Down on the Farm

11/3/2012 7:00 AM
By Anne Harnish Food and Family Features Editor

Exhibit Tells the Agriculture History of Penn Manor Before Mechanization

CONESTOGA, Pa. - A 1927 painting of a Lancaster County feed mill by artist Charles Demuth resides in the collection of the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, and is now likely worth millions.

Lancaster County historian and curator Kenneth Hoak included two small reproduction prints of the famous livestock feed mill alongside many other historic artifacts in an unusual and intriguing exploration of Lancaster’s agriculture history in a show that will be open to the public until Dec. 9.

“Down on the Farm,” the show currently at the Conestoga Area Historical Society in southwestern Lancaster County, features displays of items from the Penn Manor area of the county such as a rare antique farm radio, vintage milk bottles, handmade farm implements and all manner of agricultural curiosities. The show also features ag-related artwork by well-known Lancaster artist Florence Starr Taylor and recent farm models created by Thomas Grassel of Conestoga, Pa.

Florence Starr Taylor (1904-1991) was a prolific and well-known artist in Lancaster County in her heyday. Throughout her career, she was commissioned for both portraits and commercial illustrations, including advertisements for farm equipment manufacturers such as New Holland Machine. She also drew hundreds of images of farm scenes and farm landscapes. A selection of her many drawings and studies of Lancaster farms is on display.

“She (Taylor) was the artist of Lancaster County. Almost everybody who was anybody had their portrait done by her,” Hoak said.

On display at the exhibit are Thomas Grassel’s 1/8-scale wood models of full-sized, antique farm equipment. Each piece that inspired him can be found next door in the society’s storage building. Grassel incorporates a fondness for memory in each of his models, mixing scale precision with sentimentality to show three-dimensional farm scenes of neighbors he knew as a youth who farmed with horses or in the style of a bygone era.

“I was never handy,” said Grassel, who ran a paving business for years. “It takes a very long time to make these,” he added. Each tiny part is handmade.

Grassel uses memory to finish out his three-dimensional scenes, usually naming the figures after actual people he knew. One model of three farm men working is on display in front of an old photograph of those same men. Another model shows a cut-away view of an 1850’s tobacco barn with its curing shed, damping cellar and stripping room reproduced down to its tiny details and stocked with figures of people working with the crop.

There is a story behind everything in the exhibit. Old farm photos of Conestoga wagons being loaded with crops out in fields help debunk a common myth, said Hoak, referring to many who think that Conestoga wagons — the heavy, curved-bottom wagons built by craftsmen in the Conestoga area of Lancaster County in the 1700s and 1800s — were used by pioneers to travel to western states. It’s no wonder — the myth was perpetuated when the film industry thought Conestoga wagons looked dramatic as movie props and used them in many 1930’s and 1940’s Western films, cementing their image in the public mind as the frontier wagon that “helped win the West.”

But in fact, Hoak said, the Conestoga wagons were too heavy for pioneer travel and required four to six horses to pull. The heavy wagons were used to haul tons of freight shorter distances, in lieu of railroads at the time. Farmers often fitted out the Conestoga wagons to haul loads around the farm, as in the old photos, Hoak said. Pioneers heading westward used the lighter “prairie schooner” wagons which could travel much easier using just one or two horses or oxen.

In the process of curating the exhibit, Hoak also observed that there seemed to be four distinctly different periods of agriculture that took place in the Lancaster region, each with its own style of farming. The first period, beginning in the late 1600s, is what Hoak refers to as the “settlement” period. From that period evolved an “expansion and plantation” phase. Next, came the era which he labels the “competition and production” period. He said that many farms of today still operate in this mode. And, the last period he calls the era of “mega-farms,” and noted that a number of these are currently in production in the Lancaster region.

If the items on display at the Conestoga Historical Society could talk, there would be many more stories they would tell. Fortunately, there is a curator on hand who has been able to articulate those stories and explain the richness of the region’s agriculture heritage through this unique exhibition.

The exhibit is free and on display through Dec. 9 from 1-4 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, at the Conestoga Area Historical Society, 51 Kendig Road, Conestoga, Pa., 17516. For special tours or arrangements, visitors can call 717-872-1699.

The Conestoga Area Historical Society is hosting a “Down on the Farm” exhibit in Conestoga, Pa.

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