Just about every sport has a hall of fame, where its stars are enshrined and visitors can see collections of memorabilia related to the game. There are wildly popular halls of fame for rock and country music, too. But people also pull off the highways of America to visit obscure halls of fame, as VOA's Ted Landphair did, just outside Kansas City.
There's a hall of fame for teachers. Another for science fiction writers. There are even halls for greyhound dogs and pirate radio broadcasters. And just as you'll find Elvis Presley enshrined at the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and Pele at the National Soccer Hall of Fame in a little town in New York, you'll see exhibits honoring the giants of the Farm Belt at the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in Bonner Springs, Kansas.
After you walk past a bronze relief, the only national memorial to America's food producers, a videotape salutes yeoman farmers, whom U.S. president Thomas Jefferson called "the chosen people of God, whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue."
"The original rugged individual, the American farmer shaped our country's work ethic, our belief in self-reliance. To know the history of the American farmer is to know our roots as a nation to understand not just who we are, but why," states the hall of fame's informational video.
Thomas Jefferson himself is enshrined in the agricultural hall of fame, as is his fellow farming president, George Washington. President Abraham Lincoln's an honoree, too, and not for his legendary woodchopping skills. He signed laws opening the West to homesteading, created the national department of agriculture, and established colleges in rural areas.
Most U.S. visitors recognize some of the other figures, too:
- Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin - Luther Burbank - a legendary plant geneticist - John Deere, whose steel plow vastly increased farm production - Cyrus McCormick, inventor of the reaper - And Squanto, the Native American who taught New England's Pilgrims how to plant corn, or maize.
But even rural schoolchildren need some help relating to some of the other hall of famers like Stephen Babcock, who made it possible to determine the butterfat content of milk; Frank Mullen, the first professional farm broadcaster; and Marion Dorset, a chemist who developed a serum to prevent hog cholera.
Tim Ninz is director of the agricultural center, which was chartered by Congress in 1960 but is privately funded. He shows visitors the center's vintage farm equipment, displays of rural artwork, and - outside, on the 100-hectare grounds - a model farm town, circa 1900, including blacksmith shop, poultry hatchery, train depot, and a one-room schoolhouse to which children from throughout the Midwest are brought for a day quite unlike the one most of them experience in their modern, air-conditioned classrooms.
"[It's] just as if it were 1904," he said. "It certainly gives them a different definition of what discipline was like in school. It gives them much more of a first-person feel for what grandma and grandpa went through when they were in school."
Mark Tallman, an Agricultural Hall of Fame board member, who grew up in western Kansas and now works as a lobbyist for school boards in the state capital of Topeka, calls the center "a passport to simpler times."
"You eat. You wear clothes," he said. "The products of agriculture are just there. So a lot of people don't think of it as an industry any more, or think about the kinds of things that had to happen to develop it as it is. As you think back, not so long ago, on just the absolute difference of lifestyle between what we take for granted now and what it required to settle this country. And of course it was people involved in agriculture that did settle every new part of the country."
But fewer and fewer people are involved in agricultural production in the United States, less than two percent of the population in the last census. As a result, say agricultural leaders like Jon Wefald, president of Kansas State University, Americans take farmers for granted.
"Very few Americans, especially on the east coast and the west coast, realize that without American agriculture, America is in a world of hurt [in big trouble]," he said. "They'd better appreciate and just pray to the Lord every night that our farmers and ranchers stay alive, that rural America stays vital, because our rural communities and our farmers and ranchers have been the bedrock of American democracy and free enterprise."
The National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame in eastern Kansas serves as a sounding board for the critical issues facing the heartland. Mark Tallman says farmers are used to the boom-and-bust cycles wrought by nature. But he says family farmers are increasingly buffeted by meager profits, the threat of takeovers by agribusiness conglomerates, and the withering of the rural way of life.
"The Great Plains, to a large extent, are emptying out," he said. "One of the things we are looking at is the fact that Northwest Kansas, where Tim and I grew up, is dramatically losing population. The southwestern part of the state has responded by creating much more of a livestock-feed lot industry. In order to have workers for that, that is the part of the state that has had significant immigrant growth, mostly Hispanics, some Asians. Economically that part of the state is much healthier. But that cultural shock of how you absorb immigrants continues to be a real challenge."
But Agricultural Center director Ninz reminds doomsayers that farmers are a resilient lot.
"They're very flexible," he said. "There is a certain level of frustration, I think, and particularly among some of our older generation of agriculturalists who have always known farming in one way or another. There is a feeling of loss in terms of how agriculture is evolving. What we're seeing, though, is the young people who have been involved in agriculture, who have gone away to college, and then have come back to continue the family farming, they're finding new ways to make a go of it. And in some cases that's banding together with other family farmers around the area to form their own little corporate entities. The country is still going to need people producing the food and fiber that drives the country."
While tiny communities are struggling, National Agricultural Center officials point out that mid-size regional centers like Fargo, North Dakota, and Hays, Kansas, are thriving, offering jobs, cultural life, and an easier pace than megacities. These regional hubs will be a fixture in rural America's future, they believe. But so will be new threats to the agrarian way of life. As exhibits inside the hall's museum make vividly clear, while computers, high-tech equipment, corporate economics, and the farmer's legendary determination may make the best of new crises, the survival of rural America may hinge on something as simple as the availability of water. That's no different than it was in the days of Squanto, George Washington, and Eli Whitney.
Photos courtesy National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame