Winter Warming

Winter can be an unpredictable season in Iowa. From blue skies to blizzards and everything in between, it can be tough to know just what to wear some days to keep warm.  People can easily change their clothes, though, to match the weather.


The farm animals at the museum can’t put on a winter jacket and a stocking hat when it’s especially cold or a light sweater when it’s mild, and they certainly can’t come inside the house when it’s just too cold. So, what do they do instead to deal with Iowa’s unpredictable winter weather?


The horses and cows grow long, thick, shaggy winter hair when it starts to cool down in the fall. This hair growth doesn’t actually have anything to do with temperature, though.  It has to do with how many hours of sunlight there are each day, known as a photoperiod.  As the photoperiod shortens, the horses and cows start growing their hair to get ready for cooler temperatures.


Horses and cows use this thick winter fur to trap a layer of air against their skin, which is slowly warmed by their body heat. The hair also scatters light, which may help insulate the animals. As long as they have shelter from north winds, they are comfortable outside, and they enjoy sunning themselves whenever possible.

We cut the wool off our sheep (a process called shearing) at the start of each summer. They spend the whole summer and fall growing new wool, instead of waiting for days to get shorter like the horses and cows. By the time they need it in the winter, they have their thick wool coats back to keep them warm until spring.

All of the animals also have to use more energy to keep warm, just like how shivering takes more work than standing still. They all have to eat more food to make up for the extra energy they spend staying warm.

Since the pigs don’t have a thick outer layer of fur, wool, or feathers like the other animals, they have to create a thick inner layer of fat to help insulate their bodies. To create this layer of fat, they have to eat even more food than the other animals.


The pigs also enjoy being given a few extra whole bales of straw, which they rip up and rearrange to create their own nests inside the hog house. They cuddle up tight against each other in these nests to share body heat. Pigs also enjoy sunning themselves, even on cold sunny days.


Over the River, and Through the Wood

It is Thanksgiving week in the United States. Many people love this holiday because they can spend time with their family and share favorite foods. It is also a time to think of all the things for which we are grateful. Which holidays are your favorite? Do you spend time with friends or family at Thanksgiving? What is your favorite food to eat?

In 1844, Lydia Maria Child wrote a poem for a children’s magazine called Flowers for Children. Lydia Maria Child was one of America’s first well-known women writers. She was a famous for writing cook books and house help books. She also wrote articles and books about why America should not have slavery. Her poem was called, “A New England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day.” Lydia wrote the poem about the things she remembered when visiting her grandparents as a little girl.

wagon ride

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh
through the white and drifted snow.

snowy woods

Over the river, and through the wood,
to Grandfather’s house away!
We would not stop for doll or top,
for ’tis Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood—
oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes and bites the nose
as over the ground we go.

snowy barnyard

Over the river, and through the wood—
and straight through the barnyard gate,
We seem to go extremely slow,
it is so hard to wait!

ox in snow

Over the river, and through the wood,
to have a first-rate play.
Hear the bells ring, “Ting-a-ling-ding!”,
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!

Over the river, and through the wood—
When Grandmother sees us come,
She will say, “O, dear, the children are here,
bring a pie for everyone.”


Over the river, and through the wood—
now Grandmother’s cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin pie!

Lydia’s poem has stayed popular for over one hundred and seventy years. Through the year’s people have changed some of the words and even made a song out of the poem. Some people sing it as, “to Grandmother’s house we go,” instead of Grandfather’s house. Either way, it’s a fun poem to make us think about our own favorite things about Thanksgiving Day.

We hope everyone in your family has a wonderful Thanksgiving this year!

What’s for lunch? Squash!

pumpkinsHave you ever been to a pumpkin patch? Do you visit one in October to grab a jack-o-lantern pumpkin? Maybe someone in your family has a great recipe for homemade pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving? Visiting a pumpkin patch has become a special trip for us now. But in the past, Iowa farmers grew lots and lots of pumpkins in their fields. Iowa’s first farmers, the Ioway Indians, grew pumpkins as one of their three most important crops. Pumpkins and squash were easy to grow and they could grow to large sizes.

Lots of kids today have never tried pumpkins as a food. Many people have never tried squash at all! Pumpkins can be very tasty when cooked just right – even the seeds can make a great snack! In the 1700s, Ioway kids would have pumpkin or squash on their plates (actually, in their bowls) almost every day. And the kids would have to help grow the pumpkins their family ate.Ioway Garden

If you could see the Ioway’s fields, you would see tall stalks of corn with skinny vines wrapped around them. These vines had beans growing on them, climbing up the corn to get some sunlight. All around the ground, colorful pumpkins and squash grew, hiding under their big fat leaves.

