A History of Family and Farming

1/5/2013 7:00 AM
By Michael Short Delaware Correspondent

Bennetts of Delaware Offer Peek Into Agricultural Past

 MILFORD, Del. — Tucked inside a former dairy barn is a window into much of lower Delaware’s agricultural past.

The Bennett Farm Museum of Yesterday is located on Route 1 just south of Milford in the little community of Argo’s Corner. You won’t see any big signs or tour buses here.

The only real indication of the museum is a sign alongside the southbound side of the highway. The sign stands outside an open building housing a few old tractors, a wooden manure spreader, planters and cultivators once pulled by mules and other machinery from the not-so-distant farming past.

It’s an interesting stop for those who want to learn more about old farm machinery. Many think it’s the full museum, but it’s only a glimpse into the treasures on the other side of the road.

Lying inside the barn on the family farm is a history of six generations of farmers tilling these rich lands.

Fred Bennett II opened the museum in 2001.

While Bennett has since passed away, his son, Fred Bennett III, and wife Kaye, keep and administer the free museum. Some 200 or so people pass through the doors each year and sign a guest book.

This is a working farm, so plan on calling first. If he’s not busy picking corn or tending to the chickens, Fred will be happy to show you around. “He started it and I’m just keeping it going,” he said.

A plaque inside the museum says it opened in 2001 “for the benefit of all so they may enjoy the history of agriculture.”

When you walk inside the museum, you find rows of equipment formerly pulled by mules or horses. The plows, mowers and cultivators share space with almost every tool imaginable.

Old wooden hand planes are on one table. Two-person crosscut saws, cow dehorners, tobacco cutters and hay forks line the wall. Old wooden crank phones are on the walls and a sleigh sits at one end of the building.

The walls at one end of the building are lined with newspapers announcing the resignation of President Richard Nixon, the oath of office being taken by Gerald Ford and the Ice Storm of the Century, circa 1994, in Milford.

Bennett’s father was something of a political junkie, hence the larger-than-life newspaper headlines offering a glimpse into the nation’s political past.

If you look further through the museum, you’ll see hog killing barrels, log turners, cow stanchions, bush axes, harnesses for horses or oxen, cider presses, sausage grinders and even a set of sleigh bells.

Bennett stops beside some of the hand tools and jokes that “this stuff here is when you really had to work.”

The equipment has seen a lifetime of hard work, although it’s now lovingly restored.

Toy tractors and farm equipment line the shelves on one wall, while another 10 tractors big enough to ride sit in a row beneath the smaller toys.

“As me and my dad would get older, we didn’t need anything,” Bennett said. “So these were the gifts you would get for Christmas.

“My father used to say he’s been around the world and back on a riding plow and three mules pulled it,” Bennett said with a smile.

The Bennett farm includes about 2,000 tilled acres of peas, lima beans, corn, soybeans, wheat and barley. There are also nine chicken houses tended to by Fred Bennett III and his son, Mark.

Mark is the sixth generation Bennett to till the farmland.

Bennett said his father began the museum as he got older. Much of the equipment and tools were already in the family and just needed to be organized and restored.

“Farming is a way of life. Everything else is a job,” said Bennett, quoting an acquaintance. “It’s like you’re married to it.”

“It was a hard life, but it was a simple life and it was a good life. ... Your heart has to be in it,” Kaye Bennett said.

At one end of the barn lies the newest addition to the museum. Walk through the door and you see two old dining room tables from the Bennett family.

One table owned by John Wesley Bennett, called a wheat threshing table, is fully set for dinner.

Family pictures line one entire wall while deeds and bills of sale dating to before the Civil War are framed on another wall.

There’s a working Victrola, a pocket watch and old pedal sewing machines. The family records date back to about 1842, when Elias and Elizabeth Bennett owned the farm.

Kaye Bennett has studied the family history. Elias and Elizabeth Bennett had 12 children, some of whom went west to make it on the frontier.

Sorting through one of many piles of paper prompted Bennett to begin her work on the family ancestry. What must have seemed like a weekend job at the time turned into a three-year long search to find all 12 descendants.

Much of that research can be seen in the lovingly restored room.

There are wood stoves, an icebox, a Maytag washer that originally included a gasoline motor and kick starter, washing boards, rolling pins, cast-iron pans, a wooden ironing board, ice tongs and other bits of life from early farms.

Signs advertise Fresh Bond Bread and urge people to buy war bonds.

Old milk bottles fill the icebox and the shelves include canned goods from canneries long since out of business. Canneries were once a big business in Delaware and names like Clifton, Ellendale Asparagus and others live on on these shelves.

Red Hat Ladies have visited. Southern States held a field day at the farm. But the museum is geared more toward a slow, leisurely tour for the occasional visitor.

The grandchildren like to come to the museum. One starts the Victrola and plays records. Others just want to know where the electricity is for the icebox or how things work.

“They’re curious. I do a lot of explaining,” she said. “I try to help them envision what life was like. ... Kids today have no idea what it was like 100 years ago.

“We want to keep the legacy going, so that future generations know where they came from.”

You can reach Bennett at 302-542-9555.

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