It is a simple fact that the Midwest was settled by farmers. The fertile lands of the Central Plains are often referred to as the “Breadbasket of America”. Being natives of this region, we enjoy visiting sites that tell the stories of these fruitful laborers. Oskaloosa is home to the Nelson Pioneer Farm & Museum, which showcases life in rural Iowa and the occupations that were needed for survival. Over a dozen buildings have been assembled on the acreage that the Nelson family settled only a year after the land was opened. We dropped by to explore the spaces and learn more about how the family started a new life in the heartland.

We want to thank Mahaska Chamber and Nelson Pioneer Farm for their hospitality. Rest assured all opinions are our own. 

Our guide is all geared up in period dress for today's exploration at the Nelson Pioneer Farm & Museum.

Character Tour

The Nelson Pioneer farm is located on the northeast corner of Oskaloosa. Coming from Ohio, they were seeking lands that would offer fresh, unfarmed soil. Their original claim of 160 acres more than doubled with subsequent purchases. These days, the living history museum occupies some of the original lands that the family pioneered. We arrived at the end of a tour by a local school group, so we found we had the place all to ourselves.  Margaret, the museum curator, welcomed us for our guided tour. Being all garbed up in period costumes helped paint the picture of life in the heartland in the 1800s.

The Daniel Nelson House is a good place to start when learning about life in the heartland.

The Homestead

Our first stop was to the brick home that the Nelsons completed about 10 years after their arrival. For the first few years, they lived life in a log cabin, much like many pioneers would have done. By the time this structure was completed, the family had grown to seven people. This would surely have made space tight in a small cabin. A building of this size would have been no easy feat in the mid-1800s. The stones for the foundation were quarried nearby, but they would have to wait for winter’s frozen ground to drag them into place. To produce the bricks needed for the exterior, the family constructed a kiln. The plentiful trees provided an abundance of building material for the interior, as they cleared the land for crops.

Margaret was an excellent tour guide who explained the background history of many of the displays.

A True Time Capsule

On a previous excursion, we had learned about some of the unique ways municipalities taxed their residents. The idea of being charged by room, including closets seems a little far-fetched for us these days. While most would avoid this additional cost, the Nelson family embraced it as a way to show status. In this community, they were also taxed on the number of glass panes, but that didn’t stop the Nelsons from incorporating nearly 200 in their completed home. Throughout the period of the family’s stay in the home, they never added electricity or running water. The five-room home was heated using four fireplaces.

A summer kitchen would have helped the family avoid heating up the house during a hot summer day in Iowa.

Modern Conveniences?

Today we have all of the modern conveniences in our kitchens. In the 1800s it would have been a much different story. Where the fireplaces would have been used to heat the homes during cold spells, having a fire in the house during the summer would have been brutal. Like most 1800s homes, a summer kitchen was built to cook meals during the temperate months. Storing food during the warm months would have been easier with this version of a dumbwaiter. A series of trays would be loaded with perishables, which could be lowered into a dry well. This would keep the food at a stable temperature and well away from the blistering summer heat.

An old general store would have served as an impromptu meeting place for people shopping in town.

The General Store

Margaret led us to a section of the farmstead that holds a series of buildings. Most of these have been moved here from nearby communities. We like that they were able to salvage these historic structures, which would have otherwise fallen into disrepair. The Mott General Store had originally sat in lacey, Iowa. Like many of these types of establishments, payments could be made in various forms. While cash was always accepted, some of their clients would barter or trade for the things they needed from the store.

A salesman's wagon is bedecked with a logo sure to catch the eye.

Equipment Through the Ages

The other buildings teach visitors about other aspects of daily life in the heartland. We toured a schoolhouse, post office, scale house, blacksmith shop, lumber office, and even a voting house. As we collected information from our guide, it painted a picture of living in a farm community during the 1800s and early 1900s. Margaret led us past these historic buildings to a large warehouse. Inside we discovered a collection of farm equipment and vehicles that would have seen nearly daily usage in those days. When I spotted this wagon, I was immediately enamored with the witty saying painted on the outside. What a great advertisement tool for a traveling salesman.

A display points out some of the previous pandemics that have interrupted life in the heartland.

Timely Display

Our visits to historic sites like the Nelson Pioneer Farm are more than fun, they are educational. The stories we hear and the backgrounds we discover help us fill in the voids that we either never learned or had forgotten over the years. Oftentimes, we see displays that stand as a stark reminder that current events are simply reflections of things that our forefathers faced in the past. Seeing a display about the various inoculations that families faced in the past help put our current pandemic situation in perspective. After all, even without the amazing advancements in medical knowledge, they were able to combat polio, whooping cough, measles, and other debilitating diseases.

The authors enjoyed learning about life in the heartland at Nelson Pioneer Farm.

Life in the Heartland

The Nelson Pioneer farm is too large to encompass in a single article. There are so many stories that are hidden within the walls of the buildings that dot the landscape. Margaret did a great job of detailing some of these, in the limited time we had available. It is easy to imagine a family spending hours exploring this place. After all, I haven’t even mentioned the barn, log cabin, sawmill, windmill, or the mule cemetery. They also have a model home from the community of Buxton, Iowa, which sat within the coal mining region of central Iowa. To learn more about life in the heartland, we suggest a visit to the Nelson Pioneer Farm & Museum. Be sure to tell Margaret that we sent you!

the authors signatures.

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