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