Retired Iowa farmer J.R. Pearson has spent at least half his life working to preserve horse-drawn agricultural equipment in The Barns, his Marcus, Iowa, museum. There are some 300 pieces in his collection, covering a span from the mid-1800s up to the 1920s and 1930s.
A lifetime resident of Marcus, Pearson started collecting artifacts at a 1980s farm auction, with a No. 9 International Harvester horse-drawn mower. "I've always had an interest in how my grandfather did things and the farm equipment he used," he says.
His search eventually accumulated enough pieces to be museumworthy, leading to the opening of The Barns in 2008. Items on display include wooden-wheel wagons, grain drills, planters, plows, discs, cultivators and much more.
WOODEN WAGON WHEELS
Pearson bought his first wooden wagon box at a farm auction in the 1990s.
"I was always intrigued by wooden-wheel wagons, and many of mine are in original condition," Pearson says. "They're the vehicles America used to settle the western frontier."
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With limited room on the farm to store wagons, he soon found neither he nor his visitors were able to view them because they sat so close together. "I couldn't show them off," he says. "I started thinking a museum might be the only way I and my visitors could enjoy the implements. When a lot in town (right next to the community fairgrounds) came up for sale, I decided it was a good location for my museum."
Pearson added on to an existing metal shed on his new lot and even set up displays in two former hog houses. A large concrete slab at the site, formerly used as a pork-feeding floor, provided an ideal base for a second large building. While the buildings aren't heated, all have electricity or skylights for lighting. By far, he says, the biggest challenge he faced in developing The Barns was the legal process to establish it as a nonprofit. The paperwork required research, a legal professional and some 12 months to complete.
The oldest pieces at The Barns are Conestoga jacks stamped with a "Made in 1822" date. Conestoga wagons were heavy, covered wagons used in the 18th and 19th centuries. The jack was essential to maintain the wooden wagon wheels.
Pearson's collection includes a wooden grain drill made in Minnesota around 1872. He learned of the piece through a sale bill. "I was happy to see it was in very good original condition. It bears the name 'Van Brunt Davis'. That Minnesota partnership formed in 1872, and about 525 seeders were made that year. By 1874, the company was dissolved."
One unique feature of the 8-foot-wide drill is an acre-counter. Since Van Brunt changed their seeder name to "The Monitor" in 1874, it's likely Pearson's seeder is one of the original 525 implements made in 1872, making it close to 150 years old.
Many of Pearson's items were in mint or original condition at the time he purchased them. Whenever a piece needed restoration or repair, he completed the bulk of the work in his on-farm repair shop and paint room. Diligent research and knowledge shared by colleagues help him identify the design and color details needed.
"I rely on three Minnesota collectors who research and pick up information from their own collector networks," Pearson says. "Those kinds of resources are very helpful."
One other important connection Pearson has relied on to learn about and obtain museum pieces is the Waverly Midwest Horse Sale, in Waverly, Iowa. For years, at both spring and fall sales, horse-drawn equipment and items have been bought and sold. He's also found pieces traveling and with a little luck.
"East of the Mississippi, an area settled long before our western states, there are still many vintage agricultural items tucked away in sheds and barns," he says.
Pearson has also accumulated numerous books featuring the history of companies like John Deere, International Harvester and J.I. Case. These high-profile companies often bought out smaller operations, which flourished in the late 1700s through the mid-1800s. The information helps identify some pieces and determine original colors and designs.
"There are other great vintage agriculture collections around," Pearson adds. "I have some pieces they don't, and they have pieces I don't. What's most important to me is that visitors learn something about our agricultural history and gain an appreciation for the ingenuity and hard work that brought us to the place we're at in agriculture today."
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