When guests visit Living History Farms, they meet historians who demonstrate historical skills, share insights into museum spaces and historic people, and who help to make connections between the past and the present. These historians may be wearing reproduction period clothing or a museum staff uniform. At Living History Farms, these front line guides are called historical interpreters. When we tell guests we are historical interpreters, often people ask, “Interpreter? What language do you speak?” We speak history, farming, and rural culture. Our staff interprets history, translating the often unfamiliar concepts of agriculture and rural life of the past into the vocabulary of the present.
Historical interpreters at Living History Farms come from many walks of life. Sometimes the historical interpreters come to work at our museum already possessing needed historic abilities—such as woodworking, farming, and cooking. Many of our staff learned skills such as knitting, canning, gardening, or driving tractors alongside several generations of family members. More unusual skills, such as spinning, blacksmithing, and broom making, are taught by other museum interpreters on the job. Historical interpreters read teaching manuals, period newspapers, diaries, primary and secondary history books, and attend seminars and workshops about the historic areas in which they work. Every day is an opportunity to develop new skills and discover new information about old processes.
Guests meet many different historical interpreters during a Living History Farms visit. Some of these interpreters work in the museum field as their primary occupation—this is their “real” job. Many interpreters work at the museum as a second career, teaching or working in an office at other times. Many interpreters volunteer their time at the museum, receiving equal training and sharing enormous amounts of energy and enthusiasm with coworkers. Museum guests, especially our members, come to recognize interpreters and track their progress throughout the season. Guests notice when interpreters work in new sites or make progress on site projects. I am often told, “You were in the print shop last time we were here,” or, “we remember you were learning to cook when we saw you last month, how did it turn out?” We become familiar faces, first-name friends like “Farmer Tony” or “Printer David” to guests from all over the state. We’re “people” people. Interpreters love talking about their passions and sharing their skills with guests who come to care about those passions just as much.
Historical interpreters work closely with each other. A summer spent hoeing corn together in wool clothing makes you a family. Interpreters help each other keep positive, learn new information, and seek professional development.
As you can imagine, the interpretive staff does change from year to year as interpreters move to other life callings. They are never forgotten. We are so proud of the professionals in other museums, other occupations, and other places who worked with us for even the smallest amount of time.
Today, our museum staff mourns the loss of a former historical interpreter. Wade Franck passed away this week after a tragic bicycle accident. Farmer Wade was a long time historical interpreter here at Living History Farms from the mid-1990s into the 2000s. Wade began his career at LHF as a college intern in 1995, became a historic site supervisor, and developed many historic skills while at the museum. He learned to drive both oxen and horses. You may remember him driving horses for your 1900 Farm Historic dinner.
He was a blacksmith and a farmer, a Walnut Hill Store keeper, and even stood in as Professor Savage in the 1875 medicine show. A great proponent of hands-on learning, you may have plowed with him at a LHF Farmers’ Fair event, seeded ground around the implement warehouse with a two row hand held corn-planter, or groomed cattle with him at the 1850 Pioneer Farm. Wade was one of the best of us, excited to share knowledge with others, going out of his way to teach, support, and get the most out of every situation.
He left Living History Farms to successfully finish graduate work at Iowa State University in History of Technology. He then went on to pursue his own personal passions in the world of biking—working as a bike technician and service provider in many shops locally. He was well known in that world as a friendly, patient, customer-oriented and enthusiastic team player, willing to help others learn the sport and understand their bikes. This makes us smile. We prized those qualities in him, while he shared his time with us and we flatter ourselves to think maybe we helped reinforce them in him, as well. Our hearts go out to his family and friends. He will be honored by our Living History Farms family and deeply missed.