Iowa Historic Destination: Living History Farms

Last Updated on May 21, 2018 by Janet Frost


The family was pushing back from the table as I walked through the door. In front of them, remnants of the midday meal sat cooling.  I have stepped back in time to an 1850 Iowa farmstead. My search for Midwest Living History Museums has taken me to Living History Farms in Urbandale, Iowa.

Let’s Go Learn Things about Iowa history…..


Living History Farms

History of the Museum

Living History Farms is 500 acres located on the far west side of Greater Des Moines. This property was once a part of the vast Iowa prairie. It has served as farm land since 1849. Gradually the suburbs of western Des Moines started to envelope the farm.  In 1957 Interstate 80/35 bisected the property. By 1970 the area had exchanged hands several times and was slated for suburban development. Dr. William G. Murray had other plans. He wanted to create a working agricultural museum.

 “not just a dusty place where you see yesterday’s utensils and machinery under glass. You see things being used, a recreation of things in action, stretching from the past through the present and into the future.”

Today’s Museum

Today Living History Farms has two distinct areas still split by the Interstate. The Visitor Center and the re-creation of a typical 1875 frontier town spread out over the east side of the museum. A tractor-pulled shuttle takes you under the interstate to the west side and three working farms.  These farms exhibit a Native American Ioway village of 1700, an early pioneer farm of 1850, and a horse-powered farm of 1900. All the sites have interpreters that are actively portraying the farm life of the respective time period.


1700 Ioway Village

This village was opened as part of the Living History Farms in 2015. I am pleased to see the recent trend of Living History Museums including displays of the indigenous peoples’ history.  This has not always been the case, but is an integral part of an authentic living history exhibit. The village has the three seasonal homes of the Ioway.  They were farmers and settled on the fertile land in the floodplains of the many small rivers running through the territory. Their winter homes would be down in a tree-sheltered hollow, while the summer home would be up on the open plains to catch a cooler breeze. The iconic “tepee” was their traveling home, used when the family ventured out for the bison hunts.

The interpreters in the village were busy rebuilding a drying house. It was used by the Ioway to dry and preserve crops. Ioway crops consisted of corn, beans and squash. Later in the summer the small field in this village will be growing those exact crops.


1850 Pioneer Farm

In 1850 this farm was in the early stages of growth.  The pioneers likely emigrated from eastern states. The log home would be temporary until they could build a two-story structure. Farms eventually transitioned from mere subsistence to raising crops and livestock to sell for a profit. This farm had a couple of hogs, a lively chicken coop and a good sized flock of sheep and lambs. The interpreters were enjoying their mid-day meal. It had been cooked over the open fire. In 1850 the technology of a wood fired stove was available in the East, but this modernization had not yet reached the pioneer’s prairie.


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1900 Horse-powered Farm


This farm was a personal flashback for me. I spent my childhood summers on the “family farm” in southern Iowa. That farm looked much like the 1900’s representation at Living History Farms. The turn of the century brought the Industrial Revolution to farms across America. Farmers now had modern machinery to cut hay, plant corn, and bind oats. Inside the farm kitchen, the wood-burning cook stove and the Mason jar made food preparation and preservation much easier. In 1900 farmers grew corn, oats and hay and had added milk cows and beef cattle to their livestock.

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1875 Walnut Hill Prairie Town

After a dusty ride back under the interstate I explored the quiet prairie town. This town depicts a bustling community of merchants and craftsman supporting the nearby farms and farmers. The town that we see today is a gathering of historic buildings moved into Living History Farms to represent a town. But the Victorian mansion and its large barn are original to the property. Shops and businesses such as a Millinery Shop, General Store, Farm Implement Sales and a Printer line the road.

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Sitting regally above town is the Flynn Victorian mansion. Martin Flynn was a contractor for the railroads. Which means he helped survey, acquire and prepare the lands. He was a very wealthy man in the region and purchased this land to create a major farming operation. All the details in this restored home speak of wealth and sophistication for the time.

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Living History Farms Details

Summer Season (May 1 – Aug. 26)

Monday – Saturday: 9am – 4pm
Sunday: Noon – 4pm

Fall Season (Sep. 1 – Oct. 19)

Wednesday – Saturday: 9am – 4pm
Sunday: Noon – 4pm

Admission is $15.75 for Adults and $9.00 for Children

The facility also offers special events, summer camps and guided tours. See the website for further information.

Living history across the Midwest


I love the chance to explore these Living History Museums across the Midwest. While they have common threads, each gives a different glimpse into the history of America’s expansion across the Midwest. For instance, Conner Prairie in Indiana was heavily focused on the Civil War era, Old World Wisconsin highlights the immigrant experience and Living History Farms studies the progression of agriculture through history. I will be visiting Illinois later this month and I am eager to see their take on Living History.

Previous Living History Posts:

Conner Prairie 

Old World Wisconsin
Wade Stagecoach Inn

Disclosure: I received complimentary admission to Living History Farms.  All opinions are my own.

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