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  News 05/16/03
From 'forgotten farm' to living history lesson, American West Heritage Center's come a long way

By Jacob Moon


WELLSVILLE -- It is growing by leaps and bounds, but it hasn't strayed from its focus.

The American West Heritage Center, located off of U.S Highway 89-91 at the foot of the Wellsville mountain range, was a once-forgotten educational farm in Cache Valley, said Jim Bailey, the center's director of development. But, the plans for expansion in the next few years include taking in more acreage and broadening its reach as a teaching tool.

"The center is dynamic," Bailey said. "It's moving, it's evolving and it is doing it all on a national scope."

At the center, visitors are transported back to the 19th century. Children are regularly seen leading goats around the farm, and the smell of fresh-baked cookies is often coming from the farmhouse. The Welcome Center houses exhibits that teach the basics of early-American life, and the surrounding area lets visitors take part in a typical family farm.

Ed Payne, marketing coordinator for the center, said many children come from bigger cities and have never seen a farm before.

"We had some kids the other day who said, 'This is a brown cow? What color milk do they have? Brown?' Some kids don't know anything about farms because they have never been around them," he said. The center's goal is to help dispel this lack of knowledge.

Since its formation in 1998, the center has continued to grow, but with the recent launch of The Dream Catcher program, plans have been made to make it a major attraction for visitors and Cache Valley residents alike.

According to information provided by the center, the design phase of the plan is complete and includes construction of a 60,000-square-foot Cultural and Interpretive Center which will highlight the culture of the original holders of the valley, the northwest band of the Shoshone nation.

"[The Shoshone band] was never given a reservation like other groups of Native Americans," Bailey said. "The center will give them a place to preserve their language and culture, a place where they can tell their story from their point of view."

The master plan also calls for more immediate expansion of current venues, including the formation of a Native American village, a mountain-man venue and pioneer venue that will educate visitors about the daily lives of western pioneers from 1845 to 1870.

Payne said even with all of the expansion, the center plans on maintaining its original scope of educating the public through hands-on history. Visitors will continue to take part in activities like milking a cow or going on a wagon ride.

"The mission statement states the goals [of the center]are to educate, entertain and enlighten," he said.

Bailey said, "We are continuing the original plan by conserving the agriculture and culture in Cache Valley. We are doing this by maintaining 10 acres in farm land by using only horse power."

The current center is a combination of two previous Utah State University programs, Bailey said. The first was the Ronald V. Jensen Living Historical Farm, which included the Man and His Bread Museum. The second facet was the American West Heritage Festival held each year on the university campus.

In 1994, USU decided to put the farm under the control of the same people who ran the festival. Both of the programs were struggling. The festival had a hard time because its goal of providing summer employment for students was suffering; the festival had become such a large event that many professional companies had gotten involved and were pushing the students out of their positions.

The historic farm was having trouble, too. At the time of its organization it was one of the top training sites for living histories in the nation, Bailey said. But the USU administration lost interest in it.

A separate entity was formed in 1995 called the American West Heritage Foundation, with Bailey as the founding chairman.

"We then decided that what was done during the eight-day festival could become permanent on the [farm] site," he said. The foundation held its first festival in the summer of 1998 at its new location.

Since then, the foundation has invested more than $3.5 million in upgrading facilities and purchasing more land, said Ronda Thompson, executive director for the center. The original farm was centered around the year 1917 because that is the era of the machinery, such as tractors and threshers, it had. But the new plan has expanded this date to take in a broader range of events, such as the pioneer trek west and the interaction between mountain men and Native Americans.

"The historical farm has been left exactly as the university originally developed it," she said. "We believe [the center] is right on target with the original plan, though probably more enhanced."

Thompson said the administration has adjusted the way it runs the center because it has seen that learning trends have changed. The center has become more hands-on to help facilitate in the learning process.

According to "The History of the Ronald V. Jensen Living Historical Farm and Man and His Bread Museum," the farm was originally purchased by Daryl Chase, a former president of USU. Chase had raised money from Jensen, a wealthy alumnus, and used the money to purchase the farm and its surrounding acreage. The museum was founded in 1971 and was meant to educate visitors on the history of farm life, with particular attention made to the machinery used in earlier times.

The center has grown from the original 123 acres to its current 160 acres.

"And we are in the process of purchasing 175 more acres," Thompson said.

Funding for the project has come from various sources, Payne said. Major contributions have been made by private donors, and the center has also received money from congress.

"These donations show the commitment the contributors have to American history and the center itself," Payne said.

The new additions will only strengthen the site as a place for people to learn about American history, Thompson said.

"It is in a perfect location," she said. "We are able to preserve the farming atmosphere and we don't have to compete with any strip malls."