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Ag museum notes 5th anniversary

By Staff | Jun 22, 2012

-Farm News photos by Larry Kershner The entrance to the Heartland Acres Agribition Center in Independence is expected to see its 200,000th visitor walk through its doors later this year. The center celebrated its fifth anniversary in May.

INDEPENDENCE (AP) – It isn’t easy to use the huge map of North America in the entrance of Heartland Acres Agribition Center to plot a course from Independence to Des Moines, or anywhere else, for that matter.

There are too many pins with white heads in the way. Thousands are stuck into the makeshift pin cushion, marking the hometowns of visitors to the center for the past five years.

Pins protrude from every state, and many areas of Canada and Mexico. If there were a worldwide map, dozens of other countries would be pricked, too.

“That’s your telling story,” said Craig Johnson, the center’s executive director, pointing at the map. “Iowa is about agriculture and Heartland Acres is about agritourism. Look at the number of visitors and from where … we’re exactly where we need to be.”

The ag museum and convention center celebrated its fifth anniversary in May with an open house for people who donated artifacts, money or both.

Sitting outside by the main entrance is this 1930 Hart Parr 28-50 steam tractor, with canopy. In the background is a Reuhl Massey-Harris Model 50 pull-type combine.

Later this summer, the center is expected to mark another milestone – its 200,000th visitor. As of last month, Johnson said about 187,000 people had explored the cavernous two-story ag museum resembling a 1800s barn or used the banquet and convention facilities.

Filling a need

Heartland Acres was built to provide an economic boost for Buchanan County and a much-needed meeting place.

City officials say the tourism dollars generated by the $7 million project, ancillary businesses the center spawned – a theater, hotel and restaurant, which is closed – and the excitement the center created was well worth years of planning and fundraising that preceded construction.

Mayor Carl Scharff said people often associate the city with Heartland Acres during out-of-town business trips. Independence is becoming a go-to destination because of the center, he said, and downtown businesses are cashing in on the tourist trade.

“I think it’s lived up to what we expected, but there’s more potential … a lot more,” Scharff said. “It brings in people to the town so everyone gets a piece of the pie.”

Heartland Acres is filled with agricultural artifacts dating back to the early 1800s, including antique machinery, hands-on exhibits like milking a cow and grinding corn and one of the best vintage car collections in the country. Game-changing pieces of agricultural equipment are on display, like a perfectly-restored Waterloo Boy tractor that revolutionized the industry, and Big Bud, the world’s largest and most powerful tractor that can pull a 80-foot cultivator and work up 800 acres in a day.

Early life in Iowa is featured, as well, like a mock-up of a typical farmhouse kitchen in the early- to mid-1900s.

An old cast-iron stove in the kitchen display sparked a memory for Gov. Terry Branstad, who visited during the fifth anniversary open house for a quick tour with Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.

“My grandmother had one of those,” the governor, who grew up on a farm near Leland, said. “She used corn cobs to heat it. Sometimes I would accidently kick the cob bucket over.”

That’s the point of the museum, Johnson said. It’s meant to preserve history, stir up memories and create new ones as one generation passes along their heritage to the next.

The goal is to show the progress farmers have made throughout the decades and what it will take to feed the world in years to come.

Johnson said it’s not easy to do that and get people to visit multiple times.

“That’s a challenge,” he said.

Hitting its stride

The center has made great strides becoming financially secure, Johnson said, learning along the way.

Over the years, Heartland Acres has developed relationships with other museums and historical associations, like the Grout Museum District in Waterloo, to trade artifacts and displays to keep things fresh. Hundreds of school children flock to the center each year to learn about ag history and see farm animals.

Johnson said he works with tour bus companies to attract patrons and is developing innovative ways to get people to stop in as they pass by on U.S. Highway 20.

The first couple of years were tough, Johnson said. Gate and civic center receipts weren’t enough to pay the bills; donations kept the venture going.

More than 30,000 people paid to get into the museum in 2010 and last year. The facility, with an operating budget of about $250,000, is now financially self-sufficient.

The arrival of Big Bud in 2010 and recent efforts to increase patronage played a big part in the financial turn-around, Johnson said.

“We’re exactly where we need to be,” Johnson said. “The struggles make us better.”

A showplace

Heartland Acres’ reputation as an ag showplace is on the rise.

Earl Jansen of Cuba City, Wis., first heard about the museum two years ago. He and his wife, Doris, didn’t hesitate to visit.

Jansen was so impressed, the veteran farmer and machinery collector donated a early 1950s Massey-Harris self-propelled two-row corn picker now on display.

As an exhibitor, he didn’t want to miss Monday’s festivities.

“We’ll travel the country stopping at ag museums, but you’ll never see a better one (than here),” Jansen said.

Jim Blin, a local businessman and one of the biggest contributors to the center, gave the Jansens a private tour Monday of his 18 antique cars on loan to the museum.

Many are extremely rare and all are immaculately restored. Crown jewels include a 1930 Studebaker Roadster, one of 17 in existence, and a 1929 Packard 645 Deluxe.

The collection is worth well over $1 million, Blin said. But the real value, he added, is knowing people enjoy them as much as he does.

Blin said he’s witnessed people with dementia see a car they’re familiar with, and it will trigger a memory.

“Rewards like that are really priceless,” he said.

Blin was instrumental in the planning and development of Heartland Acres. He and his wife, Judy, donated the 16 acres for the project and gave significant financial contributions, an exact number wasn’t provided, through the years.

The future for the facility is bright, Johnson said. Plans are in the works to build a two new machine sheds to display more equipment. Sometimes, he needs to turn away good pieces because space is tight.

“It’s a great opportunity to showcase agriculture in the Midwest and Iowa. There’s so much do and see here,” Branstad said. “It’s a great tourist attraction and my feeling is it will continue to grow in popularity.”

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