Moms were the farmers of the family. But Mom had lots of help from aunts, grandmothers, and especially kids! After the older women had prepared and planted the gardens in the spring, the kids would help to take care of the plants and make sure that the crops were safe from weeds and animals. Of all the crops, pumpkins and squash really came in handy for the kids, because they helped keep animals away and kept the soil from drying out.  plants

Since pumpkins have big leaves, they kept the soil shady. This kept the soil from drying out as quickly. That meant the kids didn’t have to water the plants all the time! Squash vines are also very prickly. Have you felt one of the vines at a pumpkin patch? This helps to keep out small animals that might want to eat the corn and the beans. Can you imagine working very hard every day to have good food to eat, and then waking up to find out animals have snuck in to eat your crops? The pumpkins and squash help to make sure that doesn’t happen.pumpkins

When summer was over, Ioway kids would see that their squash had grown up into all sorts of different shapes, sizes, and colors.

Some of the squash would be cooked and eaten soon after it came off the vine. But most of it would be saved for eating in the wintertime, when no crops could grow.


The Ioway cut their squash and pumpkins into rings. The rings were hung on big drying racks. The sun and the winds dried the rings out, taking away moisture. The rings became dry, thin, and crispy. Families stored them in a cache pit – like an underground pantry – near the family’s home. When the family wanted to eat their dried squash during the winter, they would put it into soups and stews! cooking

Mom would put the dried squash rings into some boiling water, along with dried corn, dried beans, and whatever meat had been gathered by the father. The Ioway family might have soup and stew all winter, until they could start growing some fresh food again. If you wanted to live like the Ioway, you’d need to like soups and stews! Those were the main dishes that the Ioway had to eat in the wintertime. And hopefully, you’d like pumpkins and squash too, because those were some of the main ingredients in their stews.


The Ioway had to grow all of their own food for hundreds of years. Today some families still grow food in gardens, but we also have grocery stores to help out. And we can buy pumpkin and squash whole or in cans. Next time you go to the store, see if you can find any squash – it is still very tasty after all these years!


Parents and caregivers: The Ioway ate pumpkin and squash in stews, but there are many ways to introduce squash to kids. You can find kid-friendly recipes for squash here!

For the Birds!

pump waterPeople visit Living History Farms to talk with our museum guides, see the historic buildings and farm animals, and to help with our hands-on activities. Maybe you have come out to help churn butter or pump water or milk a cow? What is your favorite job to help with at the farm?

autumn at Living History FarmsMany people also come to the museum just to be outside! Fall in Iowa is a great time to be outside. The air is cooler. The leaves start to turn colors and crunch under your feet. Our museum has a trail to walk on between our farms. Along this trail, you can see prairie grass, wildflowers and trees, a creek and a pond. There are benches along the trail and it’s a great place to sit and hang out outside! And it is a great place to watch for wild birds and animals.

Do you like to watch wild birds? Scientists who study birds are called ornithologists. People who like to watch birds are sometimes called “birders.” Birders like to see how many different kinds of birds they see when they go out. They even keep lists of the birds, where they see them and what the birds were doing.

Living History Farms trailThe next time you come to the Farms, walk slow along the trail and look for birds. You can even keep your own list by drawing pictures of the birds you see or writing down what they were doing. Even if you don’t know what species (that’s the name of that type of bird), there are lots of things to notice about them. What colors are the birds? What sound are they making? Where are they—on the ground, in a tree, on swimming in the pond? Were they eating something? If you want, you can bring a pair of binoculars to see the birds better, but just looking hard with your eyes will show you a lot!

Here are some of the birds you might see on a visit to Living History Farms! As you walk along our trails, keep your eyes open and look carefully through the trees and along the ground. You might see very colorful birds in the trees. Bright reds, blues, yellows and oranges are easy to spot.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Maybe you will see birds like the Eastern Bluebird, or the Goldfinch. These are both small birds that love to sing. The Goldfinches like the seeds of many of the flowers which grow in our prairie grass area.


You might also see a Blue Jay or a Cardinal. These birds are a little bigger but still have bright colors. The Cardinals also like to sing!



If you are very lucky, you might even see an Oriole. We don’t see these birds very often, but are always excited when we do!  oriole

Now, if you want a challenge, look for the birds that have just little bits of bright colors, or that are brown and black and white. Some of our favorites are the gray catbirds.


You might hear the catbird before you see him. He calls to other birds with a scratchy mewing sound.

Crawling along the trees, sometimes even upside down, you might see a nuthatch.


In spring and fall, the male nuthatches chatter at each other so listen when you see them!

The woods at Living History Farms are also filled with wood-peckers.

red bellied woodpecker

Red bellied Woodpecker

There are the smaller Downy Woodpeckers, but we also have Red-bellied Woodpeckers too. You can usually hear these birds too—by the hammering sound they make on trees!


