State Agricultural Heritage Museum chronicles the saga of South Dakota's early farmers

BROOKINGS, S.D. -- The Homestead Act of 1862 opened the way west for farming and ranching families, promising 160 acres to those who could make a go of it for five years. Among the thousands who settled Dakota Territory, two families, the Hodges ...

BROOKINGS, S.D. -- The Homestead Act of 1862 opened the way west for farming and ranching families, promising 160 acres to those who could make a go of it for five years. Among the thousands who settled Dakota Territory, two families, the Hodges and Schancks, set up separate claims in 1882 about 10 miles outside of the town of Erwin in the eastern part of the territory. To "prove up" their claims, both families had to make improvements on their land, live on it and build a permanent 8-foot-by-10-foot building on the land. They joined forces and built a shanty about twice the minimum size across the border between their two properties and lived there together, sharing resources and chores.

Today, that same shanty sits on display in the State Agricultural Heritage Museum on the South Dakota State University campus in Brookings, and seeing its rough-hewn, single-plank outer walls inspire awe at the families who survived there through 40-below-zero winters and blistering-hot summers.

"I think they were very determined people," museum director Mac Harris says. "They had to be."

The settlers came from places like Norway and Iceland, he says, and had some ideas on how to battle the elements. They used to plaster newspapers and flour paste all over their shanty walls to keep the winds out. For heat, they often would burn cow manure or straw twists in their pot-bellied stoves.

"This is what life was like then," he says. "It's people bringing together their ingenuity and their drive."


The State Agricultural Heritage Museum is filled to capacity with a variety of artifacts and documents that pay homage to these prairie-born qualities, and Harris is determined to preserve them as the heritage of South Dakota farmers and ranchers.

Museum history

Built about the same time as SDSU, the agricultural museum began as SDSU's general on-campus museum, housing agricultural, scientific, archaeological and other exhibits from the school's collections. As time passed, the museum grew, evolving in the late 1960s as an agricultural museum. It then moved to a larger building in 1977.

"This building is the old stock pavilion building where they would have the ag classes for meat judging and meat cutting and judging of stock," Harris says.

The central museum floor space was once the arena floor and the spaces where the meats were butchered and hung has since been converted into museum offices. Originally built in 1918, the building's new tenants have a lot more display room in its galleries.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of pieces of history were being found and often donated to the museum. A separate warehouse finally had to be built to house the overflow tractors, threshers and other equipment that had served on the Dakota plains and now are in the museum's care. Among them are a 1920 Minneapolis 35-70 tractor, a 1959 Melroe skid steer loader and hundreds of other pieces of early equipment, including implements made by Case, John Deere, Allis Chalmers, Co-Op, Emerson, Fordson, Mogul, Keystone and Birdsell.

"The main purpose of the museum is to showcase and to preserve the history of agriculture's story in South Dakota," he says. "That has primarily been more eastern South Dakota stories because, one, where we're located and, two, you can look around, we don't have a lot of room."

Harris plans to draw up a strategic planning document and a fundraising plan in the coming months to secure enough room so the museum can properly represent all of South Dakota's agriculturalheritage.


"Our hope and dream is to build a new building," he says. "We would like to do that because we have such a big story to tell, but we just don't have the room to do it."

Not only would a new site give the museum the space needed to display the tractors and threshers now in storage in the large artifact collection in the warehouse, it also would allow better parking and access for museum visitors, who currently must compete with the school's students for parking space.

Now showing

As it stands now, director Harris and museum curator Bill Lee must select from among the best they have to offer to put on display.

"I guess a couple of the pieces that I think are most important are the Farm Horse tractors and the Dakota tractor because they were made in South Dakota," he says. "They were in production for a very limited period of time and are very rare."

According to museum records, these are the only three remaining tractors made in South Dakota: a 1913 Dakota and 1914 and 1915 Farm Horse tractors.

The 1915 Farm Horse, one of only 180 or so that were built in South Dakota, was completely restored by Williams, as was the museum's current centerpiece, a 20,000-pound, 65 horsepower 1915 J.I. Case steam traction engine, which took several years to complete.

Acquiring the Farm Horses, the Dakota and the big Case were more a matter of keeping an ear to the ground than of expeditions throughout South Dakota's farmlands.


"They came about more like most things, a sort of serendipity thing," Harris says. "You know, somebody talks to somebody, somebody talks to somebody else, and pretty soon, you think, 'Hey, we didn't even know they existed, and here it is.'"

Aside from the steam- and internal combustion-driven equipment, the museum also displays some of the most diverse manual tools and implements under one roof. Among them are fine examples of a manual drill press, various horse-drawn plows and threshers and even an ingenious sheep-powered conveyor belt which took the place of hand-cranking on early farm implements.

A small section is dedicated to the very early Briggs and Stratton engines, whose original designers attended SDSU.

There is a collection of feed and seed sacks from South Dakota businesses and, to compliment the 1882 claim shanty, a complete 1915 farm house replica.

Personal collections on display include an extensive compilation of research papers, manuscripts and notebooks by Danish-born Niels Ebbesen Hansen, who was posted as head of the then-South Dakota State College horticulture department.

What To Read Next
Get Local