Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The Smithsonian in Hanley Falls & Hanley Falls in the Smithsonian (exhibit) September 20, 2012

The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street exhibit, “The Way We Worked,” features snippets from Minnesota. Photo courtesy of Minnesota’s Machinery Museum, Hanley Falls, in rural southwestern Minnesota.

I DOUBT MANY of the 304 residents of Hanley Falls, rural Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, have ever visited the Smithsonian or even traveled to Washington D.C.

But now this internationally-acclaimed museum has come to Hanley Falls via “The Way We Worked,” a Museum on Main Street project developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and adapted from an original exhibition from the National Archives.

Bottom line, if you can’t bring the people to the museum, bring the museum to the people.

Specifically, from now through October 20,  Minnesota’s Machinery Museum in Hanley Falls is hosting the exhibit on where, how, who and why Americans work.

But that’s not all. Hanley Falls is part of “The Way We Worked,” as are several other Minnesota places and people.

Says Museum Director Laurie Johnson: “It is an honor in itself to be hosting a Smithsonian Traveling Exhibit. To be an actual part of the exhibit traveling all over the U.S. is a very big honor.”

Hanley Falls’ place in the exhibit falls in the “Communities at Work” section and features a 1987 aerial view photo of Hanley Falls by Vincent H. Mart sourced from the Minnesota Historical Society. The MHS photographic collection includes 5,697 aerial views from around Minnesota photographed by Mart between 1962-1988.

The 1987 Vincent H. Mart photo showing a portion of Hanley Falls and now part of the Smithsonian traveling exhibit. Photo courtesy of Minnesota’s Machinery Museum.

Mart’s black-and-white shot #5,655 in the MHS archives, and now in the Smithsonian exhibit as image 196, shows the then Hanley Falls Farmers Elevator (now the Farmer’s Co-op Elevator) on the west side of town, plus Bennett Transportation (bus company) and the fourth-generation Oftedahl family farm. As a side note, the elevator celebrated its 100th anniversary this past July on Minnesota’s Machinery Museum grounds with more than 2,000 in attendance.

According to Johnson, the scene in the photograph no longer looks the same. Several of the grain bins were damaged in a wind storm and the main office was  moved and an elevator built to the southwest of the Oftedahl farm. The old elevator remains and is still used by the Farmer’s Co-op.

The exhibit copy which accompanies the Hanley Falls photo reads, in part:

The reminders of a town’s main industry imprint its landscape and identity. Silos dominate the skyline in Hanley Falls, Minnesota as they do in most small, agricultural communities.

And here’s how Johnson summarizes what the Hanley Falls photo tells us about “The Way We Worked:”

Farming is a way of life here and has been for many generations. The exhibit talks about “community” and we are definitely a community that works, worships, (has) neighborhood get-togethers and plays together.

Johnson, who lives on a farm about 10 miles north of Hanley Falls, further explains that the local elevator, banks and gas station provide jobs in town. Some residents work in neighboring towns. Many are retired.

You’ll find plenty of old tractors and farm machinery, along with vintage cars and trucks, in the museum’s outbuildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Already the Smithsonian show is attracting more visitors to Minnesota’s Machinery Museum, defined by Johnson as “an agricultural museum recalling farm life in stories and artifacts from how we farmed with horses to a farm kitchen, bedroom, parlor and general store…preserving our agricultural heritage for generations.”

The entrance to the portion of the museum housed in the former school, a WPA building. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The five-building Yellow Medicine County museum complex, which includes the former Hanley Falls School built in 1939 by the Works Progress Administration, rests on six acres. You’ll find antique tractors, automobiles, gas engines, threshing equipment and other machinery and artifacts in the outbuildings.

A bushel basket, one of the many ag items displayed at the museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Until October 20, you also can find five multi-sided kiosks featuring photos, videos, flip booklets and other interactive activities as part of the Smithsonian’s “The Way We Worked” exhibit.

Besides Hanley Falls, other Minnesota places/information in the show are a photo of women sorting sweet potatoes; quotes from Earl Bakken, founder of Minneapolis-based Medtronics, maker of the first self-contained pacemaker; a 1974 photo from Danheim Dairy in New Ulm; a SPAM Town banner; mention of the Moorhead Spuds (hometown pride for the town team); and a 1928 photo of St. Paul Gas and Light Company workers at a dance.

Johnson has no idea how the Hanley Falls photo became a part of this national touring exhibit. She discovered the town’s inclusion while vacationing in Tennessee, where she stopped to view the exhibit.

An old Hanley Falls fire truck is among vehicles housed in the outbuildings. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

After leaving Hanley Falls, the exhibit will travel to five other Minnesota locations, including the Wright County Historical Society in Buffalo (Oct. 27 – Dec. 8); the Winona County Historical Society in Winona (Dec. 15 – Jan. 26); the Steele County Historical Society in Owatonna (Feb. 2 – March 16); the Virginia Area Historical Society in Virginia (March 23 – May 4); and the Depot Preservation Alliance in Baudette (May 11 – June 22).

In Hanley Falls, “The Way We Were” can be viewed between 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Monday – Saturday or from 1 p.m. – 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. The museum season was extended to accommodate the show.

Admission to Minnesota’s Machinery Museum is free, but monetary contributions are accepted via a free will donation box.

Located in southwestern Minnesota, Hanley Falls sits nine miles south of Granite Falls or 20 miles north of Marshall along Highway 23. Go one block west of Highway 23 and then a block north to find the museum.

An old-style farm kitchen on the second floor of the museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

“The Way We Worked” is presented in Hanley Falls in collaboration with the Minnesota Humanities Center. Funding, says Johnson, is via the Center; The Clean Water, Land & Legacy Amendment (Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund); the Smithsonian Institute; the National Endowment for the Humanities; and the United States Congress.

Minnesota’s Machinery Museum previously hosted the Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street projects “Barn Again” and “Between Fences.”

FYI: To learn more about Minnesota’s Machinery Museum, click here to link to the museum website.

For more info about “The Way We Worked,” click here.

To view additional photos by Vincent H. Mart in the Minnesota Historical Society archives, click here.

© Copyright 2012 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