In the more open areas along the trail, you might see birds that like to soar or fly in the breeze. Look up and you might see a turkey vulture. Vultures eat dead animals and like to fly high in the sky on warm winds called thermals.


You will see them fly in slow circles. Sometimes you may also see hawks at the farm. We see both Red tailed Hawks and Cooper’s Hawks. The farmers keep an eye out for these birds in the spring—they will chase our young chickens.

red tailed hawk coopers-hawk-128

On a cool morning visit, you might see pheasants or wild turkeys. These birds are shy and you will probably only see them in the distance–like this turkey we were able to photograph here last fall! wild turkey at LHF

In the mornings, you may even see a heron on our farm pond! And especially in the fall, you can see all sorts of ducks and Canadian Geese on the farm pond near the exhibit center.

What is your favorite bird? Do you like small birds that sing or bigger birds that honk? Start your own bird list for the birds you see at home and at the park, and hopefully on a visit to Living History Farms!

Caregivers: Birding is a great way to get your kids outside! Start with the birds in your back yard and the birds along our museum trail. Don’t worry about knowing the name of every bird you see. Focus on just noticing what birds are doing. What sounds are they making? What colors and sizes do the kids see? Birding can be simple—a walk along the trail using just your eyes to look for things. Or you can bring a notebook and pencils to draw/write down what you see and a pair of kids’ or adult binoculars to look for birds. If your kids are bringing new binoculars to watch birds, make sure they practice using them a bit so they aren’t frustrated with the tools during their tour. Also, let them explore whatever they notice during their birding walk—even if the ground squirrels seem to be more interesting than the birds. Teaching kids to love the outdoors keeps them active and involved in the world around them! Remember these birds are wild, so children should not try to catch, feed, or chase them.

Fun at the Fair!

The Iowa State Fair started last week and people around town have been talking about when they are going to go to the fair and what things they like to see. The very first Iowa State Fair was held in a little town called Fairfield, all the way back in 1854. This year, 161 years after that first fair, over one million people will come to Des Moines to celebrate an event that is very well-known, not just in Iowa, but around the United States. People from around the world come to Iowa to visit our fair, and everyone has something they like to do there.

grandstand state fair

The Grandstand at the Iowa State Fair. (Iowa State Fair Photo)

Some people like to go to concerts and see the shows at the fair. There are talent shows and radio shows and big stars that play at the grandstand. There are pageants and art demonstrations, and animal shows, when 4-H students show their chickens and sheep and cows.

But that is the modern fair, and not how it was when it started. The people who started the fair way back in the 19th century wanted to have a place where people could learn about Agriculture – that is farming – and help consumers – those are people who buy food – to learn about where their food comes from.

Iowa state fair

Young cattle exhibitor. (Iowa State Fair Photo)

There were some of the same contests when it started. Farmers were judged on their crops and livestock they brought to show at the fair. In 2015, farmers still bring sheep, pigs, cows, chickens, and even rabbits and goats to be judged. It gives them a chance to show off their products.

Pioneer Hall

Pioneer Hall. (Iowa State Fair Photo)

In 1886, the Iowa State Fair moved to Des Moines, to the place where everyone comes to visit today. Many of the older buildings that you walk past are from this time. If you want to see what kids who went to the fair around the turn of the century saw, take a walk through Pioneer Hall, it sits on top of the hill by the Sky Glider. The Livestock Pavilion, where they hold a lot of the animal shows, was built in 1902, but improved with air conditioning in 2011. It is a nice place to take a break during a hot day.

The rides at the Midway weren’t always at the fair. Early on, there wasn’t as much fun stuff to do. Ye Old Mill, which is the oldest ride at the fair, wasn’t complete until 1924! Still, there were fun things to see and do, and good foods to eat.

State fair

Caramel Apple on a stick. (Iowa State Fair Photo)

Do you have a favorite food at the fair? It might be fried, or on a stick. Sweet or savory, everyone usually has something that they really like to eat. The corn dog is a 20th century invention. It is delicious, sure, but people who went to the first fairs, or even the 21st fair were not eating corn dogs. They were more likely to eat fried chicken! There was no bucket of chocolate chip cookies, either. Families may have brought their own food to the first fairs, and picnicked with the pigs!

