Outside, the thermometer hovered at a chilly 30 degrees, but inside the 1900 Farm House it was cozy and warm. Savory aromas filled the air — roasting turkey and freshly baked bread, plus a hint of wood smoke from the stove. Gathered around a table laden with food, we passed bowls back and forth like a big family, even though we’d met just an hour before.
“Don’t be shy now,” said our host, who wore a long, high-necked dress and apron. “I’ve been cooking much of the day, and there’s plenty more food in the kitchen.”
Our trip back in time was courtesy of Living History Farms, an interactive outdoor history museum near Des Moines that tells the story of Midwestern agriculture through three working farms — a 1700 Ioway Indian farm, 1850 pioneer homestead and 1900 horse-powered farm, plus the 1875 Town of Walnut Hill. Interpreters in period clothing recreate the daily routines in each of the eras, giving an experiential sense for the dramatic changes in farming through the centuries.
Of the many programs offered by Living History Farms, its historic dinners are among the most popular. Most are held during the winter when the pace is slower at the site, with options that include dinners at the 1875 Tangen House and 1900 Farm plus teas and dinners at the 1870s Flynn Mansion.
My own trip back in time began with a ride in a horse-drawn wagon. As we clip-clopped down a rural lane, I could see the lights of Des Moines in the distance, but the closer we got to the farm the farther away the modern world seemed. By the time we pulled up in front of a simple, white frame house, I was ready to believe that I’d traveled back in time more than a century.
Our hosts, interpreters Margaret Nervig and Tynan Shadle, invited us to take seats in the parlor and introduce ourselves. We hailed from Ames, Iowa City and Bettendorf, as well as a couple from Bondurant who were returning for their third time.
“We love the entire experience, but one of my favorite parts is climbing aboard the horse-drawn wagon at the beginning,” said Tammy Witzke. “The ride to the farm feels like you’re heading to dinner with your great-grandparents.”
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Looking around the modest home, I was struck by how dimly lit it was. Kerosene lamps provided the only illumination, a reminder of what life was like for most of human history before the invention of electricity. But other parts of the experience felt familiar, hearkening back to my childhood on a farm in northeast Iowa. Our home, like this one, had low ceilings, old-fashioned wallpaper and floorboards that creaked as you walked across them. Even though I’d never visited this house, it felt like I was returning to a place I’d been before.
As we sipped cups of hot cider, Nervig explained that 1900 was a good time to be a farmer in Iowa. “You could grow much of what you needed, and what you couldn’t make yourself you could buy from the Sears, Roebuck catalog,” she said. “Instead of doing all the work by hand, farmers had machines to do tasks like cutting hay or binding oats, though they still used horses to pull them. The first tractor wouldn’t be invented until 1905 in Charles City, and even then many farmers preferred working with horses.”
Moving into the dining room, we took our seats and watched in anticipation as our hosts started bringing one dish after another to the table.
After we started eating, I was surprised by the tastiness and variety of the dishes: turkey, dressing, cranberry relish, potatoes, rolls, Brussels sprouts, carrots, pickles, plus freshly churned butter and strawberry jam and pumpkin butter.
“Everything is made using authentic recipes of the time period, and most of it we cook on our wood-burning stove,” Nervig said. “Once you get the hang of the stove, it’s actually very versatile, in some ways more than a modern one because you can cook dishes at different temperatures depending upon how far from the fire box you put them.”
During the meal we heard more about the daily routines of farm families in 1900. While it can seem idyllic from the perspective of our hectic world, life in the period was filled with unrelenting work. Cooking, gardening, laundry, food preservation, cleaning and child care filled the days of women, while men often worked from sunrise to sunset outside.
“It’s easy to romanticize life in the 19th century until you actually start living it,” Nervig said. “And, of course, as interpreters we don’t have to endure the hardest parts — the frequency of maternal and childhood death, for example. Working here has given me a much greater appreciation for how tough and resilient people had to be in those days.”
After our bounteous repast, we headed outside into the night. Shadle, who is a farm- hand interpreter at Living History Farms, handed us lanterns that we used to light our way to a large, red barn. Stepping inside, the smell of hay, animals, and dust brought back another rush of childhood memories. I petted the Percheron horses in their stalls, marveling at their massive size and the clouds of steam that their breath made in the chilly air.
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Leaving the barn, we headed to the pig yard, where a dozen porkers noisily enjoyed the bucket of food scraps Shadle dumped in their pen.
“We raise breeds that were common in the 19th century,” he explained. “Back then fatty hogs were prized because their lard was so useful in cooking. Now farmers and consumers want lean meat instead.”
After visiting the chicken coop — which smelled just as bad as I remembered from my childhood — we headed back to the house for dessert. Faced with the options of a rich chocolate cake with a cinnamon filling and a pear pie, most of us chose both.
And then, alas, it was time to leave. We bundled up in our coats, hoisted ourselves up into the wagon, and tucked wool blankets around our legs.
Watching as the lights of the farmhouse faded into the distance, I could see why people come back to this experience again and again. I planned to return myself.
If you go
• What: Living History Farms Historic Dinners
• Where: Living History Farms, 11121 Hickman Rd., Urbandale
• When: October through March
• Cost: $60
• Details: First guest to register chooses the main dish from options that include roast beef, oven-fried chicken, roasted stuffed pork and roasted turkey.
• Information: lhf.org or (515) 278-5286