Brian Bell, events center manager, and Craig Johnson (right), executive director of Heartland Acres Agribition Center in Independence, Iowa, pause for a moment in the center’s tractor and farm machinery collection. Heartland Acres, which opened in 2007, combines an agriculture museum with a 450-seat events center.
Brian Bell, events center manager, and Craig Johnson (right), executive director of Heartland Acres Agribition Center in Independence, Iowa, pause for a moment in the center’s tractor and farm machinery collection. Heartland Acres, which opened in 2007, combines an agriculture museum with a 450-seat events center.

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 self-sustaining.

“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 vintage.

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. history.

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 www.heartlandacresusa.com.