In the midst of Kansas and Missouri lies a gleaming gemstone known as the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, or as it’s fondly known, the Kansas Ag Hall of Fame. On my venture to this destination I stumbled upon known sights such as the Kansas City Renaissance fairground and the Kansas Speedway. Yet nestled in the very overgrown land is this museum of a forgotten time. I double- and triple-checked my GPS to make sure the coordinates were right for where I was, but the gargantuan sign didn’t lie and I had indeed arrived. I felt a certain shame for having lived in Kansas my whole life, and not knowing that this amazing museum was out here waiting for me to discover.
Speaking with volunteers at the museum, I discovered that I wasn’t alone for not having known about this splendid trove of vintage farm relics and engines. If you are a Kansas or Missouri native reading this and are racking your brain wondering where the museum is, it’s 18 miles due west of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, in Bonner Springs, Kansas.
While researching the museum online, a particular passage on the museum website struck me: “Agriculture touches the lives of every living person. The food we eat, the clothes we wear, the way of life that developed the values, economy, and culture of our nation all find root in agriculture. Yet, today, few people understand or appreciate agriculture as the dynamic and pervasive force that has shaped our nation’s past and that will shape the world’s future.” It’s a notion we take for granted in today’s world of instant gratification, not knowing how much hard work went into harvesting food or materials for clothing and other goods in the early days of our country.
At the museum entrance you are greeted with state flags of the U.S., symbolizing the diversity of our nation. Inside the first building, which houses many farm remnants and stands as the welcome center for all who enter, I promptly made a beeline for the vintage gas engines I had inquired about before my visit. Never having actually seen one in person, I wanted to see if they lived up to the picture in my head, so I made my way to the building known as the Museum of Farming.
One thing I remember being told was that the old farm engines could be bigger than some modern-day cars and weigh twice as much. I met with Ray Morgan, who has been the building and grounds coordinator for the museum for five years, and before he came to the museum he was a mechanic for 40 years. He took me over to the sections of gas engines that the museum houses.
Looking over the museum’s fire engine red, 20 hp 1912 International Harvester Victor, Ray explained to me how the engines came to the museum as donations, owing to the museum’s small budget. Fortunately, there are people kind enough to part with their engines so that everyone can get a glimpse into the workings of the power of the past.
The Victor was larger than the average farm engine in its day, with most farm engines being in the 2 to 14 hp range instead of the 20 hp that this powerhouse engine packed. It also weighs in at roughly 6,400 pounds. My car weighs about 3,300 pounds, so I was essentially looking at two cars’ worth of weight in an engine that had provided great versatility for the early farming family, producing enough power to operate hay presses, corn shellers, feed grinders, cream separators, water pumps and washing machines.
The owner of this engine is unknown, which is quite intriguing because with it being over 100 years old it has likely changed hands a few times. According to C.H. Wendel, author of American Gasoline Engines Since 1872, the Victor and Famous IHC engines were essentially interchangeable, excluding the remote fuel tank that the Victors had for conformance and fire regulations. International Harvester claimed the engine needed one gallon of gasoline per horsepower to run for 10 hours.
Dwarfed in size sitting next to the Victor was an International Harvester Mogul 8/16, rated at 8 hp at the drawbar and 16 hp at the belt. A popular early tractor, they were manufactured from 1914 to 1917, with 14,065 of this model built. This particular Mogul weighed 5,500 pounds and sold for $775 in 1917, the year this tractor was made. Fuel was distillate, kerosene or gasoline. The old Mogul had the black-green patina of a tractor that had seen much travel and wear and tear from many years of use.
Following the horse-drawn era, steam and then gas engine tractors made farmers’ lives much easier, one chuff at a time. This relatively small tractor, one of the first of its kind, was great for performing various tasks like orchard work, grading roads, and powering threshers, hay balers and silo fillers.
After learning a bit about the larger engines in the museum I went down the line in the airy building to the smaller portable engines, which were more what I had anticipated I would see, size-wise. The first one I encountered was a spectacular red Ottawa Manufacturing engine made in Ottawa, Kansas, just 47 miles south of the museum’s location. There wasn’t much information available on this engine except for a well-worn and yellowing card stating, “This engine was made in Ottawa, Kansas, about 1915. It spent its life on a farm and in the oil field at Chanute, Kansas. Restored and donated by: Cornie C. Miller Leawood, Kansas 1988.” It used a Webster Tri-Polar Oscillator magneto which was manufactured by the Webster Electric Co. in Racine, Wisconsin.
The next engine I nearly missed, as it was so miniscule in comparison with the others that I had been poking around for the first half of my adventure. It was a forest green twin-cylinder Model 72 Maytag engine, built to power washing machines and other devices such as generators. The plaque on the engine’s wooden base shows that the engine was restored by the same Cornie Miller who donated the Ottawa. This comes as no surprise when you remember that the engines are all donated to the museum, which operates on donations only, sans governmental support. C.H. Wendel notes in his book that most Model 72s featured an Eisemann ignition and that production, which started in 1937, ended in 1952. Maytag Company still operates today as one of Iowa’s major industries and their products are sold worldwide.
The last engine I viewed on my trek through the building was an upright powder blue Baker Monitor stationary engine of an unspecified year and horsepower. The tag attached to it read that it was donated by August Witte of Norborne, Missouri. This particular engine was similar to one that Peter Rooke restored in his four-part series. This engine still has the presumably original metal battery box, compared to the wood box that Peter built himself for his restored engine.
Baker Manufacturing Co. was founded in 1872 in Evansville, Wisconsin, under the name A. S. Baker Co. The well-known “Monitor” trademark was adopted in 1876, when the company officially incorporated. Wendel notes that “Monitor engines were first built in about 1905. In the following years an extensive line was offered, ranging in size from a 1-1/4 Monitor pump engine to a 15 horsepower horizontal style.” The museum’s engine is likely a 1-1/4 hp model.
Marveling over this spectacular variety of engines both big and small gives the visitor new insight into just how diverse the old iron community really is. Certainly this rings true with quite a few hobbies, but by saving a piece of history for generations to come the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame is a prime example of the places you can visit to give a glimpse of days past, keeping history alive. My advice? Get off the beaten path and discover a hidden jewel of America’s history for yourself.
The National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame is located at 630 N. 126th Street, Bonner Springs, KS 66012. Phone: 913-721-1075