Farm museum expansion planned in Hedgesville

June 20, 2005

Give fools their gold, and knaves their power;

Let fortune's bubbles rise and fall;

Who sows a field, or trains a flower,

Or plants a tree, is more than all.

- John Greenleaf Whittier, A Song of Harvest


There once was a time in this country - in this county - when farmland was taken for granted, not preserved using grant money. When people drove tractors, not sport utility vehicles. And when the daily grind consisted of turning grain into flour, not gulping coffee and staring at a computer screen.


There once was a time when L. Norman Dillon was not the namesake of a museum, but a farmer living in Hedgesville, growing corn, wheat and apples and raising cattle.

The museum he helped to create in 1974 is growing, too - both in size and necessity.

"Every building permit that gets issued in Berkeley County makes this place more important," said Tim Yates, a member of the museum's board of directors and an architect who is overseeing the L. Norman Dillon Farm Museum's planned expansion.

During a recent hot afternoon, Yates, 28, gave a tour that started in the museum's main building, which houses hundreds of pieces of old farm equipment, and ended in the newest building, a working blacksmith shop.

Along the way, Yates meandered into discussions on the state of farming today, and how the character of his home county is changing.

Taking stock

Were it not for the large sign out front, drivers along W.Va. 9 might have no idea the green metal building across from Hedgesville High School is home to a farm museum.

Plans call for building a farmhouse, a large barn and a milking parlor on the site, but funding does not presently allow for the construction.

"As soon as somebody writes us a check," we'll start the expansion, Yates said.

For now, the museum's impressive collection is housed in the metal building and a wooden shed behind it.

Inside the larger building are tools, harnesses, wagons, carriages, feed sacks, orchard equipment, plows, a sleigh, a steam engine and other machinery.

The shed houses a hay loader, hay baler, wheat thrasher and other large pieces of equipment.

The blacksmith shop features a brick hearth, forges and tools. Area blacksmiths gather in the shop once a month to make pieces of hardware and other items.

A sawmill was relocated to the site, and a building is being erected over it.

Donations of equipment to the museum are tax-deductible, and offer an alternative to having old machinery melted for scrap or hauled to a landfill.

Every spring and fall, the museum holds a festival, with this fall's event scheduled for Oct. 8 and 9. It will feature wheat thrashing, straw baling and log cutting demonstrations. Apple butter and apple cider will be made, and tractors and steam engines will be on display.

One of Yates' goals for the museum is to have all of the students in the county's schools visit it as a part of their curriculum.

If groups of students visited as school ends in early summer, demonstrations could be shown on how hay is planted, harvested and stored, complemented with discussions on the uses of hay and how those uses relate to everyday life.

Students visiting in the fall could learn the dynamics of an orchard.

The museum sits along an area named Apple Pie Ridge, which stretches from Pennsylvania to Virginia. Orchards once lined the ridge.

Some intrigued students, Yates said, might want to return to the museum to learn more.

"It's so important, I think, to know your heritage and know how hard your ancestors worked," he said.

Disappearing farmland

During a recent drive to the southern part of the county, Yates found himself in a housing development. He spotted one house next to another, with new roads being built.

In the very back - where new houses had not yet been built - he could see the land's earlier purpose: A farm.

"It really makes me sick, point blank, and it's really sad," Yates said.

It's a Catch-22.

People move here from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., because they like the rural character. Yet by building new homes, they are contributing to the decline of the pastoral nature of the area.

"We're going to turn into what everybody's running away from," Yates said.

No zoning ordinance in the county means homes can be built just about anywhere, regardless of the lack of adequate infrastructure. Bigger questions arise, such as the effects on the environment.

Also, with fewer small farms, the country will need to rely more and more on other countries for food.

It's history, lost.

"There's not much left as far as farming, and that's what this county was built on," Yates said. "It used to be in Berkeley County, it was all farms or orchards, except for in the little towns. Now, the farms are getting squeezed out."

Squeezed out by houses.

Succumbing to tempting offers from developers, farmers are selling their land for, often, $1 million or more.

Immediately behind the museum is a patch of land that recently was an orchard. The skeletal remains of the trees still remain, uprooted and piled together. Yates has heard that townhouses are going to be built there.

Yates said he doesn't blame the farmers, who can find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living working the land. His father was a dairy farmer who got out of the business when droughts hit hard in the 1980s.

As a boy growing up along Ridge Road, Yates remembers flying kites from one farm to another. Now, as is the case along so many others, the road is filled with houses, one vinyl-sided beast crowded next to another.

"Soon, people are not going to see any farms in Berkeley County," Yates said.

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