The Midwest is home to several outstanding living history museums. Often incorporating actual buildings from the periods they highlight, the museums offer a different look at history. From one-room schoolhouses to log cabins, you’ll be surprised what you’ll find as you walk along streets representing the Wild West, immigrant towns, and more. Stretch your legs and enjoy fresh air as you explore history through the eyes of early Americans.
Here’s a look at some of the best and most-interesting living history museums across the Midwest (in no particular order).
1. Stuhr Museum Of The Prairie Pioneer
Grand Island, Nebraska
Travel back in time to the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer’s Railroad Town, reenacting life along the rails during 1890s Nebraska. With dozens of era-appropriate buildings, you’ll interact with blacksmiths, grocery clerks, and milliners (hat makers). As you walk the property, stop by the old schoolhouse and maybe play on the teeter-totter or swing. You’ll also get up-close to a farm, complete with animals and a barn. Before you leave, stop in the general store for gifts and souvenirs from your time travel.
Walk a little farther, and you’ll find a Native American earth lodge, common among some of the tribes that lived across Nebraska before settlers took over the land.
Pro Tip: Movie fans can visit the childhood home of Academy Award-winning actor Henry Fonda, whose family lived in the area before moving to Omaha.
2. Living History Farms
Located on the western outskirts of Des Moines, the Urbandale-based Living History Farms takes guests through centuries of rural life. Highlighting farm life over three centuries — the 18th through the 20th — the living history attraction begins with a look at Indigenous farming. Summer homes for Native Americans included a tipi or earth lodge, and their crops raised ranged from maize (corn) to squash and potatoes. Some Plains tribes also relied on hunting buffalo and deer.
As European-Americans moved west, their style of farming differed, and, as the museum’s 1850 Pioneer Farm highlights, they used sheep to help maintain grass while also serving as a food source. They also engaged in a different style of corn raising, using horse-drawn plows in fields. Entire families, often large, lived in one-room cabins.
The 1900 Horse-Powered Farm resembles many you’ll still find around the United States, with a windmill for power, cattle, hogs, and a cornfield. Inside the wooden farmhouse, you’ll find a wood-burning stove, indoor water, comfortable furniture, and plenty of room for the family to spread out.
Of course, farmers need a town to visit for business and to buy supplies. The Living History Farms’ western town, Walnut Hill, has plenty of buildings to explore. With a couple of beautiful houses located off the main road, you can learn how town folk lived back in the day. Stop by the town’s newspaper office to drop off a story idea or maybe buy an ad. With the church at the far end of town, you can enjoy an impressive view of the town. Head to the general store or pharmacy for an up-close look at life in a farming community.
3. The Fort Museum And Frontier Village
Fort Dodge, Iowa
Dating back to the 1830s, the Fort Dodge area was patrolled by Dragoons, or horse-mounted soldiers. While a military fort was established there in the early 1850s, a local merchant later bought the land, marking the beginning of the town of Fort Dodge.
Today, the Fort Museum and Frontier Village features military and Native American artifacts and memorabilia. Outside the fort, explore the frontier village, from a log cabin at one end of town to an opera house on the other. Several of the buildings, such as the log cabin and a schoolhouse, were relocated to the museum grounds, while others are replicas of past structures. Step inside the drug store and check out medicine from the past, including Smith Brothers flavored cough syrup, or head to the hardware store and learn how straw brooms were made. The general store contains everything you needed to run your home during the mid-1800s.
4. Old Cowtown Museum
Stand in the middle of the recreated Western town and imagine driving home a herd of longhorn cattle, all the way from Abilene, Texas. Old Cowtown Museum commemorates life in mid-1800s Wichita, which once marked the end of the Chisholm Trail. After completing the trail, some cowboys headed to the local barbershop for a 50-cent bath and a shave. Then, it was saloon time. Some cowpokes got a little too rambunctious and found themselves guests at the city marshal’s jail.
As you explore the stores, homes, and schoolhouses in Old Cowtown, take time for a sarsaparilla at the saloon. Among the 54 buildings covering 23 acres is Darius Munger’s cabin, recognizing the first white settler in Wichita. Nearby is the home of Warren Hodge, one of the first African Americans to call Wichita home. However you want to spend your time at Old Cowtown, plan for about 1–3 hours so you can thoroughly enjoy the experience.
5. Original 1880 Town
Midland, South Dakota
What began as a film set has grown into a popular tourist stop off Interstate 90, about two hours from Rapid City.
In the 1970s, a production company came to a small town near Midland to make an 1880s-era movie. They constructed a set with authentic buildings, but when the South Dakota winter hit, they left town and gave the set to Clarence and Richard Hullinger. They relocated the set to their property, added authentic buildings and artifacts covering a 40-year period through 1920, and opened Original 1880 Town.
