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History lives at farm museum


Family heritage, tradition honored in working displays at Davis Bros. farm


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Horace and Kenyon Davis hosted tours of their relatively modern farm operation. In 1941, 100 farmers got a glimpse of the Davis’ electric gutter cleaner.

March 12, 2008
You won't see anything under glass, except for a few photos at the Davis Brothers Farm Shop Museum. Farm history and its artifacts have been well preserved but that doesn't mean being relegated to a display case. When this Oregon Twp. museum opens to school groups and visitors, it means firing up the restored coal forge, hauling out the manual corn sheller and spinning milk in the dairy centrifuge.

"My dad and uncle were very innovative," said museum proprietor Jim Davis while flipping through old photographs. The farm shop holds common tools of the trade, dating back to 1879 and other gadgets fashioned by Horace and Kenyon Davis.

So it was a mixture of family pride and love of history and agriculture that led Davis to donate the museum to the Lapeer County Historical Society in 2004. Today, the museum serves as a science and history classroom for elementary students and a base for the annual Davis Brothers Farm Fest.

The original homestead was purchased in 1879 by Robert and Lavina Davis, Jim's great-grandparents. Their land holding eventually increased to 265 acres.

When Jim's grandfather, Frank, worked the land in the early 1900s, chores around the farm were cumbersome. Ice had to be cut from the lake for refrigeration, horses pulled the implements and early tractors still had steel wheels.

By the time Frank's sons, Horace and Kenyon were at the helm, the farm had developed into a robust operation. According to a farm records inventory from 1939, there were two residences, three barns, a corn crib, granary and hog, poultry, well and milk houses, shop, two silos, tool shed, sheep tank, bull pen and the addition of a cement barnyard—all with a value of $8,040.

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Jim Davis donated his dad and uncle’s farm shop to the county’s historical society in 2004.
Driving tractor was probably the best chore as a kid Jim can remember.

"I was so glad when the last horse left the farm," the 75 year-old says with a laugh.

Although they began to modernize, crops didn't bring in a lot of money during the 1930s, only $855 in 1939, so the brothers took on a dairy herd, about three dozen sheep and 45 chickens.

By 1947, Horace and Kenyon were considered the county's top farmers. They did custom work on their sawmill, cutting 3,000 board feet of lumber a day. Their workshop was equipped with a complete forge, power lathe and electric driven hacksaw.

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Some of their unique inventions included a dump trailer for grain removal from the grain separator to the granary without any hand shoveling. The brothers also devised a block and tackle system on a roof track in the farm's machine shed which was used to lift and store out of season machinery in the loft. Using old pine logs pulled from the lake on their property, the brothers managed to procure good quality boards which eventually formed their workshop.

In 1950, Horace and Kenyon were honored by the soil district and Lapeer Kiwanis for outstanding conservation practices. They used cover crops, crop rotation, minimum tillage, full use of crop residues, game habitat, tree planting for timber production, contour planting and more— practices that are still heralded today.

Unfortunately, an auto accident caused enough damage to one of Jim's legs that he couldn't continue to farm after his dad and uncle. Still, he never strayed far from agriculture, working many years with dealers and distributors of dairy equipment and also with the Michigan Farm Bureau.

Jim's cousin Mary Ellen Heckman lives in her father Kenyon's home with husband Carl, and their son and grandson, Perry and Perry Jr., who have farmed the land.

Jim said after returning to the farmstead and building a home with wife Patti, it didn't take long for him to see the benefits in opening the farm shop museum.

"I wanted to honor the heritage of my dad and uncle," he says.

"I wanted someplace where kids could view agriculture from the 1930s, 40s and 50s and a place where people, including adults, could see everything up close."

Just four years after opening, the museum serves as a unique classroom for third graders learning about simple machines in their science curriculum. With help from Chatfield Elementary teacher Pete McCreedy and a state grant, a 'Farm History Education Program' has been developed too.

Going beyond the book is necessary when it comes to teaching history and science, McCreedy says.

"Living History is what we call the fun, hands-on, experiential learning activities that give students a real world connection to the past," he says.

"Students that visit Jim's shop are actively engaged in farm history and lifestyles thru the wide variety of hand tools and simple machines they get to try."

Jim says he gets the greatest satisfaction out of watching the students and other youth who visit during the August Farm Fest learn even the basics of agriculture.

"When you ask kids where milk comes from and they say 'the store,' that tells you a lot," he says.

"But programs like Project RED (Rural Education Day) are helping."

He hears the same thing from fellow grandparents who get to share vestiges of their childhood with their own grandkids.

"It's amazing that it hit the nerve that it did," he says.

Jim credits his family for making it all possible, including his own children who help out and his uncle's grandsons, Jerry Heckman and his son-in-law, Bob Dice, who man the forge.

This year's Farm Fest is slated for August 23. Activities will include demonstrations of rope making, quilting, shearing and spinning wool and more. Antique farm equipment will be on display and the museum will be open.

Kids can participate in old-fashioned games such as tug of war, red rover, sack races and marbles. Live bands wil perform, pony pulls are planned and oxen teams and grain threshing will be demonstrated

Guests will line up for the annual Thresher's Dinner plus hand-cranked ice cream, fresh cider and homemade pie.

The museum is also in the process of collecting information such as photographs and histories for centennial farms in Lapeer County.

The farm is located at 3520 Davis Lake Rd.

Groups interested in tours or teachers interested in the history education program can contact Davis at 245-0852.

To see more photos and learn more about the Lapeer County Historical Society, visit their Web site at lapeerhistoricalmuseum.homestead.com.

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