Working farm a thriving museum of century-old technology

RICHFIELD, Ohio (AP) — If some kind of disaster wiped out modern technology, Jim Fry and his family would get along quite nicely.

They already live much of their lives as if it were 1900. While they do make concessions to modern living with electricity and modern bathrooms, they milk cows and goats and make their own butter and cheese. The raise a wide variety of organic vegetables and fruits, using only the fertilizer provided by the animals.

Fry, 67, is an amateur historian dedicated to keeping the past alive. He hunts down pieces of the past and relocates them to the Museum of Western Reserve Farms and Equipment on his 60-acre Stone Garden family farm in Richfield.

The farm museum is free and open to the public. Hours are “whenever we are home, and we are usually home,” Fry says.

His ancestors came to America from Switzerland, heeding the call of William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania. Fry says his ancestors settled in western Pennsylvania and lived there until a distant grandmother was killed by Indians.

The Fry family farm has been at 2891 Southern Road since 1956. The farm has been updated, but still looks much the same as it has for decades. It is the only home Fry remembers.

“What some people call antiques, we call furniture,” he says. “We have furniture in our home that has been handed down in our family since the 1700s.”

The working farm has pigs, cows, goats, sheep and rabbits. They raise a large number and variety of vegetables and fruits and offer them for sale to a select group of supporters.

There are few things on the Fry farm that are typical.

Over the past 20 years, Fry has saved about 40 old buildings from demolition by moving them to his farm from sites in Summit, Cuyahoga, Medina, Lorain and other Ohio counties.

Some are small, like the barrel-making shop, which is about 16 feet square. Others were huge undertakings to move, like the 40-by-20, two-story threshing barn he is turning into a general store.

When describing how he moves an entire building, often by himself, Fry is nonchalant.

“I just cut the building into sections, take it down and load it on a truck and reassemble it here,” he says. “It gets easy after a while.”

He says bringing the buildings to his working museum, along with all the implements and tools associated with them, keeps the crafts alive. Trades that have all but disappeared survive on his farm. The museum has shops for making horse collars, barrels, buggy wheels, cigars, brooms and clothing, among many other forgotten skills from decades long gone. And Fry has mastered all the skills.

“I never decided to do this,” he says, gesturing to the many buildings he moved and restored. “It just happened. If I ever thought about what this would entail, I would have never done it.”

Every building comes with a story, one that Fry is happy to relate to visitors who stop by for a chat. Fry would prefer people call first, but everyone is welcomed. He has hosted many groups from area clubs, including the Model T Ford Club of North Olmsted, and some from as far away as Virginia.

“Neighborhood kids practically live here,” Fry says as a car pulls in and unloads three excited children under 6 who run over to greet three of Fry’s four children. He also has three adult children from a previous marriage.

Richfield is changing, as farmers fight to hold onto their land while McMansions spring up all over. A decade ago, the Fry farm was surrounded by similar properties, but there are fewer today and the number is dwindling.

As word got out about the museum, Fry’s farm became a place where farmers would send their antique equipment when they were selling out.

Fry’s historical village now includes:

—A one-room schoolhouse that was originally in Abbeyville, which is in Medina County, in the early part of the 20th century. It was moved to Medina from Berea around 1900, where it was used as a voting booth. Fry carted the building to his farm around 2008 and fitted it with period desks, blackboards and books.

—A post office from Randolph in southern Portage County. When Fry started to take the building apart to move it about 10 years ago, he found newspaper ads behind the wallpaper dating it to 1825. The post office is a treasure. It includes the postmaster’s cabinet that came from a post office in Holmes County. The letter slots where people would come and pick up mail remain contain letters that are more than a century old.

—The smoke shop, which has everything needed to manufacture cigars, from aged tobacco to the tools for rolling leaves. It was built about 1900 as the post office of Darrowville, now part of Stow. It was owned by a car dealer until Fry took the building about 25 years ago.

“Since we already had a post office, we turned it into a smoke shop,” he says. “Blaine-(asterisk)Stewart was the last cigar factory in Ohio, in Hicksville near Columbus. When we told them our plan, they gave us everything in the store including a box of 50-year-old tobacco.”

—The Loyal Oak Buggy Repair Shop, which was once in Norton. It includes tools for making and repairing wagon wheels and buggy carts. One device is used to bend steel bands into rings for the wheels.

—The Richfield Collar Shop, replete with old horse collars, once a vital cottage industry. The shop also includes a complete broom-making operation, from the stalks of “broom corn” that provide the bristles to the hand-operated machines that twist the brooms into shape.

—The J.M. Hotz blacksmith shop, one of Fry’s prized possessions. It was about to be torn down when he persuaded Richfield officials to let him remove it. The large building took Fry weeks to disassemble, move and put back together. It came with all the anvils and tools needed for a working smithy shop. Fry frequently uses the tools to create metal items needed for the farm, and he also puts on demonstrations.

—Many other buildings and collections, including antique washing machines.

Fry manages to maintain the museum while running the family farm, though he says much of the day-to-day responsibility is borne by his wife, Laura, 31, and volunteers.

The farm has unusual livestock. The pigs are not the typical white pigs found on most farms but are Tamworth, Old Spot and Big Black pigs. They also raise the less-typical Jacob’s sheep.

“In America, farmers raise the same kind of animals and plant the same kind of corn. If there were a disease, all could be wiped out,” Fry says. “It’s important to maintain different breeds of animals and different kinds of crops to keep farms going.”

The Fry farm not only supports the family, but also allows others to partake in their bounty.

“We have supporters who share what we produce every week: three pounds of meat, a dozen eggs, seven to 10 items of produce, baked goods and other products like homemade soaps and candles,” says Laura Fry.

The farm’s big cash influx comes around Halloween and Christmas, when the family sells pumpkins and Christmas trees. Regular customers come from miles away to make their annual purchases and also to shop at the farm’s general store, which carries many handmade items including folk art, birdhouses and seasonal gifts.

Jim Fry isn’t done yet. He’s hoping to add a small church or log cabin.

“We’re working as hard as we can to save as much of Ohio history as we can,” he says. “We hope others will join us in the effort.”


Information from: The Plain Dealer,

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