Idaho’s Hess Family Farm—A Museum of Love


Idaho’s Hess Family Farm—

Tear it down or restore it. That was the choice Dan and Mary Hess faced with the aging Idaho farm home that was part of their family’s heritage. One portion of it was a log cabin built ninety years earlier, and the home was badly in need of repair.

The Hesses chose to restore the home, and what they have done with it since 1980 is proving to be a blessing to members of their extended family and to their community as well. They have turned the old home and its surroundings into a museum, a monument to the perseverance, commitment, and moral values that have shaped the lives of several generations.

The museum is located on the Hess family farm, south of Ashton, Idaho, in the upper Snake River Valley. Horace and Mildred Hess, Dan’s parents, moved to the area in 1909 to homestead; eventually, they acquired a parcel of land that included a three-room log cabin, built in 1890.

As the years passed, additions were made to the little home. Then in 1939, Horace Hess built a big, new house nearby. Later, after their marriage in the early 1950s, Dan and Mary Hess lived in the refurbished little home. Dan had grown up on the farm and has continued to work it through the years. But in the mid-1950s, Dan and Mary moved their family to Rexburg, where both taught at Ricks College. The cabin home was rented, sometimes to missionaries.

In 1980, when they were trying to decide what to do with the old home, the Hesses happened to visit a Utah vacation spot that features restored buildings of an earlier era. The visit provided inspiration for their own museum. Instead of a profit-making venture, however, theirs was to be a monument to the family’s heritage, as well as a gift to the community.

It has not been their gift alone. Many items in the museum have come from members of the community, or from Dan’s and Mary’s relatives. Among the items on display are carefully crafted (and lovingly restored) wooden furniture, a butter churn, flat irons, washboard, and other hand implements long outmoded by automated machinery.

Because the museum is seen as a community resource, members of the Fremont County Historical Society have been very supportive. Some act as volunteer guides when several groups are scheduled to visit the museum at the same time. Three longtime Ashton neighbors of the Hesses—Evva Lenz, Louise Egbert, and Phyllis Jenkins—frequently serve as guides on short notice.

Evva Lenz notes that the museum is a motivator for some of the visitors. “It creates an enthusiasm on their part to restore and preserve their own heritage,” she says.

The museum is open to the public on specified days during the spring and summer, and the Hesses gladly open it to visitors by appointment at other times. As word of its interesting exhibits has spread, school groups have come from as far away as Pocatello—about one hundred miles.

Visitors can make donations toward upkeep of the museum, but, Dan says, the donations don’t even cover the cost of electricity used to light the place. He’s not concerned about that.

The museum contains a wide variety of artifacts. Most of the exhibits pertain to the family of Dan and Mary Hess and are confined to the original farm home (the Hesses refer to it as the “Heritage Home”), but some of the exhibits spread into the barn and other outbuildings.

There is, for example, the “Carriage House.” It houses an assortment of old farm tools, an antique gasoline pump, and a one-cylinder 1910 generator, along with cars and wagons. Among these is the simple, enclosed horse-drawn sleigh in which young Dan and his brothers and sisters used to ride to school through the bitter eastern Idaho winters.

The barn is home for a variety of old farm equipment, all in working order. Some of it was used on the Hess farm; other pieces are simply examples of the types of farm equipment that have been used in the area. One section of the barn houses a replica of an old one-room school, furnished with desks in stairstep sizes, donated by the local school district. There is also a wildlife diorama featuring a few specimens of big game found in Idaho, and an exhibit with a replica of the armor worn by Columbus and his men.

While many of these exhibits capture the imagination of visitors, it is the Heritage Home that is the focus of the project for the Hess family. Its furnishings include a variety of heirlooms that go back to early times in the Church. On the wall in one bedroom is a photograph of Dan’s grandfather, Bishop John W. Hess, who presided over the Farmington (Utah) Ward when Aurelia Spencer Rogers organized the first Primary there in 1878. In the parlor is a mirror that hung in the Nauvoo home of Thomas Bullock, from whom Mary is descended. In the west bedroom is the desk Brother Bullock used when he served as secretary to Presidents Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

This desk belonged to Thomas Bullock

This desk belonged to Thomas Bullock, Mary Hess’s grandfather, who served as personal secretary to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.

Other artifacts in the home include a spinning wheel, circa 1750, stereopticon photo viewers from the last century, delicate crocheted bedspreads and hand-sewn dresses, and a carefully restored coal-burning kitchen range. That range played a part in getting the museum project off the ground.