Iowa state fair

So enjoy the fair, if you get to go this year. Good luck if you are showing anything in the competitions. Come see the Living History Farms booth, just down from the butter cow in the Agriculture Building. And if you can’t make it this year, don’t worry. The fair will be around next August as well!state fair


twin lambs and other sheepHey, remember these little guys? Back in April, we talked about all the lambs born at Living History Farms this spring. You should see them now! They have grown a lot and all the sheep are a lot less shaggy. In May, all of our sheep got their hair cut. Sheep have special hair called wool. During the winter, the sheep’s wool grows very thick to keep the sheep warm. The sheep’s wool is also full of greasy oil called lanolin. It helps the wool shed water and keeps the sheep dry.

winter sheep

In the spring, farmers cut the wool off of the sheep to keep them cool in the summer. Cutting the wool off is called shearing. A shearer, the person doing the cutting, can sometimes get the wool off the sheep in one whole piece. That piece of wool is called a fleece.

In the 1850s, the wool was cut off with a sharp scissor-like tool called shears. Later, mechanical clippers—a lot like the ones you might see at a hairdresser now—were used to get the fleece off. These clippers did not run on electricity. Instead, someone had to crank a wheel to make the clippers move. Shearing was a two person job!

clippersThis photo is of a famous pair of clippers given to a champion sheep shearer in 1892 in Australia (photo: Southeby’s Australia.)

The video below shows Sheep Shearer Ray shearing the fleece off of a Living History Farms ewe. See his helper? Turning that crank can be a tiring job! Ray thought the whole fleece might weigh 6 or 7 pounds. This was a small ewe. It is pretty common to get 8 or 10 pounds of wool from a large ewe.

A long time ago, Pioneer farmers might sell the fleece to a woolen mill. The woolen mill factory would make thread and weave clothing from the wool. In 1850, farmers could sell one pound of wool for 50 cents. How much money would 6 lbs. of wool make for the farmer? A Pioneer farmer might also keep part of the fleece and spin the wool fibers into yarn to make hats and socks and mittens.

pioneer with woolen mittens and hat

Winter Wonderlands

machine shedIt’s February in Iowa. We still have snow on the ground. It’s been very cold here this week, too. Do you like snow and cold? Lots of kids love to play in the snow or go sledding. Many parents hate to shovel snow and don’t like driving on snowy roads. At the museum, cold weather makes us wonder about what it might be like to have been in an Ioway lodge during a snowstorm or in a log house on the prairie. What would it be like to do farm chores on a snowy day in 1900 or walk to school through the snow in 1875?

cattail lodgeIn the year 1700, the Ioway people made their winter houses by sewing together the long green leaves of cattail plants. In the winter, the cattail leaves would swell up and stick together. The leaves would shed water and keep out the cold air.  Buffalo skins with all the fur were used as blankets to keep warm. It may not sound very warm, but a cattail lodge kept the Ioway much warmer than pioneers would have been living in a log house around the year 1850.

Pioneer hearthMost log houses were heated by an open fireplace. The heat from the fire escapes up the chimney. A pioneer family was happy if they could warm their log house up to 45 or 50 degrees in the winter! It would take a lot of wood to keep the fire going in a hearth to cook and keep warm all winter.

706119-R1-051-24_026 (2)   Tangen

By the 1870s and in 1900, most houses were heated by wood or coal-burning stoves. The stoves gave off a lot of heat into the room, but there might still have been a cold draft around the outside of the room, next to the walls. Our houses in 2015 have thick foam or fluffy fiberglass in between the walls to keep the wind out. In the 1800s, most houses did not have any insulation to keep out the wind. Here at the museum, the snow this month has made everything very sloppy.

1900During the last snow storm at the 1900 era Farm, we were grateful for the big pine trees on the west side of the house. The trees kept the snow from drifting in too deep. You can see the line of pine trees in the snow in this photograph taken out of the pantry window.out the pantry window

The snow made it harder to carry water and food to our animals. The cows didn’t seem to mind the snow much though!


The orchard and the windmill were pretty in the snow and ice.

windmill  trees

Many people in the 1870s and 1900s looked forward to snow. Kids and adults loved to go sleigh riding and sledding in the winter. It was a fun way to meet your friends and a fast way to travel. Sleighs pulled by horses could skim over the snow much easier than pulling a wagon along muddy roads. Sleds in 1900

Farm kids might make their own sleds in the year 1900, or they could buy them from a mail-order catalog. The Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog had simple sleds to sell for 50 cents! A really lucky kid might be able to buy a fancy sled for $2.00.

The big hill in the town of Walnut Hill would make for some great sledding! town

Can you imagine walking to school in snow like this? Farm kids in the 1800s might walk a mile or more to their one-room school houses–even on a snowy day! school house

Going shopping in a little town could be a snowy adventure in 1875! Storekeepers would have to shovel their doorways and walks by hand. No snow-blowing machines back then! The shops in Walnut Hill were covered in snow last week. It’s a good thing the General Store would sell fur mittens and strong shovels! We hope you are enjoying the snow this month! We’re looking forward to spring . . .

General Store  Drug Store  Millinery