Harvesting History in Wessels

One Man’s Wish Breathes Life Into Historical Agriculture

(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

THE DIFFERENCE between a privy and an outhouse is the roof,” said Dale Clark, whose tiny tidbit of pitched potty trivia essentially proves that you really can learn something new every day. As director of Wessels Living History Farm, it’s Clark’s job to be privy to the ins and outs of outhouses and such, and to teach us all a little something about our own past.

But Clark does have a problem with history, or at least historical documents – well, one anyway. “My birth certificate is 70 years old, but I’m really much younger than that,” said Clark with a serious laugh. And it would seem so. Even though he’s dressed in 1920s-era clothing, including suspenders, a straw hat and those funny, old-time round spectacles, Clark is tech-savvy. He’s got a cell
phone sandwiched between his left ear and shoulder, and a Blackberry in hand while checking his schedule and asking the caller to visit the website. His grasp of technology spans a century and then some, from the days of horse-drawn machinery to the devices of today’s youth and our collective digital overload.

When we pointed out the technological extremes Clark boldly replied, “That’s exactly why this farm is so important. One must have some understanding of the past in order to appreciate the present and prepare for the future.”

That was what long-time York-area farmer David Wessels believed. His parents, Dick and Marie, brought six children into their rural world. When they retired in 1946, the Wessels boys continued farming. As agricultural techniques and equipment modernized over many decades, David’s well-kept machinery became a world-class collection of farm history.

When he died in 1993, Wessels left his $2.5 million estate of land, equipment and cash to the York Community Foundation, specifying that the sale of assets be used to create a living history farm on his 160 acres just south of the Interstate 80 interchange at York.

Local citizens formed a committee to make Wessels’ wishes a reality, and in 2005 the Wessels Living History Farm opened to the public with the primary mission of preserving the history and telling the story of Midwest agriculture and farm life, with an emphasis on 1920s Nebraska.     

Near the base of a wide windmill tower, the steady hum of a hand-drawn saw pushing and pulling through dry cottonwood resonates soothingly through the farmyard. The windmill is a gold-plated, 14-foot Dempster “gold wheel” that was erected at the Lubbock, Texas, branch of the Beatrice, Neb.,-based company for Dempster’s 100th anniversary. The lumberjack is 11-year-old volunteer Bryce Allen of nearby Bradshaw.

The windmill blew in when the Texas factory closed in 2004, and Allen began doing chores at Wessels after taking a class from Clark three years ago, and he’s been volunteering ever since. While the golden wheel in the sky supplies the creamery with cool water drawn from the Ogallala Aquifer 140 feet below York County, Allen prepares for next winter with the antique saw and lets visitors do the same, especially on warm summer afternoons that make us think of anything other than wood-burning stoves and firewood.

On the shaded wraparound porch of the farm house, Bryce’s mother, Toni Allen, serves fresh from the oven, still-warm cornmeal cookies in the slight breeze (see our Nebraska Kitchens section in this issue). After noticing how her son was always so eager to go back to the farm, one day, instead of just dropping Bryce off for volunteer dut,y Toni took a tour. That’s when Clark convinced her that she could play a special role at the farm, too.

Now the substitute teacher and farm wife, who grew up on a farm near Papillion, uses pioneer-era recipes to bake tasty treats for visitors in the two-story home’s restored 1920s kitchen. That any part of the original structure remains is a miracle.

“It was in sad shape,” said Clark of the beautifully restored Victorian home. York College used it as a warehouse and when they were unable to sell it, allowed the local fire department to use it for training. “After several burns, the Fire Department was going to burn the entire structure,” Clark said. “At that point, the York Community Foundation was planning for the future of the Wessels Living History Farm and decided to save the house.”

The home, which was originally built in York in 1917 and which David Wessels did live in for a time, was moved to its current foundation in 2002 in a daylong move through town and country and over I-80.

“It would be hard to go back to this,” said Bub Robbins, as he and 50 fellow members of a Kansas Farm Bureau tour stood in the shade and watched 12-yearold Sarah Anderson and her 14-year-old sister, Hannah, doing laundry in a pair of washtubs. Several older ladies nodded their heads in knowing agreement as the girls scrubbed their sudsy knuckles raw on the rough washboard, and wrung fabric through the tight wringers. Robbins, who farms near Ottawa, Kan., was happy to visit the lush land around York, which made him forget about the dry conditions back home, if only for a few hours.

Across the yard, and past the old thresher, a horse and several goats sits a modern steel building. Inside the door, Rich Hankel shoots the breeze with a group of women, who are fanning themselves with brochures. Elsewhere in the building, the source of the hot air – their old farmer husbands, rather than debate the superiority of green, yellow, red, orange or blue tractors, have simply resigned themselves to acknowledge the merits of each species of classic farm iron. 

Only a small portion of David Wessels’ tractor and engine collection is displayed here. According to Hankel, much more of Wessels’ equipment is in storage, awaiting a much hoped for 40-foot-by-80-foot addition. In addition to volunteering, Hankel has been on the Wessels Farm board since its inception in 1995. Future plans are to one day actually plant and harvest with the old-time equipment. “Dave would have wanted that,” Hankel says.

A constant string of visitors flows through the tractor museum, but it’s the old ones who stop, look underneath the steering wheel, or gander closely at a logo or a gearshift knob to check for authenticity. Their smiles indicate the quality of Wessels’ restorations and visitors constantly relate their own farming history to Hankel. “We’re lucky to have these people come through here and share their stories,” Hankel said. “But we are losing that generation every day.”

The Wessels Living History Farm website has had more than 8 million views since it went up in 2003 and it fits well into Wessels’ educational mission. People from all over the world visit www.livinghistoryfarm.org. But some people thought Dave, who died before the advent of the Internet and appreciated the old ways, wouldn’t have embraced this new technology.

“While he may have not had a PC on his desk when he died,” said Hankel, “he was an innovator, and he wanted to educate. So who knows? I think he would like what we’ve done considering that his educational message has now gone out around the world.”

A life-size painting of of David Wessels clad in overalls and a seed-corn cap rests against one wall near his equipment. “For now,” says Hankel, “Dave is here, standing in the doorway, watching over his tractors.”

Wessels Living History Farm hosts barn dances, holiday celebrations, educational workshops and other special events throughout the year and is available for weddings, reunions and other activities. The farm is located 1 mile south of I-80 exit 353 at 5520 South Lincoln Ave. (402) 710 - 0682. www.livinghistoryfarm.org.

(This story first appeared in the July/August 2012 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)

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