Big wheels turning at county museum


15,000 draft horses in county down to less than 500

VOLGA – Brookings County history’s big wheels will be rolled out next spring when the county’s new Trygve Trooien Horse-Drawn Museum opens for public viewing.

The museum, made possible by a bequest from the late Oak Lake farmer Trygve Trooien, is dedicated to the faithful draft horses’ contribution to the growth and development of Brookings County from the late 1870s to the 1940s.

At one time during the 1930s, Brookings County had nearly 15,000 draft horses doing the heavy farm and fieldwork. Possibly another 1,000 horses plied the streets of county communities, either horsepower for dray lines delivering material to homes and businesses, or owned by the communities’ wealthier private citizens. 

Workhorse populations slowed to a walk during and after World War II. By 1950, only about 2,800 horses were working on county farms. Today, the county draft horse population is believed to be less than 500.

Ironically, it was the country’s wars that reined in the need for draft horses.

Mechanical devices for war morphed into farm tractors in the 1920s after World War I. By the end of WWII, a variety of improvements had added even more horsepower to internal combustion machines of all kinds.  

What resulted was a plethora of mechanical farm equipment and conveyances that could easily out-pull, out-pace and out-work the draft horse. Those large and usually genial gentle giants, some with hooves big as pie tins, are now a revered curiosity of the past, admired as they prance by in parades and stand docile and proud at special events. 

There is probably more horsepower parked and waiting for buyers at Brookings’ auto dealerships today than ever existed during the county’s draft horse heydays. 

The Trooien Horse-Drawn Museum that’s a part of the six-building Brookings County Museum complex in Volga’s City Park will feature both iron and wooden-wheeled specialized wagons and conveyances parked cheek by jowl among iron horse-drawn machinery in the new $150,000 museum. 

The mother of wooden wheels in the museum are two behemoths once part of a WWI water wagon that was donated by museum President Phil Wagner of Brookings.

Each of those large wooden wheels has a diameter of nearly 6 feet with hubs nearly a foot long. One rotation of those 16-spoke wheels would cover about 11 feet. Their iron rims are 1/2 inch thick and 3 inches wide.

The recently contributed Standard Oil fuel wagon from Jim Martin of rural Brookings was built to handle the weight of about 600 gallons of fuel, but its wheels are smaller than the WWI water wagon wheels, giving some idea of the gallons of water the WWI wagon carried.  

Another museum attraction, a covered wagon’s undercarriage dating to 1876, three years before the railroad arrived in Volga, has rear 12-spoke wheels 54 inches in diameter. That wagon is probably the oldest wheeled object still rolling in the county.

Its parking slot in the new museum is under a wall-mounted old wooden wheel repurposed as a historic sign during Volga’s Centennial in 1979.

Attached to that old wheel is recognition of the four men who donated land for the Volga townsite, then expected to be named Bandytown. The names of the four land donors are Hans Terkelsen, Lewis Johnson, Nick Evenson and Alex Johnson. 

The wheel was hidden away in another of the museum’s six buildings and only uncovered this fall during the movement of horse-drawn equipment into the new museum. 

There’s a good chance that old wagon’s undercarriage was constructed by Volga’s early-day wagon and carriage maker P. Balgord. But that’s speculation.

While the museum features wagons with very big wheels, it has other wooden-wheeled horse-drawn equipment that might be described as dainty.

There’s the 1920 two-seater buggy donated by Lee Reed of Aurora. It’s parked near the old covered mail wagon driven on Bruce RFD routes by Walter Bombeck for most of the 44 years he was mailman in that area. 

Bombeck’s wagon, a gift of former Bruce resident Bill Grieme, comes complete with an old tin chimney snaking out of its cabin as part of a winter heating system. Another interesting aspect are the two small holes in its windshield for the reins controlling his faithful team as Bombeck sat comfortably in a cushioned old automobile seat nailed to the wooden floor of his mail wagon.

The new museum, believed to be the only museum in the state dedicated to draft horses, is also unusual because of the four fiberglass, life-sized horses hitched to an early corn cultivator and the Bombeck mail wagon.

The four steeds were gifts from former Brookings County resident Jim Wood, who asked that the horses be named Pet, Tiny, Jip and Molly after the horses the Wood family owned when living in Brookings County.  

A grand opening of the Trooien Horse-Drawn Museum is being planned for next spring. 

Above: Nearly dwarfed by some of the “big wheels” that have been moved into the Brookings County Museum’s new Trygve Trooien Horse-Drawn Museum in Volga, is Bob Buchheim of Volga, who is the secretary of the museum’s board of directors. Note the large wooden wheel on the wall of the new museum. Buchheim is examining the county’s oldest still rolling wagon that dates back to 1876.

Below: Wheels, wagons and horses crowd White’s late 1890s main street on a chilly day. Note the bobsled two wagons in on the right side of the photo. The large population of horses and the popular conveyances in the form of buggies, bobsleds and one, two and three-board wagons in Brookings County kept a large population of wagon and buggy buildings busy, as well as a large corps of blacksmiths working night and day.

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