Kelley Farm continues quest to fund renovation

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

For the last eight years, supporters of the historic Oliver Kelley Farm in Elk River have been working to get state funding for a $9.857 million revitalization project.

School children followed a Kelley Farm staff member into the garden last spring. Star News file photo
School children followed a Kelley Farm staff member into the garden last spring. Star News file photo

The funding has been in several bonding bills over the last few years, and passed both the Minnesota House and Senate three years ago before being vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, according to Kelley Farm Site Manager Bob Quist.

The effort continues this legislative session.

The $9.857 million is in the DFL-controlled House bonding bill, but not in Gov. Mark Dayton’s plan; the Minnesota Senate has not yet released a bonding proposal.

The Kelley Farm is seeking the funds to renovate and expand the visitors’ center, add several outbuildings and fund other improvements. No significant changes are planned to the historic area where the Kelley Farm house and barn are located.

The Minnesota Historical Society site draws 28,000 visitors a year, and half of them are school children, Quist said. The site is turning away several thousand additional school children because the 35-year-old visitor center can’t accommodate that many people, he said.

Kelley Farm staff, along with school children, worked the fields last spring with a pair of oxen. Star News file photo
Kelley Farm staff, along with school children, worked the fields last spring with a pair of oxen. Star News file photo

He likened the visitors’ center to an hourglass. No matter how big the top and bottom, the sand can only move through at a rate allowed by the bottleneck in the center.

“The visitors’ center has become that dreadful bottleneck,” Quist said.

The revitalization project would renovate and triple the size of the current visitors’ center. It would include a teaching kitchen, classrooms, community meeting room, expanded exhibit and public program spaces as well as expanded rest rooms, museum store and office and storage areas.

New outbuildings would include a four-season picnic shelter, a maintenance building and a livestock building.

Quist said a large part the revitalization is just to meet current visitor needs. “We have no picnic facilities, we have two stools in each restroom, and we are processing 300 kids at one time,” he said of the school groups that visit the farm.

“It really is limiting our ability to meet the needs of our visitors,” he said.

This shows the layout of the visitors' center after renovation and expansion.
This shows the layout of the visitors’ center after renovation and expansion.

The farm received planning money in 2008 and almost all the design work is done, Quist said. If money is appropriated this session, construction could begin this fall.

Quist said the improvements would allow the farm to add programs because there would be more space available, including classroom and meeting space. Projections are that within about three years after the revitalization is complete the farm would double its audience.

The existing living history program would continue, and the farm would also tell the story of Minnesota’s agriculture from the past through today. Agriculture is Minnesota’s second-largest industry, Quist said.

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, and Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, carried bills this session to appropriate $9.857 million in bond proceeds to the Kelley Farm revitalization project. That request is now part of the larger, $800 million House bonding bill.

At a Senate committee hearing last month, Kiffmeyer described the Kelley Farm as a very unique site. Students reading about agriculture in a book is one thing, she said, but the Kelley Farm gives people a hands-on experience.

Zerwas sees the Kelley Farm is a valuable resource for schools and said the current facility is “kind of being held together by baling wire and duct tape.”

Zerwas told the Star News that the revitalization project has been languishing for about a decade and it’s a project he supports. It is the Minnesota Historical Society’s top capital project priority and was part of the Republican bonding bill in an earlier session, he noted.

He said the Kelley Farm’s proposal is a great project and wishes it could be voted on individually, rather than as part of the larger bonding bill.

Zerwas said he is concerned about the size of the bonding bill — $800 million in the House and $750 million in the governor’s proposal.

“A bill of that size is going to be very, very difficult to vote for, certainly in an off (non-bonding) year,” Zerwas said.

About the Kelley Farm

•Oliver H. Kelley was the founder of the first successful national farming organization, the Order of Patrons of Husbandry, better known as the Grange.

•The farm is a National Historic Landmark and Minnesota Historical Society site.

•It is a working 1860s farm. Activities follow the farming cycle and change with the season. Visitors can meet the animals in the barn, help work in the fields and gardens and see what’s cooking the in farmhouse.

•Opening weekend at the Kelley Farm is May 4-5. For more information go to or call 763-441-6896.

•The farm is located along Highway 10, 2.5 miles southeast of downtown Elk River.