Grandpa’s Farm is filled with thousands of farm antiques collected by dairy farmer Ed Larson.
PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
Grandpa’s Farm is filled with thousands of farm antiques collected by dairy farmer Ed Larson. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
    EVANSVILLE, Wis. – Ed Larson loves to collect antiques, especially farm antiques. From milk bottles and ice cream scoopers to butter churns and milking machines, along with tractor seats, and signs, and nearly everything in between, his diverse collection includes thousands of relics from the past.
    A visit to Larson’s museum, aptly named Grandpa’s Farm, is like taking a walk down memory lane. Historians and farmers alike can appreciate the storied past of the museum’s contents. The 1,000-square-foot space is packed wall to wall with many one-of-a-kind, hard-to-find treasures from generations gone by – such as a bull blinder patented in 1933 and a milk aerator from 1917 – perhaps the only one of its kind ever seen. It is appropriately located at Larson Acres, a 2,400-cow dairy owned by the Larson and his family near Evansville, Wis.
    When gazing upon Larson’s vast collection, it would appear antique collecting has been a lifelong hobby for the dairy farmer. But Larson started a mere six years ago.
    “I had back surgery in 2013 and was laid up for quite awhile,” Larson said. “I got bored and needed something to occupy my time.”
    Thus, the treasure hunting began. It started with Wisconsin milk bottles – a collection that has grown to number 1,800. The majority is from Wisconsin, as Larson prefers to collect local items, with 17 milk bottles from Evansville.
“I like to find things with connections to the area,” Larson said.  
    He even managed to obtain a bottle that came from Alfakorn Farms, owned by Green Brothers Grain Exchange, the place his great-grandfather purchased in 1920 and land the Larsons still farm today.
    “It took me three years to figure out where that bottle came from,” Larson said. “That’s my favorite part about collecting – finding out the history of an item. It’s fun finding a piece, but it’s even more fun to learn about it.”
    Larson’s milk bottle collection also includes specialty bottles like one from the Naval Prison Farm, a Famous American Hero bottle featuring Abraham Lincoln, a circa 1886 Thatcher bottle (inventors of the milk bottle), a small blue-colored bottle used for cream at a Chicago hotel, a green-colored bottle from New York used only at Christmas time, and a red bottle made by Borden’s that caused milk to look red, therefore, only a couple dozen were ever made.
    “Antique collecting is addicting,” Larson said. “Once you start, it snowballs.”
    Larson acquires his items from auctions, antique stores and eBay. Shipshewana, Ind., a site for several big consignment auctions each year, has also been a source of some great finds for Larson.
    “When I first started, I bought everything,” Larson said. “Now I’m more selective. It’s become harder to find something I don’t have. Plus, I’m running out of room. Now, an item really has to catch my eye and have a good story behind it.”
    In his search for the eccentric, Larson came across a pair of hand milkers – wooden devices used to extract milk from a cow one teat at a time. From the crude to the sophisticated, Grandpa’s Farm is filled with all kinds of inventions and gadgets showcasing the evolution of farming.
    Larson’s fondness for the nostalgic has led to the purchase of numerous old-fashioned objects, like a dog-powered butter churn, horse measurer, cabbage cutter, grain flail, giant cattle dehorner, stone water cups for cows, chicken catcher, milk cans, cow yoke pokes, hand-crank cow clipper and a 1922 model Holstein cow and bull set – one of only 100 pairs made. Other items in his collection include blacksmith tools from the 1800s, books and literature including several issues of the 1890 National Stockman and Farmer newspaper, thrashing machine counter, ruggle or drag shoe which prevented a wagon from running over the horse, windmill weights, apple basket liner, and a variety of kitchen utensils, including a green bean cutter, pasta maker and asparagus buncher. Larson has also accumulated a couple “What is it?” items – mystery pieces that even the seller could not positively identify.
    “You can’t go looking for some of this stuff because you don’t even know it exists,” Larson said. “And a lot of it, people have never even heard of. You just never know what you’re gonna find.”
    Larson also has a few items with no relation to agriculture whatsoever, like a communion wafer maker and an embalming pump. He also has an iron with a fuse plug that he got from a buddy who was on the show, American Pickers.
    “I don’t always know what I want until I see it,” he said.
    For example, when Larson spotted an odd ring-shaped item with various words engraved on it, such as beans and tomatoes, Larson’s curiosity was aroused. When canning vegetables or fruit, the item helped identify the jar’s contents. Before the jar was sealed up, the item was pressed into the soft wax to label the jar with the name of the appropriate vegetable or fruit. It was one of only two such known items, and once Larson saw it, he knew he had to have it.
    This antique collector is not partial to any one antique in his collection, however.
    “They’re all interesting,” he said. “Every piece has a story.”
    Larson’s passion for finding unique, vintage farm items is rooted in his love for dairy farming.  Larson was 5 years old when his dad bought the farm now known as Larson Acres in 1957.  Ed’s father and grandfather farmed together, milking about 70 cows in the 57-stanchion barn. Today, Larson Acres is a 2,400-cow, 5,000-acre operation managed by Larson, Larson’s younger brother, Mike, and Larson’s daughter, Sandy, and son, Jamie. The farm employs about 70 people, including 11 Larson family members. Mike is the farm’s general manager, Sandy is the dairy production manager, and Jamie is the crops and maintenance manager.
    Larson Acres is devoted to producing high-quality milk and doing right by their animals, the community and the environment. The all-Holstein farm is also recognized for its outstanding genetics and are active in showing cattle and breeding for deep pedigrees and type.
    The basement of the dairy’s office building is home to Larson’s museum. The old farmhouse was converted into offices in 2006, and Larson opened the museum two years ago. Most people hear about the museum via word of mouth.  Area historical societies also bring groups to visit.
    Preserving farm items for future generations is important to Larson.
    “There aren’t many farmers left,” Larson said. “And if I don’t protect some of this stuff, the next generation isn’t going to have a clue about any of it. I can show people how their grandpa would’ve done things.”
    A new discovery is always just around the corner for Larson, who continues to add about 100 new items annually to his collection.
    “It’s been fun,” Larson said about antiquing. “I never know what my next treasure is going to be.”