Posted September 13, 2004: At first, it looks
like your typical Midwestern 'birthplace' museum—a modest,
low-to-the-ground Iowa farmhouse, painted white and neat as
a pin, a small riot of dahlias or gladiolus out front. Herbert
Hoover's is in West Branch, in southeast Iowa; John Wayne's
is in Winterset, in Madison County; here in rural Adair County,
an hour west and south of Des Moines, you have the birthplace
of Henry A. Wallace, secretary of agriculture under Franklin
Delano Roosevelt, corn breeder and founder of Pioneer Hi-Bred,
editor of Wallaces' Farmer.
But the Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center is more than
a birthplace museum, and that's because the people behind
it are interested in more than just commemorating the early
days of a local boy made good. It's also an organic farm,
a community meeting place, an educational center and a rural
development initiative. All of these aspects are in harmony
with the life and work of Henry A. Wallace, but they constitute
a living tradition, not just a sterile or sentimental history.
As Diane Weiland, the Center's director, puts it: "We
try to do things that fit with H. A.'s philosophy, but in
a modern perspective."
Henry A. Wallace's philosophy is a complex, even paradoxical
legacy, one that puzzled journalists in his lifetime and has
bedeviled historians since. (See "Good
farming, clear thinking, right living" for more.)
And although Henry A. Wallace only lived here until the age
of three, this hard-working rural community is probably doing
as much to clarify and uphold that legacy as any vice-presidential
historian or New Deal scholar.
"Wallace once said that he believed every family in
the United States could sustain itself on 10 acres of land,"
says Weiland. The role of the Country Life Center is to show
that that could still hold true.
The Henry A. Wallace Country Life Center originated in a
volunteer effort of the Adair County Historical Society. In
the 1970s, a group of local residents did some research to
determine that the site was in fact the birthplace of Henry
A. Wallace, and eventually succeeded in getting it placed
on the National Register of Historic Places, although it was
then privately owned and had long since passed out of the
In 1988, festivities planned for the centennial of Henry
A. Wallace's birth prompted renewed interest in the property,
and the citizens' group approached the owners with a proposal
to purchase the farm and preserve it as a non-profit historic
site. After five years of negotiations, fund-raising, and
organizing, the group succeeded in buying the house and 40
acres in 1993.
The group's first task was to restore the house's exterior
to its 1888 appearance. Incorporated as the Henry A. Wallace
Country Life Center, the site opened to the public in 1996,
offering self-guided tours at any time and personal tours
by appointment. Nine acres surrounding a small pond, not far
from the farmhouse, were restored to native prairie grasses
and forbs; an additional four acres were planted to trees.
Meanwhile, Weiland explains, they transitioned the farm to
organic management and began thinking about growing crops
they could sell directly to the local community. "After
a couple of years it didn't make any sense to just do corn
and soybeans," she recalls. "Wallace was always
concerned about the quality and importance of the soil, and
organic practices are the best way to maintain the soil. Doing
a CSA also fit with Henry A.'s philosophy because he thought
people should remain close to the soil."
So in 2000, the Center took its next major step by launching
the Prairie Harvest CSA. It received organic certification
in its first season because by that point the farm had already
been chemical-free for three years, since 1997.
Staying close to the earth
Since then, the number of CSA members has increased slowly
but steadily, from 42 in 2002, to 50 in 2003, to the current
total of 58. For 2004, the subscription price was $350 for
20 weeks. Members receive a three-quarter bushel produce box
each week, filled with everything from garlic flowers, kohlrabi
and strawberries to edamame, muskmelon and sweet corn.
In addition to the CSA subscriptions, the Center hosts a
farm market on Fridays from June to October, selling produce
from the Prairie Harvest fields and baked goods from the Center's
kitchen. On Thursdays, they sell at a farmers' market in Greenfield,
the Adair County seat, 10 miles away. ("We make as much
there as we used to at the Des Moines farmers' market,"
Unlike many CSAs, Prairie Harvest welcomes new members mid-season,
simply pro-rating the subscription fee and redirecting some
of their produce from the farmers' market stream. A little
over half of their members are from the rural neighborhood;
a couple dozen live in Des Moines and a handful are as far
away as Omaha. Prairie Harvest delivers to its Des Moines
members, for a fee; the Omaha deliveries are handled by a
local farm couple who sell their own eggs, chicken, and lamb
to markets there and take along the Prairie Harvest boxes
in exchange for a share for themselves.
Prairie Harvest farm manager Ray Jensen is in his third season
with the Center. Vegetable growing is a second career for
him—he worked for a grain co-op for 31 years—but
he always kept a garden, having learned from his grandmother
when he was a boy. "Now I wish I'd paid more attention,"
he says self-deprecatingly, but everything he touches here
seems to grow to perfection. He's got 2.7 acres in annual
crops and 4 acres in alfalfa so he can rotate the vegetable
ground every two years. He grows several dozen crops, including
artichokes, shallots, watermelons, garlic, and many types
of greens. In addition, he has rhubarb, asparagus, and 120
apple trees thriving under organic management. This spring
he also put in peaches and pears.
"This season's been going really well," Jensen
reports, with easy but careful confidence. "Although
we've had almost an excessive amount of moisture. It's a good
challenge. It's been a really good year for organic apples."
Building a community space
The Country Life Center's most recent project, the Gathering
Barn, was just completed last year, but today it's hard to
imagine the farmstead without it. The three-story bank barn
replicates a structure in use in Henry A. Wallace's day, but
instead of being dedicated to animals or equipment it was
designed as a gathering space for people, a secular community
It has a spacious kitchen, tables and chairs to accommodate
75 or 100 people, and big windows looking out over the countryside.
It can be rented out by the hour or the day, and since completion,
Weiland says, has seen steady use for everything from family
reunions, to producer group meetings, to small business conferences,
to workshops on gardening and local history—including
the life and legacy of Henry A. Wallace.
Income from the CSA and the Gathering Barn has enabled the
Center to become partially self-supporting; they also have
a membership program for individual supporters and a quarterly
newsletter to keep people informed about the Center's activities
and events. Major donations for the original farm purchase
and for the barn construction came from members of the Wallace
family and from Pioneer Hi-Bred, now a subsidiary of DuPont
but still headquartered in Des Moines. "The Wallace family
continues to be very generous," Weiland says.
The Country Life Center has also built relationships with
several of the numerous other entities linked to the Wallace
family and its history, including the Wallace House Foundation,
which manages the Henry Wallace house (the home of Henry A.'s
grandfather) in Des Moines and supports programs relating
to agriculture, conservation, and civic life. The Wallace
Foundation owns two Iowa State University research farms,
one of which, the Neely-Kinyon Farm, is just a few miles away
and is home to many of ISU's organic research fields, under
the leadership of organic ag extension specialist Dr. Kathleen
Delate. Delate is a frequent visitor and has worked with the
Center to put together conferences and workshops on organic
farming. Finally, the Center is on good terms with Wallaces'
Farmer, which is still in print although it no longer belongs
to the Wallace family (it's now part of a suite of farm magazines
managed by Farm Progress Companies).
Looking ahead, Weiland says the Country Life Center hopes
to continue expanding their CSA and to explore others ways
to strengthen the local food system. Toward that end, they've
begun collaborating with the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture,
Practical Farmers of Iowa, and Adair County Cooperative Extension.
Two current projects include sponsorship of a youth and adult
partnership to study local foods, and the development of a
curriculum on organic farming for 4th and 5th grade students,
incorporating reading, writing and hands-on experience.
The coming generation is involved in Center projects in other
ways, as well. Local Boy Scout troops helped blaze a walking
trail through the 9-acre restored prairie adjacent to the
Gathering Barn. The trail is punctuated by outdoor sculptures
contributed by Iowa artists, and when the Center commissioned
the pieces, they invited the artists to create works that
reflected in some way on Wallace's career and, if possible,
to include children or adults in their creative process. One
sculpture weaves together quotations from Wallace's writings
with observations offered by young visitors to the farm. The
result is an eloquent commentary on the landscape and its
many inhabitants, past and present.
"We seem to be out here in the middle of nowhere, but
we're amazed at the impact that the farm has on people when
they come here," comments Weiland. You might just call
that the definition of place.