Family museum offers lesson in farming history

Farm Forum

SPRAGUE, Neb. (AP) – College courses addressing agricultural illiteracy are just part of the proof that it’s a problem.

Yes, people who grow up in one of the most prominent settings for grain and livestock production in the United States don’t know a Hereford from a Holstein, or a combine from a corn planter, or Roundup Ready from Eveready.

But all is not lost. Part of the cure for the ignorance of Lincoln residents could be as close by as the Mitchell Family Museum. Knowing about the past, after all, is the first step to connecting with the present and the future.

The truth is that visiting hours on a farm a mile east of Sprague haven’t gotten a lot of attention from the curators.

The Lincoln Journal Star reports the focus for brothers Don and Daryl Mitchell, Don’s son Mike, Don’s son-in-law Bob Huttes and Bob’s son Zane has been on converting a former granary with a tin roof and a cupola at the top into a repository for agricultural artifacts that have been accumulating since the homesteading era.

The purpose for showcasing such wonderments as a cyclone seeder, horse collars, a cream separator, a hand-cranked corn sheller, a gopher trap, a corn shucking hook and much more, Don Mitchell said, was “to see how they’d do it years ago. Those old boys worked hard.”

Over the past year, three generations of Mitchells and in-laws have been working hard, too, on reworking granary space.

It started with a mischievous suggestion from Bob Huttes to Don that they bulldoze the granary to the ground.

“I was kidding him,” Bob said.

But then they got serious.

Out went the walls of the four bins that used to hold shelled corn, milo, wheat and other crops. In went recycled bricks that form a walkway from the front of the granary to the back.

They’re not done yet. “We’ve not got near everything in here,” Don said.

The Mitchell farm already was 100 years old in 1969, and the saddle that Don and Daryl’s grandfather, Clyde, used when he and his horse herded feeder cattle to a rail siding at Sprague for a trip to the Omaha stockyards is hung high up on a wall.

Some combination of an accident in which he and his horse were hit by a car in 1934 and being hit in the head by a dehorning chute left Clyde Mitchell blind when he still was in his prime farming years.

But the cattle feeding continued and the letter Clyde eventually got from Gov. Val Peterson hangs near the saddle.

“Congratulations and best wishes,” Peterson wrote in November 1949. “You do an outstanding job.”

“I just saved things,” Don said almost 64 years later. “I didn’t throw much away.”

Rob Robertson, part of the leadership of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation and a neighbor to the Mitchell clan, has visited the museum.

“The first impression that I had is that a lot of people talk about remembering the past,” Robertson said, “but this family actually did something to remember the past. And that’s what’s impressive to me.

“There’s so much history in agriculture that seems to get left behind because of how rapidly things are changing in agriculture,” he added.

Rapid change may help explain why other Nebraskans have lost touch with what agriculture is about. Being several generations removed from living in an agricultural setting might be another factor.

At any rate, Willow Holubek, executive director of the Alliance for the Future of Agriculture in Nebraska, has seen agricultural illiteracy spreading like a noxious weed.

“I talked to a person once who didn’t know bacon came from a pig, rather than a cow,” said Holubek, who grew up on a cattle ranch near Alliance. “I talked to a person who thought white eggs were not as good because they’re bleached.”

AFAN is in its third year of cosponsoring the Husker Food Connection at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and partnering 80 students with agricultural majors to educate their city cousins on the origins of food.

The Mitchell Family Museum is another way to get that done.

Bill Krueger, now chief executive officer with the Lansing Trade Group in Overland Park, Kan., already has his autograph in the museum.

Way back when, a guy who also would go on to marry Daryl Mitchell’s daughter Becky — and become the boss of what was recently ranked as the 57th-largest private business in the United States — was a neighbor kid assigned to a much more humble task.

He was using tar to patch holes chewed in the granary floor by rats.

Krueger doesn’t remember the idle moment when he dipped his finger in the tar and wrote his name on the wall.

“In all honesty, I don’t,” he said in a brief telephone interview Friday. “But I certainly remember tarring. Each year we’d go through those kinds of jobs before we put the grain in.”