Once filled with relics chronicling 400 years of life and agriculture in Howard County, the Living Farm Heritage Museum is now stacked with boxes full of the museum’s past.
Not far from the county fairgrounds on rural property in West Friendship, families, schoolchildren and other visitors have explored the cluster of farm buildings for the past 18 years.
But now the museum, long operated by the Howard County Antique Farm Machinery Club on county-owned property, is set to fade into the past itself.
Concerned about code violations and the group’s failure to obtain permits for certain events, the county’s parks and recreation department “deemed it to be in the County’s best interest to terminate the lease” with the club, said Nick Mooneyhan, the agency’s director, in an executive summary. The lease would have otherwise ended in seven years.
John Frank, the club’s president, said he was devastated by what he described as an unexpected closure.
“The people that lose out are the community,” Frank said. “It’s heartbreaking for a lot of folks, especially the young people who will never get a chance to go here.”
The county notified the farm club in late August that it planned to terminate the lease effective Nov. 27. After the club’s attorney asked for an extension, the county agreed to enter into a right-of-entry agreement until May 31 to allow the club to remove everything from the property.
Mooneyhan shared some concerns in the 10-page summary that detailed the 18-year timeline of the farm museum’s relationship with the county and the instances in which the county believed the museum violated terms of the lease.
The museum sat among more than 340 acres of county-owned land at West Friendship Park. The club’s original lease for 39 acres of that site, inked in 2005, was “for the establishment of a farm museum and the rehabilitation and maintenance of the leased area — to be provided at the proposer’s sole responsibility and expense.”
The lease covered a farmhouse and five abandoned outbuildings, which the farm club fixed and used for the museum. The next year, the club received an additional 26 acres under an Adopt-a-Park agreement with the county, expanding the site to 65 acres.
The hundreds of acres include trails for running, biking, dog walking and bird-watching — any outdoor activity — and these will remain open to the public, Mooneyhan said. The recreation and parks department will maintain the trails, and eventually add indoor and outdoor archery facilities, restrooms and possibly sites for camping.
But after the farm club clears out its items from the buildings, Mooneyhan said, the county’s primary focus will be to bring the structures up to code, obtain the necessary occupancy permits and determine their best use.
David Yungmann, a County Council member who represents District 5, which includes the museum property, said the county will need to add sprinklers and fire exits as part of renovations.
“A lot of these buildings didn’t have use permits to be used for the public, which is why the county stepped in pretty quickly and kind of shut things down, as they would for any private person that wasn’t in compliance, but certainly on county property,” Yungmann said.
Mooneyhan said county officials will engage the public, including the agricultural and farming community, on how best to use the land.
“We still believe that West Friendship Park is ideally suited to celebrate the county’s agricultural history and provide a place where people can learn about the history and agriculture,” he said.
Rather than maintaining a museum, though, the county plans to put farming machines and equipment that capture the history on display, Mooneyhan said.
“I think the term we’re starting to use is that the farm is the museum,” Mooneyhan said. “So maybe not a building like the farm club had originally planned, but there would be certainly displays that would speak toward agricultural history.”
Mooneyhan said that in the right-of-entry document, the county laid out a process for the farm club to recommend if it has a piece of equipment it would like to see remain on the property. But what that arrangement would look like is currently uncertain.
Yungmann said the county wants West Friendship Park to become Howard County’s agriculture center — a place where all functions of county government support the people and organizations in agriculture.
The council member indicated that the farm club could potentially play a role there in the future.
The farm club is supposed to be working on a proposal for what its members might like to do at the reimagined property, he said.
“I believe that the Living Farm Museum could be kind of an anchor,” Yungmann said. “A lot of counties have sort of [agriculture] centers, but what they do is kind of unique. … And then, hopefully, and this is my hope, that they come together with a plan that works well with this center, and they come back with the Living Farm Museum.”
The museum was intended not only to educate, but to transport people into the past to see how life in Howard County changed from the 1600s to the 1960s, Frank said. It catered to all ages, and rather than a static museum where people could only look at exhibits, it offered hands-on activities for visitors, such as apple sorting, broom-making and even blacksmith classes.
“It was one of the few places you could walk behind a mule with a plow,” he said.
The property became a place for school field trips, summer camps, high school reunions, Food Truck Tuesdays (which he said attracted as many as 1,500 people a week), and even weddings, Frank said.
The museum had 200 members and was led by volunteers year-round. Those same volunteers are helping to pack up the museum’s thousands of artifacts, though Frank said the club does not have enough space to store all of them. Many were gifts from other museums.
Frank said the museum has gotten an outpouring of public support, with frequent visitors offering to house items in their own storage units, houses and garages.
The farm museum posted one last goodbye on its Facebook page, which drew more than 100 comments from backers.
“Definitely will be missed,” Ellicott City resident Karen Grieff commented on the post. “The scouting community both boys and Girl Scouts benefited from their generosity. Best of luck. I miss food truck night too! Big loss for those businesses.”
At the October Recreation & Parks Advisory Board meeting — the last meeting before the lease was terminated — at least 20 people spoke in support of the farm museum. Many said they were upset at how the county handled the situation.
Yungmann agreed that more information should have been shared with the public.
“It’s been a lot of misinformation, a lot of manipulation of the public, but it’s all because of the lack of knowing, and I think that it’s unfortunate, and I wish that the county could go back — that both parties could go back — and sort of roll this thing out in a way that the public knew what was going on,” Yungmann said.
Though that ship has sailed, he said, he hopes that people will get excited about what is to come with a long-awaited agriculture center.
Frank said the club’s focus now is to make sure people can still see the artifacts, which it plans to display through roadshows. That was how the club would share the county’s farm heritage before the museum opened.
The club would like to find a new home for the museum, but so far, it hasn’t had any luck.
Frank, who says he is a 12th-generation Howard County resident, said he learned most of what he knows about the county and agriculture from his father and grandfather and by learning from the people who lived through it.
Standing in the farm’s packed-up one-room schoolhouse, Frank said the club strived to educate visitors and to preserve the city’s agricultural past, in addition to providing a family-friendly destination. Now, he said, the club is taking a step back to focus only on education and preservation.
“What we had here was a great experiment,” Frank said. “Community-based, community-supported, and it succeeded in spades, contrary to what the county said.”