Country Life in the Finger Lakes


The Ward O’Hara Agricultural and Country Living Museum

story and photos by Cindy Ruggieri

Ward O’Hara came from that generation of hardworking people who never threw anything away. A dairy farmer who also sold tractors and wrote books, Ward accumulated everything from cars to kitchen implements. A collection of farm equipment topped it all off. Both he and his wife, Ruth, enjoyed collecting, but by 1975 they had run out of room.

Ward approached Cayuga County about using an empty building of theirs on the grounds of Auburn’s Emerson Park on Owasco Lake. They approved, and his collection of items from the late 1800s through the early 1900s had a place to call home. The place was named the Cayuga County Agricultural Museum, but since more than half the items in it came from Ward, it was later renamed in his honor. Today it’s the Ward O’Hara Agricultural and Country Living Museum.

On September 8, 1997, Ward passed away, leaving behind a legacy that will benefit us all for many years to come. You ought to see the treasures of rural life he left behind. Admission to his museum is free.

Authentic and hands-on

Using the vintage artifacts from Ward’s collection, the exhibits replicate buildings from a bygone age. A wood shop, general mercantile, school room, blacksmith shop, veterinarian’s office, and creamery surround a village square. Additional rooms display the implements of seasonal farming activities. The theme of the fall and winter room is harvesting – haying in the autumn and harvesting ice in the winter. The spring and summer room focus on plowing, planting, and growing crops. In the summer, you can smell the herbs that fill the garden on the outdoor patio.

When director Tim Quill joined the museum’s staff in 2008, he brought with him plenty of ideas for expansion and upgrades. He is a ball of energy and talks excitedly about past improvements and plans for the future. One of the first things he did was to add “Country Living Museum” to the name. It provides a better description of the museum’s collections, which go way beyond farm equipment.

Toy tractors donated by a gentleman named Roger Manrow make up a huge display. Among the toys are a number of rare John Deere models. A miniature circus, originally part of an exhibit at the annual New York State Fair, found a permanent home in a new wing of Ward O’Hara’s. In another wing, a collection of vintage musical instruments are exhibited. When I visited, I admired the carved details of a wooden piano made by the Wegman Piano Company of Auburn. Plans for demonstrating a recently donated printing press are in the works.

Under Tim’s guidance and with funds from museum patrons, the O’Hara family, and the Fred L. Emerson Foundation, the museum has expanded. Four new wings were added and a project to insulate and add heat throughout the complex is currently underway. “As much as possible, we want our exhibits to be hands-on so kids can touch and learn the history of our agricultural region,” says Tim, a retired teacher. “Our main emphasis is on the family having a good time, learning about history, and not worrying about the cost.”

I watched a group of youngsters climb on tractors, pile into a vintage car, interact with the kid-friendly displays, and swing the mallet to create a very loud “GONG” on a large steel bell from the former E. D. Clapp Mfg. Co. facility in Auburn. They were having a ball!

In 2011, the Dr. Joseph F. Karpinski Educational Center was added to the museum complex. A longtime oral surgeon in Auburn, Karpinski was a philanthropist whose foundation funds worthwhile community projects.

The center features a conference hall that accommodates 90 people, a complete kitchen, a library, a gift shop and new restrooms accessible from the outside.

Festival of Trees coming up

A number of popular events are held at the museum throughout the year. Scheduled in November is the Festival of Trees. More than 100 Christmas trees will be on display, decorated by local businesses. While they enjoy refreshments and cookies (which kids can decorate), visitors vote for their favorite trees. They remain on display through January.

Its Harvesting History educational series is going on now, on the second Thursday of every month through June. The evening event features speakers on topics that often relate to local history, accompanied by refreshments. It is free and open to the public.

Next summer on the first Saturday in June is Old Ways Day, which replicates a typical day in the early 1900s. There are draft horses, wagon and Model-T rides, and crafters in period costumes demonstrating their skills: weaving on a loom, making a broom, cooking in an old-fashioned kitchen.

In July, the Cayuga County Fair is held on the Emerson Park grounds, in partnership with the County Agricultural Society and Cornell Cooperative Extension. In October there’s a Halloween celebration for the kids.

The museum’s programs for school visits include a large demonstration component. The various demos give kids hands-on experience with the ways day-to-day tasks were completed in the past. Even when live demonstrations are not going on, video clips of the demos are available on monitors throughout the museum. Self-guided audio tours explain the exhibits.

“There’s something for everyone here,” says Tim Quill. Seniors spot items they used to use. School children learn about the past by seeing items they’d never imagine using, and year-round special events attract whole families for fun.

Cost: Free (donations appreciated)
• Memorial Day through Halloween:
Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.,
Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• July and August: Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
• Winter: Monday, Tuesday, Friday, Saturday
10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Wednesday and Thursday – closed

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