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Farm museums bring history, innovations, and legacies to life

SURRY, VA — This could be the summer for exploring Virginia’s agricultural history at one of the state’s farm museums.

Among them is one of the oldest continuously farmed properties in the country, Chippokes State Park in Surry County.

From Native American techniques to present-day practices, the Chippokes Farm & Forestry Museum in the park uses over 3,000 artifacts to interpret the evolution of rural Virginia life over the past 400 years.

Situated on the 1,947-acre historic Chippokes site, the museum offers a uniquely interactive setting, said Chippokes State Park manager Ben Richard.

“Instead of just walking through a museum and looking at a bunch of items on display, visitors can get immersed in history by taking advantage of what else the park has to offer,” Richard said.

The park features historical exhibits around every corner, including the 1854 Jones-Stewart Mansion, the circa-1830 River House and Walnut Valley Farm’s 18th century plantation house. The 500-acre farm and cultural garden produce popular Virginia cash crops historically grown on the site.

At McCormick Farm in Rockbridge County, visitors can stand in the spot where the first horse-drawn “Virginia Reaper” was designed and built. Cyrus McCormick is credited with inventing the mechanical reaper in 1831 and helping farmers harvest grain at fivefold the speed with a fraction of the effort, accelerating westward expansion and creating new agricultural markets.

Now a small museum and National Historic Landmark located at the Shenandoah Valley Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Raphine, the museum showcases innovations aided by enslaved blacksmith Jo Anderson. The reaper eventually led to the development of the modern combine, now used globally for precision agriculture.

“I hope visitors gain an appreciation for how quickly the world has changed in 200 years, relative to the past 2,000 years,” said Gabriel Pent, SVAREC superintendent. “It’s neat to see how this little location transformed the world.”

On the Northern Neck, visitors can experience how crops were cultivated, harvested and processed—from use of the mano and metate stones Native Americans used to grind corn, to early wheat threshers and grain cleaners.

Founded in 2008 by lifelong farmer Luther Welch, and featuring his collection of antique farm equipment, the museum “showcases the early days of farming here in the Northern Neck,” said Barbara Jean Jones, the museum’s chair.

Other exhibits demonstrate the importance of electrification in rural areas. Domestic farm tasks often were completed in near-dark with only dim kerosene lamps before the Northern Neck received electricity in the 1940s—nearly 60 years after some urban areas. Electrification is a part of local history that closely parallels today’s push for rural broadband internet access. Both have allowed rural residents to keep pace with their urban counterparts.

“Virginia Electric and Power didn’t want to come out and bring electricity to the Northern Neck, so (farmers) formed a number of electric co-ops and put up their own money to get things done,” said the museum’s treasurer, Sam Johnson, about the rural electrification exhibit.

“It certainly changed rural life,” he added.

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