Historic Kelley Farm opens for the season on Saturday

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

It has been 160 years since Oliver Kelley worked the land of his farm along the Mississippi River in Elk River.

Much, however, remains the same.


“We are farming here the way Oliver Kelley and his family did when they were living here 160 years ago,” said Ann Olson Bercher, program supervisor at the historic Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River, as she sat on steps of the farmhouse on a warm day in April. “We’re growing the same types of crops, we’re raising the same types of livestock, we’re doing the same kinds of chores using the same kinds of tools and our staff dresses in the same kinds of clothing.”

A pair of pigs roamed the farm yard at the Kelley Farm in Elk River.

The farm, a Minnesota Historical Society site, opens for the season on Saturday, May 5.

Visitors will see — and may help — costumed staff members going about the tasks of mid-19th century farm life. On a recent day a team of oxen plowed a field. A women wearing a long dress and a bonnet planted peas with the help of little hands from a visiting class of first graders. A pair of pigs and a tawny-colored cat roamed freely across the farm yard. A rooster crowed.

The farm animals are one of the charms of the Kelly Farm, especially in the spring when the young are born.

Livestock representing the breeds of Kelley’s day inhabit the farm. Lambs and piglets have already been born this year and kittens are expected any day. Chicks will also be hatching, Bercher said.

The farm will also be getting a new team of calves this season, Bercher said. They will be trained to be a team of oxen to work the fields, a process that takes about four years.

The farm is already home to oxen Toby and Colter, who are fully trained and often seen in the fields. Another pair of oxen has been trained and is ready to be sold.

The farm also has a team of horses, Bess and Belle, used for field work. A team of Percherons, Jack and Jim, pull the wagon that takes visitors on rides along the farm’s nature trail on weekends.

The son of a tailor

Oliver Kelley grew up in Boston, the son of a tailor. After coming to Minnesota, he worked with the territorial legislature. When a trading post called Itasca (near present-day Elk River)  became a possible site for the territorial capitol, Kelley and others claimed land in the area, Bercher said. Ultimately the capitol stayed in St. Paul, and Kelley started farming his land which is along Highway 10, 2.5 miles east of downtown Elk River.

What’s her favorite thing about Oliver Kelley?

“He was so cutting-edge, technology wise,” she said.

Not having grown up on a farm, Kelley learned about farming on his own and by reading books about it, Bercher said.

“This guy was willing to try absolutely everything,” she said. “He tried all these new fancy gadgets and then he would write about it.”

He wanted to make farming a respectable business and to be successful, she said.

He wrote prolifically about farming, including newspaper columns for the Sauk Rapids Frontierman.

Bercher likes to tell kids touring the farm that if Kelley were alive today, he be right there with them, texting, tweeting and being on Facebook.

Kelley Farm changes with the seasons

Bercher said every season is different at the Kelley Farm, as much changes with the weather.

“We really are farming here so it changes as the seasons change,” she said.

She encourages people to pack a picnic lunch and spend the day at the farm. And if it rains, she said people shouldn’t stay away.

“Things get moved indoors and sometimes the rainy days are the most interesting in an unusual way,” she said.

If you go

What: Oliver Kelley Farm

Where: 2.5 miles southeast of downtown Elk River on Highway 10

When: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, May 5 and noon-5 p.m. Sunday, May 6. Those hours continue on weekends through May. The farm will also be open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Memorial Day. After that the farm will be open Wednesdays-Sundays. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays and noon-5 p.m. Sundays.

Fee: $9 adults, $7 seniors and college students, $6 children ages 6-17; free for children age 5 and under and Minnesota Historical Society members.

For more information: Go to www.mnhs.org/places/sites/ohkf/ or call 763-441-6896

Events this season at the Kelley Farm

Saturday and Sunday, May 5-6: Opening Weekend

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

See what new babies have been born, help with the early spring planting in the garden and fields, cook up the last of root cellar produce and travel the nature trails by foot or on the horse drawn trolley.

Saturday and Sunday, May 12-13: Mother’s Day Weekend

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Help plant seeds in the historic garden, harvest the first spring greens and meet the new baby animals. Mothers are admitted free when accompanied by a child of any age.

Saturday and Sunday June 2-3: Farm Animal Weekend

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Experience the challenges of hand-sheering the sheep or helping to get them out of their “winter coats.” Toby and Colter, the farm’s oxen, will be finishing up field work. Meet the spring newborns, and discover how farm animals were used long ago and the different ways they are used today.

Saturday and Sunday, June 16-17: Father’s Day Weekend at the Kelley Farm

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Help build feed boxes, repair equipment or fences and care for the livestock. In the farmhouse, fragrant sweets will be baking. Fathers are admitted free when accompanied by a child.

Wednesday, June 27 : Grandparent’s Day at the Kelley Farm

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Grandparents and grandchildren are invited to spend the day together engaged in 19th-century farming. Grandparents are admitted free when accompanied by a grandchild.

Saturday, June 30: Minnesota State Grange Picnic

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Oliver H. Kelley organized the Grange in the 1860s to help farm families work with each other in the face of economic adversity. Today, the Grange in Minnesota is active in community service across the state. The public is invited to bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the farm grounds and to meet Minnesota Grange members. In the Visitor Center they can explore an exhibit about the Grange and Kelley’s role in its development. They can also learn about the many community service projects supported by current Minnesota Grange members. Refreshments will be served and horse-drawn trolley rides will be available.

Wednesday, July 4: Farmer’s Fourth of July

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Celebrate the Farmer’s Fourth of July at the Kelley Farm. Bring a picnic lunch to enjoy on the lawn and take horse-drawn trolley rides along the nature trail. Visitors can also join in 19th-century games and contests including townball, the precursor to modern baseball. Enjoy the company of your family and friends along with the farm’s costumed staff and celebrate the most important holiday in America in the 19th century.

Wednesday, July 18: Children’s Day at the Kelley Farm

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Join in the chores that children did on farms more than 100 years ago, when families worked together and everyone made a huge contribution to the welfare of the family.

Saturday, August 8: Grandparent’s Day at the Kelley Farm

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Grandparents are admitted free when accompanied by a grandchild.

Thursday, August 16: Children’s Day at the Kelley Farm

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Join in the chores that children did on farms more than 100 years ago.

Saturday and Sunday, August 25-26: The Useful Art of Pickling

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

The useful art of pickling provided families with a variety of foods throughout the long winter months 150 years ago. Visitors will discover sweet and sour pickles and other varieties that were popular with the Kelleys and families like them. For $2 per jar, visitors can make their own refrigerator pickles to take home. Horse-drawn trolley rides along the nature trail will be available throughout the afternoon.

Saturday, Sunday and Monday, September 1-3: Threshing Weekend

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Monday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Celebrate Labor Day Weekend at the Kelley Farm. Threshing the grain harvest was the culmination of an entire growing season’s toil. Join the Kelley Farm hands as they bring grain bundles in from the field with the oxen, Toby and Colter. Help haul bundles and bag up grain at the 1856 horse-powered Cox and Roberts threshing machine and help stack the straw.

Saturday and Sunday September 29-30: Prairie Sugar Weekend

Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Join the Kelley Farm hands making prairie sugar, also known as sorghum molasses. Help strip the leaves off the sorghum canes, press the canes through a horse-powered press to extract the juice, and stir the juice as it boils down to make a sweet, syrupy molasses. Then, treat yourself to molasses confections such as gingerbread and molasses candy.