tends to be much slower. I agree with you about exploring a museum on one’s own. That would be a big responsibility to supervise a class of kids at a museum, unless it’s more of a hands-on children’s museum, then it would not be quite as difficult.

  2. ceciliag Says:

    Looks like somewhere i should visit, lots to learn from these places about the simple ways of farming.. c

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Absolutely. You would love this museum. And as long as you’re traveling so far, you may as well bring your animals and do a presentation. I, for one, would be there. Readers, if you haven’t already checked out Cecilia’s blog, The Kitchens Garden, do. Hers rates as one of my favorite blogs. It’s all about her sustainable Illinois farm. Fantastic writing and photos. I promise.

  3. Great looking stuff! I wish my house was older…I like old stuff! But somehow, old stuff looks weird in a 30 year old house!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      I say put whatever you wish in your house. Old or new. Surround yourself with things that you love.

  4. Bernie Says:

    I’m always learning about new towns from you. It was rare I would venture into any part of Minnesota other than the northern part. Unless we had to go to the Cities, which makes my skin crawl. *lol* Thank you for sharing this Musuem. I do believe the state has a bunch of undiscovered gems!

    • Audrey Kletscher Helbling Says:

      Well, Bernie, I have not explored northern Minnesota that much, if it’s any consolation. We took two vacations when I was a kid–one to Duluth when I was four and too young to remember and the other to the Black Hills. My dad milked cows, meaning we could never get away. I’ve been to Duluth only a few times as an adult and another trip is in order soon as my friend Jane keeps telling me to “come and visit.”

      I’m not much for venturing into The Cities either. Too much traffic…

      Yes, I bet there are a lot of undiscovered museum gems out there. Readers, know of any?

  5. june Says:

    The machinery museum sounds awesome!

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