INDEPENDENCE, Iowa — Heartland Acres Agribition Center is an
agricultural and rural history museum and a 450-seat events center in
north-central Iowa, right off of U.S. Route 20.
But the way that Brian Bell, events center manager, and
Craig Johnson, executive director, see it, the 44,000-square feet of display and
events space and the 16-acre campus has a lot of things in common with the farms
whose stories it tells.
“This is like a farm. We have different crops. This is the
events crop,” said Johnson as he stood with Bell in the large, high-ceilinged
events center with wide windows that overlook a patio and the four-acre Swan
Lake on the property.
“This is a business. We’re a museum and an events center,
but we’re also a business. You have to have money to operate,” he said.
Heartland Acres Agribition Center unites the story of
American agriculture with an effort to draw in a non-farming audience — with the
goal of spreading the message of farming and food production in a unique way.
Weddings aren’t just a figure of speech for the center
housed in the massive red-barn structure that stands out along U.S. Route 20
between Dubuque and Waterloo. It’s how, in part, the museum is able to stay
“If we don’t find ways of making money, there’s no message
at all,” Bell said.
He works to keep the 450-seat events center filled, from
wedding receptions on the weekends to business meetings and training on the
weekdays and throughout the year. In addition, the campus hosts community events
such as a recent family fishing day at Swan Lake and a tractor drive.
The focal point of the center is the 44,000-square feet of
display space — the center only has storage in two small closets, one on each of
its two floors — that displays a variety of agricultural equipment.
The museum tells the story of American agriculture, farming
and rural life through the use of displays of farm equipment, informational
displays and artwork.
The museum includes items that are unique — Big Bud, a 16-V
747 tractor, has been at the museum on loan since 2010. The giant white tractor
is the endpoint in a tractor display that includes tractors of every color and
A one-room 1869 Buchanan County schoolhouse is a piece of
local history. A reproduction of a 1941 John Deere A2 prototype tractor, which
featured armor and two 30-millimeter machine guns, was made for use by American
soldiers in World War II and connects agriculture to the military and more U.S.
The “agriculture in the military” exhibit also features a
Case SI Airborne tractor, which was transported by gliders to the front lines of
World War II.
“The bucket allowed them to dig trenches, to dig up
hedgerows,” Johnson noted.
Other items in the military display include rifles and
ammunition cans manufactured by agricultural manufacturers that turned from farm
equipment to wartime manufacturing.
“We’re trying to draw the connection between ag and the
military,” Johnson explained.
The overall goal of the museum is to educate the general
public about agriculture.
“We want to educate the public, and we want to entertain
them,” Johnson said.
That includes thinking up ways to attract a population that
otherwise might not stop to see old farm machinery or a one-room schoolhouse.
“We want to have different things around here to bring in
more people and to interest more people,” Johnson said.
A room full of vintage automobiles, from a 1908 Black —
which could have been ordered at the Iowa State Fair — to classic Detroit muscle
in the form of a 1969 Camaro Yenko 427, on loan from a local farmer who also
raced stock cars, to classics such as a 1930 Studebaker, a 1929 Packard, a 1957
Ford Thunderbird and a 1955 Ford Fairlane, serves that purpose.
“In a small community, we want to have different attractions
to bring different groups of people in,” Johnson said.
He also works to make sure visitors to the museum can make
the connection between the agricultural and rural setting to events with which
they may be more familiar. For instance, the one-room schoolhouse — where a
teacher’s attendance ledger can be opened to show who was in class on June 13,
1902 — has national historical significance.
“If you think about it, the people who were working for NASA
in the 1950s and 1960s, developing our space programs, more than likely attended
school in a schoolhouse much like this, when you think those guys were in their
mid-40s in the mid-1960s,” Johnson said.
Annually, Heartland Acres Agribition Center draws in some
35,000 to 40,000 people. While more than half of that number was due to the
events center, the museum holds its own. That became the goal of the group of
local businessmen, who started talking in 2003 about bringing together a way to
display Buchanan County’s rich agricultural history with providing a local venue
for various events.
The land for the campus was donated by a local farm family,
who continue their support of Heartland Acres to this day.
“They are great people, and this was just something they
wanted to have in the area,” Johnson said.
Money for the center came through grants from Vision Iowa, a
program that gives grants to educational, recreational, cultural and
entertainment projects throughout the state. To qualify for Vision Iowa funding,
projects have to be available to the public and help communities utilize
economic development through tourism.
Heartland Acres opened in May 2007. The center is supported
through rental of the events center, as well as through donors.
The museum operates with a staff of three — Johnson, Bell
and Leanne Harrison, the programs manager, as well as part-time staff who work
during the museum’s busy summer season. “We are essentially self-sufficient. We
are not on the taxpayer dime, and we are not federally funded,” Johnson said.
The center does receive proceeds from the county’s
hotel-motel tax, which goes to promote destinations in Buchanan County.
“Otherwise, it’s gate receipts, event rentals, sponsors and
grants,” Johnson said.
From brainstorming to attract more groups to its events
center and campus facilities to the never-ending work of making sure that
exhibits are interesting, the staff at Heartland Acres Agribition Center follows
the lead of agriculture and farming itself as a business that always is changing
to stay in business and to give customers what they want, whether it’s a mural
of U.S. agricultural history from the past to the present or allowing bridal
parties to choose their own caterer and DJ service.
“This is a work in progress. It’s never-ending, and it’s
always changing,” Johnson said.
For more information on the center, go to