I f you live in Nashville and you're reading this magazine, you probably already know about the Tennessee Agricultural Museum. Their seasonal family events are local favorites and what kid doesn't love a field trip that involves petting animals? As the museum gears up for its annual Music & Molasses Festival, now is the perfect time to spotlight this indispensable dispensary of history, skills and traditions, and the important role it plays in the preservation of our local foodways.
The Tennessee Agricultural Museum is owned by the State of Tennessee and it's located in a place with deep roots in Nashville's rural past. The site was previously known as Brentwood Hall—home to Rogers and Margaret Trousdale Caldwell, and to acres of tobacco fields and Hereford pastures. When the site became the home of the Tennessee Department of Agriculture in the 1960s, it was the first of its kind to be located on a working farm. The campus was renamed the Ellington Agricultural Center, and the Tennessee Agricultural Museum opened in 1979.
The barn building the Tennessee Agricultural Museum calls home houses a 3000-piece artifact collection. The museum's grounds extend to include an entire log cabin community built from logs that date all the way back to the 1800s, a one-room school house, an heirloom garden and the Strasser Community Center, which features independent activities that visitors can engage in and enjoy as they like.
Every year tens of thousands of Nashvillians interact with the museum through daily visits, youth education, special events, outreach programs and through the museum’s popular seasonal festivals, which illuminate both Tennessee's pioneer past and its contemporary rural present, connecting folks with a felt understanding of our local rural environment and its role in our contemporary food chain.
“The museum plays a very special role in today’s society by helping to tie an increasingly urban population to the land,” says Gregory Phillipy, the director of the Tennessee Agricultural Museum. “With the resurgence of the local food movement and our reliance on a safe and abundant food supply, we’re finding that people young and old want to reconnect to their rural roots. The museum provides a wonderful learning experience and environment to help foster this renewed appreciation for agriculture and rural living.”
The biggest draws at the museum are the festivals, which highlight aspects of rural life in Tennessee through interactive games, activities, demonstrations and displays. Every spring the museum's Rural Life Festival teaches Nashville's city folk about life on the farm. This year's festival, in May, hosted more than 2000 visitors who learned how to make butter, write with quill pens, tell time by the sun and differentiate between a dairy cow and a beef cow, all while enjoying the beautiful spring weather.
It's no surprise that the museum's biggest festival of the year comes at harvest time. This year's Music & Molasses Arts & Crafts Festival features bluegrass music, wagon rides, country cloggers, homemade treats and handmade goods. Together, these various elements combine to create an atmosphere that sometimes feels as authentic as the architecture at the center.
“Being on the museum grounds, I can picture myself living as a pioneer—growing, preserving and preparing all my family's food, making everything we need from what the land offers and enjoying the simple pleasures of life,” says Mary Sipes. Sipes is a board member of the Oscar L. Farris Agricultural Museum Association. “Life was tough for our early farming families and I'm fascinated by their necessity for creativity, intelligence and perseverance. I believe all of our museum visitors feel the same way I do.”
Of course, I never like to wander too far from the sorghum mill at the festival as the cooking—and tasting—of the molasses is what the festival is all about. The story of sorghum provides an interesting analogy for the role of places like the Tennessee Agricultural Museum. Sorghum is a kind of grass that was processed into syrup before interstate shipping put maple syrup on every shelf in America. Sorghum and molasses became part of a shrinking market kept alive by a handful of enthusiasts, but today sorghum is one of the hippest ingredients in contemporary dining. If the farmers and molasses makers hadn't sustained the plant and their syrup-making techniques all of these years, the sticky stuff would've been stuck without a comeback. And it's places like the museum that ensure that these old skills will remain alive and accessible.
“Looking back offers understanding, and illustrates the reward of a life dedicated to purpose—feeding and caring for those around you,” says Jennifer Watson, board member and OLFAMA volunteer, Tennessee Agricultural Museum. “Looking forward, it's equally important today for parents and teens to appreciate the scope of what agriculture has become. Yes, it is still a farmer in the field, but he is planting that field by GPS bouncing off a satellite.”
As much as technology has changed the world around us, it hasn't changed our hunger for delicious, healthy food grown in a sustainable manner that honors and preserves our life-giving natural resources.
“The museum reminds us of yesterday’s hardships and achievements, today’s challenges and successes, and fosters the immense possibilities of the future,” says Watson.