The air is sweet with cut grass, shade covers the picnic tables, and, off in the field, the piglets, goats and rabbits are dozing in their pens. Sugar, the staff cat, curls up on an antique plow, pretending not to watch barn swallows come and go.
Here at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster, Md., a picture-perfect slice of century-old country life, all is manicured and ready for young visitors. Apples are beginning to blush on the trees, and there's even an egg freshly laid in one of the nests of the immaculate henhouse.
This is a place where families can picnic and laze about under the wide old trees, or follow their whims on the nature trail. Kids can see how their great-great-grandparents might have lived as children, without Nintendo, hot water or instant anything. Costumed craftmakers demonstrate how tin, leather, cloth and iron once figured into life on a self-sufficient farm.
Westminster is half an hour northwest of the Baltimore Beltway, and it's a long drive for Washingtonians in search of farm life. But Westminster itself is a step back into the past, and worth a tour, and there are assorted antiques shops and fast-food joints on the drive up from Reisterstown.
On many weekends, children may be relieved to know that their parents are being amused as well: The farm museum holds festivals in tribute to bluegrass, seafood, wine, crafts and other pleasures on many weekends through mid-October. During those adult diversions, children who are old enough to be well-behaved may tour the country gentleman's house and nearby outbuildings without having to drag a parent along.
The 20th century seems to have made little intrusion on the nearby county seat of Westminster, where huge trees line the streets of Victorian, Queen Anne and other gabled houses, and soldiers on their way to the Battle of Gettysburg once camped. The farm museum, too, is a shrine to the rural tradition of the rolling Carroll countryside, where the nation's first free rural mail delivery system was established.
The county established its museum 25 years ago, on the grounds of a former poorhouse with the red brick and white gingerbread trim seen in old Maryland towns. Carroll's citizens hoped that both city and country folk would revere a time when farms were small universes in themselves, when the farmer's wife made her own candles and the farmer many of his own tools.
"We preserved this way of life to show to children who otherwise might not know about it . . . to keep our heritage alive and not take so for granted what we have now," says Dottie Freeman, a native of the area who arranges for tours at the farm.
"Because everything is so easy nowadays, it's hard to comprehend that you kept fabric scraps to make quilts, that you just didn't go out and buy a blanket," she says. "I think when children leave here they get a deep sense of how tough it was and how they can respect those people."
If you're in search of the modern realities of farm life, keep an eye peeled for the barns and cornfields along Route 140 as you drive north from Baltimore County. At the farm museum park, there is little if no muck to be seen or smelled, and most of the animals are kept on display -- and away from small hands -- like zoo exhibits.
The staff cow and a few horses are safely off in an adjoining field, and the closest you get to an actual bovine is the mock-cow milking exhibit in one of the barns. The ones who get to run wild here are the kids, and a few animals with grounds privileges.
When her catnap is over, Sugar may stroll with her pals, the guinea hen trio, along the paths that curve around this rolling, 142-acre property, or make an impromptu sprint across the farm park's wide meadows. Children may follow, for what kid can resist a roll when this much grass invites?
The farm museum dotes on school tours, and has prepared materials to make the visit fun but -- dare we say -- educational. Parents can ask for a copy of the guide Freeman has prepared to help kids search for such oddities as chamber pots, spider brooms, the 18-person toboggan, medicine bags and the two-headed calf (this last is found in the farm veterinarian's office, if we're not giving too much away).
In addition to the mansion's rooms crammed with Victoriana and scenes from late 19th-century life, the farm park has a trapper's cabin, herb and rose garden, summer kitchen, broom-making shop, smokehouse, springhouse, harvesting building, blacksmith shop, barn and vehicle exhibits and rooms with weavers, saddlemakers, spinners, quilters, potters and metal workers. The latter are volunteers, who show up on various weekends.
The pigs and other small animals get farmed out for the winter, when the museum is generally closed to visitors, but Sugar is on duty year-round.