The origins of an agricultural time capsule

I’ve always been interested in Metro Parks’ Slate Run historic farm. Was it really a working farm? I would love a little background on the farm itself and how it became a visitor park. 

Yes, it was a real farm, nestled in the countryside of northern Pickaway County. By the 1960s or 1970s, though, the farm economy had changed, and this particular farm didn’t keep going.

Enter the Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks system. It acquired the farm’s 300 acres in the 1970s and opened to the public in 1981 as a place to teach visitors—especially kids—about our agricultural heritage, a major part of Ohio’s story. It’s called Slate Run Living Historical Farm. The “living” part is important: It’s a working farm using tools, animals and practices typical of the 1880s.

The staff, dressed in period clothing, wants to “keep the skills, traditions and feel of the place” intact, and a visit there will show you how well these dedicated folks have achieved that goal. The main buildings are the 1856 farmhouse, the 1881 barn and a historic summer kitchen. Planting, cultivating and harvesting are all done with tools and equipment of the 1880s, and products of the farm go into staff meals every day, cooked on wood-burning stoves. And no, there’s no running water in the house—it comes from a pump in the yard.

When Metro Parks acquired the property, the house was in poor condition; it’s been restored and furnished as it would have been in that era. Farm equipment is all horse-drawn, so the barn is the animals’ home.

From the time I was young, I have fallen asleep to the sound of trains, which seem omnipresent across the city. What are they typically carrying? Were there more or fewer trains 75 to 100 years ago?

Though reduced today from what it once was, our capital city is still a major railroad junction. Between 1850 and 1930, 14 railroad lines were built to and through Columbus by various companies, all eventually part of one of the five major eastern “Class I” railroads: the Baltimore & Ohio, the Chesapeake & Ohio, the New York Central, the Norfolk & Western and the Pennsylvania. As a result of mergers and spinoffs, today we’re served by CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern as well as some smaller railroads. Twelve of the original 14 lines still operate.

In the early 20th century, Union Station hosted more than 100 passenger trains a day, but car, bus and air transportation gradually ate away at train traffic until only one Amtrak train survived as of 1971, and it was gone by 1979. Freight traffic, though, was always strong but has changed over time. Almost anything can be shipped by rail, but the most common loads have been farm products, manufactured goods, chemicals, steel products, autos and auto parts, and coal—lots of coal. Today there’s much less coal as utilities switch to natural gas, and a whole lot more “intermodal” traffic (truck trailers and shipping containers on specialized cars). And the number of freight trains? There are fewer today than historically because modern, efficient locomotives can haul much more tonnage than in the past, but there are still a lot of trains. An educated guess is that 40 to 60 pass through the city each day.

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Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to cityquotient@columbusmonthly.com, and the answer might appear in a future column.