The Ward O'Hara Agricultural Museum was founded in 1975 by enclosing the disused 4-H pavilions south of Auburn at Emerson Park, which is owned by Cayuga County. Mr. O'Hara was a local farmer and implement dealer with a John Deere franchise. Over several years he collected vintage farm machinery and in the early 1970s successfully petitioned the county legislature to supply a building to house it.
“He found old pieces in barns and hedgerows,” said Tim Quill, the current director of the museum. “We've added three wings to the original building over the years.”
Last year they added the Joseph Karpinski Education Center. “We have lectures there,” said Quill. “It's heated in there; most of the museum is unheated.” Cayuga County allocated $15,000 for the education center and Karpinski, an Auburn physician, donated the balance necessary.
The equipment and historical artifacts are arranged in settings where volunteers can demonstrate their use, including a one-room schoolhouse, a dairy, a blacksmith shop, and a 19th century kitchen. “There's a carriage shop in a separate building,” Quill said. “It was originally an Iroquois longhouse.” He said that they are in the process of adding monitors througout that will demonstrate the use of the items in the collections when volunteers are not present. They have produced four different videos that show different aspects of farm life.
The emphasis at the museum is hands-on activities for the visitors. “You can touch most things in the musuem,” the director said, “and there is a play area where we have scaled-down tractors and puzzles, and a scaled-down hay mow and barn where kids can move hay.”
School groups constitute a large and regular portion of the visitorship. The majority of the volunteers – there are 40 or 50 altogether – are retired schoolteachers. The director, who is also a retired teacher, is the only paid employee, and he is part-time.
Since September 2011 a group of Moravia schoolteachers, including Ellis Ward and Pat Kenney, have been offering a series of programs at the Karpinski Center called, “Science Alive.” Each program is by registration only and, according to Quill, they have been very well atttended. In addition, with the advent of a heated facility, the museum has hosted lectures through the winter months, including presentations by Tom Hussey, a local painter, and lectures by a Model T fancier, a Civil War buff.
A lecture that that tied directly into the museum's collections focused on Thomas Mott Osborne, the owner of Osborne Machine Works, which manufactured reapers in Auburn in the 19th century. Many of the items in the museum were made locally, including Wegman's Pianos (of Auburn) and Hammond & Irving buttons.
The mission of the O'Hara museum is to interpret the agricultural history of the region for a modern audience. Many practices like ice-cutting, tobacco growing, the raising of thistles for combing and carding wool, and the manufacture of sleighs and buggies have simply vanished from the landscape.
The collections are growing constantly. “We constantly acquiring new items,” said Quill. “People stop in every day with offers. We turn them away if we already have it.” And they do keep track of what they have, using Past Perfect, a musuem database program. “But I have to say, the acquistion committee knows what's here,” said the director. “They've been around since the museum started.”
Quill has been the director for five years. He took the post after retiring from teaching seventh grade. His father, a dairy farmer, was on the county legislature with Ward O'Hara. When he assumed the post attendance was approximately 3,200 for the May to September season. Last year it was over 6,000.
In addition to those who visit simply to see the collections, the museum also hosts professional meetings and gives the attendees tours. They have also been reaching out to seniors and civic groups. “We get buses coming down from Canada,” said the director. “They're on those mystery tours; they don't know where they're going until the step off the bus here.”
Quill compared the Ward O'Hara Agricultural Museum to another destination west of Rochester. “We're like the Genesee Country Museum,” he said, “but we're in one building and its less expensive.” Because it is part of the county government, admission is free.
On July 12 through 15 the museum will host the Cayuga County Youth Fair, which includes a 100-cow show, tractors, horse, 4-H projects, and bands every night.