The Living History Farm represents a homestead typical of those found in southwestern Montana in 1890-1910. The exhibit area includes the Tinsley House, outbuildings, and surrounding gardens and fields. The house is an original 1889 homestead. The milking barn was built in the early 1900s. The other outbuildings were recreated on-site to complete the farmstead and include a blacksmith shop, outhouse, root cellar, granary, chicken coop, and shed. Surrounding heirloom gardens and fields contain examples of vegetables, flowers, and grains that would have been grown in northern agricultural areas.
The farm gives visitors an insight into the daily lifestyle of the people who settled in Montana in the late 1800s and an appreciation for its agricultural history. Homesteaders used the resources they had or could acquire, to build their homes, provide food and clothing, and create a sense of community. Their lives were inseparable from labor. Daily chores included cooking, water hauling, wood chopping, and milking while washing clothes, baking bread, and churning butter needed to be done weekly.
Seasons brought another round of specialized labor:
Even social activities centered on useful work, such as quilting, sewing, and barn-raising.
Missourian William Tinsley traveled to Montana in 1864 to stake his own homestead claim in Willow Creek, Montana. William and his soon-to-be wife, Lucy Ann Nave, met in Virginia City, Montana, where William worked for the Wells Fargo Stage Company and Lucy worked as a seamstress.
After William and Lucy were married, they moved to William’s 160-acre homestead claim in Willow Creek and built a modest one-room cabin in 1867. Eight children and 20 years later, the Tinsley family began building the house that is now the MOR Living History Farm centerpiece. The Tinsley family occupied this house on the original homestead claim until around 1920.
Museum of the Rockies acquired the Tinsley House in 1986 which helped complete the plans for a working Living History Farm exhibit. The house was moved from Willow Creek, Montana, in one piece and restored to its original 1890s condition. After restoration, the house was dedicated as part of Montana’s Centennial on Statehood Day, November 8, 1989.
Today, costumed interpreters work this farm as Montana homesteaders would have done in the 1880s and 1890s. During the summer months, this exhibit is busy with gardeners tending the garden, people cooking the noontime meal, and the blacksmith creating ironworks with the coal fire forge.
As visitors pass through the entrance to the farm, the wildflower garden is located to the right of the walkway. Wildflowers in this garden include Indian paintbrush, lupine, yarrow, blue flax, blanket flower, asters, evening primrose, coreopsis, and others. All plants are native to the Rocky Mountain region and most are native to Montana. Lewis and Clark identified many of these plants in their journals. Some plants are edible and others have medicinal purposes. Some are toxic. These flowers were available to homesteaders and added beauty to the homestead.
The farm garden includes vegetables, flowers, herbs, and fruit-bearing bushes. An heirloom plant is one that is propagated from seed and has been available for 50 years or more. The plant varieties in the Living History Farm’s heirloom farm garden were all available in 1905 or earlier. The museum aims to create a garden similar to those used in 1890 to 1905. Open pollination is required which is not used today in large scale or commercial production. Original homesteaders brought seeds with them because they were small and easy to transport. By the late 1800s, seeds could be ordered from various company seed catalogs.
Grains and wheat continue to be a significant part of Montana’s agricultural economy. The small grains “garden” allows visitors to see the differences between grain varieties available in the early 1900s and those that are available today. Representative grains can include wheat, oats, durum, barley, and spelt. Various uses for these grains include bread-making (hard red spring wheat); pasta making (durum wheat); beer production or cattle feed (barley); horse feed (oats); and feed grain (spelt).
The large planted area beyond the grains garden provides an example of dry-land wheat farming where wheat is cultivated in strips with half of the land allowed to lay fallow. Montana only gets enough moisture every two years to produce a wheat crop. Dry-land farming techniques were developed to eke out some wheat crops each year.
The grove honors Marilyn Freeman Wessel, dean and director of Museum of the Rockies from 1997 to 2003. The grove was a gift to the museum from her many friends and colleagues and dedicated on July 24, 2003.
The grove represents a shelterbelt of native trees and shrubs and is located on the southwest corner of the Living History Farm grounds.
The apple orchard was a gift from the Bozeman Board of Realtors and dedicated on Arbor Day, April 28, 1989.
Montana celebrated its centennial in 1989.
The orchard is fenced and located on the southeast side of the Living History Farm grounds.