“When Dan and I got married,” Sister Hess recalls, “it was a case of one collector joining up with another.” They had boxes—attics—full of favorite old things. When they decided in 1980 to go ahead with the restoration of the old home, they were using some of the heirloom furniture in their home in Rexburg, or in the newer farm home. Some had been stored away. So the Hesses hardly knew where to start.

While they were on vacation, their oldest son, Stephen, and his wife, Linda, restored the old range and some of the furniture. “Now you’ve got your start,” they told his parents.

In the kitchen of the farm home

In the kitchen of the farm home, a steel butter churn once used by the Hesses sits among other items, some donated by local residents. (Photo by Don L. Searle.)

“At first it seemed like a fun idea to have a museum. Then Dad got serious,” recalls Robert Hess. “He knew what he wanted.” It meant hard work. Robert says he developed personal appreciation for the talents and abilities of his forefathers as he helped restore an oak rocking chair, a table, the barn, and other exhibits. His wife, Shauna, got into the spirit of the project, creating several examples of old-fashioned stitchery for use in the museum.

In the museum, younger visitors may see clues to a way of life they have never known. But for older visitors, the museum brings the past alive. “I certainly remember that!” exclaims one, pointing to the galvanized tub hanging on the kitchen wall in the Heritage Home. “We all took turns taking a bath in one on Saturday night.”

“Yes,” chimes in a companion (probably in his seventies), “it was terrible to be one of the last ones, because the water got cold.” Another adds: “The water would get dirtier and dirtier. I was the eleventh one. Had to skim it off before I got in!”

For members of the Hess family, the museum’s store of memories is much more personal.

One room, for example, is filled with items from the South Seas—distinctly out of place in cold, mountainous eastern Idaho. But these remembrances recall the missionary service of several family members in Pacific island areas. Small caption cards, like those throughout the museum, tell nonmember visitors about missionary service and the gospel. Almost every item in the home has a story to tell.

Items housed in the old Hess family home

Most of the items housed in the old Hess family home, left, belonged to Dan and Mary Hess’s ancestors. Many of the historical exhibits in the barn and other farm buildings were donated or purchased.

Over the door of one small room, part of the original cabin, is a plaque that reads: “Our Creed is Honor, Duty, and Service to God, Country, and Family.” Exhibits in the room carry out the themes of service to God, country, and family. On one wall is a large, oak-framed world map with pictures of Hesses and Bullocks who have served missions since the beginning of the Church; the pictures are situated in the areas where the individuals served.

The “Country” theme is represented by uniforms, equipment, and other mementos of military service by various family members—from John W. Hess, a member of the Mormon Battalion, to Stephen Hess, currently a U.S. Air Force chaplain.

“Family” is represented by two carved, wooden family trees; one bears photos of Dan’s and Mary’s children as children, while the larger tree shows them as parents with their own offspring. Genealogical charts on exhibit include some that trace the Bullock line back to 1472.

The dining room of the farm home

The dining room of the farm home is furnished with period lace tablecloths and curtains and antique furniture. The china closet displays antique china, crystal, and silver, all family heirlooms.

What will happen to the museum when Dan and Mary Hess are gone?

They have made it part of a family trust. Their four sons and one daughter are the board of trustees.

Family members agree that their ancestors have become more than names on a pedigree chart through the project. Dan Hess now speaks of “the folks” when he talks of the five or six generations of his and Mary’s descendants who are memorialized in the museum. “I wonder what the folks think of all this,” he muses. “I wonder what they’ll say when we meet them.”

He will have to wait to find out. But the Hess children are more accessible. Their daughter, Mary-Lynn Lyman, says: “I love my parents for following the Lord’s commandments in genealogy work. They have made everything more exciting—and visual.

The Hess family museum is a stirring example of love in action. Much time, space, and a large inventory of family treasures are needed to create the kind of memorial the Hess family has made. It is not what some families would want, or need; few would have so much space. But every family has its own treasures—scrapbooks, letters, pictures, other memorabilia. With a little thought, almost every family could create its own suitable museum of love and help to turn “the heart of the children to their fathers.” (Mal. 4:6.)

[photos] Photography by Jed A. Clark (except where noted)

[photo] Young visitors, part of a school class, test the seat of an 1870 covered wagon, one of the Hess museum’s historical exhibits. The museum is located just outside the eastern Idaho town of Ashton. School groups sometimes come from more than one hundred miles away.

[photo] One of the farm’s young visitors tries the wheel of an old tractor. Farm equipment in the museum is typical of that used in the Upper Snake River Valley in earlier days.

Dianne Dibb Forbis is Relief Society in-service leader in the Rexburg Fifteenth Ward, Rexburg Idaho East Stake.