Starting your tour at the barn, you’ll find historical pieces, including Native American and settlers’ artifacts. The town’s buildings also feature props from the movie Dances with Wolves. Check out vintage facilities, such as a livery stable, a bank, a log cabin, and a 1920 Conoco filling station.
Pro Tip: The Original 1880 Town’s season runs from mid-May through mid-October. It may be extended to late October, depending on the weather.
6. Fort Atkinson State Historical Park
Fort Calhoun, Nebraska
The first military outpost constructed west of the Missouri River, the 1,200 soldiers at Fort Atkinson (now Fort Atkinson State Historical Park) provided protection for the American fur trade along the river. The fort was built a short distance from the spot where the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery met with area Indigenous tribes. Hike a hilly trail that leads to the location, marked by a monument featuring a ceremonial pipe and feather.
At the fort, walk along the boardwalk of the U-shaped buildings, stopping in officers’ barracks, dining rooms, and the brig. Live reenactments from the fort’s history are hosted monthly from May through early October.
7. Shoal Creek Living History Museum
Kansas City, Missouri
A stone grist mill anchors the 80-acre Shoal Creek Living History Museum. Almost 20 of the town’s 24 buildings are authentic from the 1800s, relocated here from their original sites across the area. On your way in, you’ll pass a bison field — and might just catch a glimpse of one.
Shoal Creek is spread out, allowing for a great walk among the vintage buildings. From a farmhouse with a chicken coop to a church and a jail, the town offers an interesting walk through a typical 1800s town. There also is a one-room schoolhouse, a mercantile, log cabins, and other buildings necessary in towns of the time. Shoal Creek hosts monthly reenactment events from June to September.
8. Scandinavian Heritage Park
Minot, North Dakota
The Midwest was fertile ground for Scandinavian immigrants because the landscape and weather reminded them of their native countries. Among the impressive structures at the Scandinavian Heritage Park is a replica of the Norwegian Gol Stave Church, marking the transition between Norse religion and Christianity. The park also includes a Finnish sauna, a Norwegian storage house, and a museum.
Statues honoring some of the most famous Scandinavians are located throughout the park, featuring Hans Christian Andersen, Leif Erikson, and Sondre Norheim, the father of modern downhill skiing. North America’s largest Dala horse — a painted wooden horse, and a Swedish icon — is also located at the Scandinavian Heritage Park.
Pro Tip: The annual Norse Hostfest, an international celebration of Nordic heritage, is held in Minot over four days in late September.
9. Shawnee Town 1929
In Shawnee, Kansas, in the early 20th century, locals made the move from horse-drawn wagons to automobiles, cutting transportation time to the Kansas City markets from a full day’s adventure to a 40-minute drive.
Shawnee Town 1929 explores life in the rural town of 550 (65,000 today). It has a general store selling items such as Campbell’s Soup, Aunt Jemima pancake mix, and even Cracker Jacks. A barbershop where a shave and haircut used to cost less than a buck. Tour a farm, which includes a barn, a chicken coop, and a field used to raise a few crops for the town.
10. Nauvoo Historic District
Nauvoo was home to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormons were forced to leave their homes in 1846 and venture westward for a fresh start. The Mormon Trail would take them from Nauvoo through Iowa, Nebraska, and Wyoming, before settling in the Great Salt Lake area.
Nauvoo Historic District includes a walking or guide-led ox-wagon tour of classic buildings, including Brigham Young’s home, a log cabin, printing office, post office, drug store, and Seventies Hall, a meeting space and classroom for missionaries. Stand on the shoreline and imagine how wagons, people, and animals made their way across the Mississippi River into Iowa, the first leg of their long journey.
Pro Tip: Before leaving Nauvoo, stop by the Nauvoo Illinois Temple. Standing on a hill overlooking the river, the view is beautiful.
11. Fort Snelling State Park
St. Paul, Minnesota
Fort Snelling served a variety of roles during its 120 years of military duty. Opened in 1826, its soldiers were tasked with protecting the growing American fur trade on the Mississippi River, as well as fending off occasional attacks by French and British soldiers, as well as local Indigenous tribes.
After the United States built new outposts farther west, Fort Snelling was closed in 1858 and sold to a local businessman. The fort reopened in 1861 after the Civil War started. A year later, following the Dakota War of 1862 in southern Minnesota, about 3,000 Santee Dakota citizens (including my great-great-grandparents) were imprisoned at Fort Snelling for more than a year. Following the Civil War, the fortification served a multitude of roles, including as a training site, through World War II.
Today, it’s a national historic landmark and a state park. Visitors to Fort Snelling State Park tour the fort’s round tower — the oldest building in Minnesota — which features dozens of slots for rifles. The commanding officer’s house is the largest building at the fort. Several of the fort’s buildings are open for tours, including one in which a Dakota citizen shares the history of the tribe in southern Minnesota. You can walk to the base of a hill, the site of the former prison camp. A memorial there honors the Indigenous nation.