MURRAY — Four very young, mostly brown calves — Flounder, Maggie, Darla and Dipper — follow Raegan Scharman out of a small dairy barn at Wheeler Historic Farm, in the heart of the metropolitan Salt Lake Valley.
Not having one of the farm's super-sized baby-cow milk bottles in hand at the moment, Scharman uses her thumb to demonstrate just how eager the little ones, only a few weeks old, are to suckle.
Little Flounder slurps and slurps, trying ever so hard to get milk from Scharman's thumb. Eventually the unsuccessful calf decides instead to lick and taste a pair of jeans being worn by a fellow within tongue range just outside the fence.
"Does chocolate milk come from brown cows?" Scharman, Wheeler Farm's program coordinator, asks pig-tailed Summer Harris, who is also standing just outside the corral.
"Yes?" Summer answers, a trace of doubt in her 4-year-old voice.
No. Dairy cows give us white milk, and the chocolate is added later, Scharman explains.
Dairy farms, much as Wheeler Farm once did when it was the Rosebud Dairy, produce the milk that we buy from our neighborhood grocery and convenience stores, or they might deliver it to our doorsteps, she adds.
And that is one reason why a working farm like Wheeler — also part park and part museum, and more than a century old — remains a viable, even magnetic, family attraction in the middle of what is essentially a sprawling Western cityscape at 6351 S. 900 East.
On a pleasant autumn — or harvest time — day, the grounds swarm with people, many of them young families with small children. They picnic and frolic around the tables, lawns and playground to the south, for this is also South Cottonwood Regional Park.
Many check out the historic Wheeler house and farm structures; try to pet the goats and horses and calves; and walk and jog along the many paths through the farmstead, across the creek and into the nearby woods.
It is at once the present and the past at Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation's Wheeler Historic Park.
"Our 'time period' is 1887-1940," Kathleen Bailey, the farm and park's facility manager, says during a walk through the site's history, and the era it represents. "We are not pioneer times, like some people think," but just a tad later.
As such, Wheeler Historic Farm recalls the agricultural era a generation or so after the Salt Lake Valley's settlement — about the time the dream of a sprawling "State of Deseret" gave way to reality, and the territory was admitted to the union as the State of Utah, in 1896.
The site, which is on the National Historic Register, was actually settled during the pioneer era, historians say, by Joseph Hammond and then the Ole Hansen and William Young families. The family of Henry Joseph and Sariah Wheeler took on the spread during the 1880s.
Their descendants helped Salt Lake County acquire the farmstead in the 1960s, and the 75-acre site has, in the decades since, developed into the today's multipurpose historic farm and park, says Martin Jensen, public relations manager for Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation.
The county preserved several historic structures — the Wheelers' 1898 brick residence, which incorporated adobe walls from an earlier house; a garage, still housing an antique car; a granary; a milk barn, etc. — built a few new ones and, Jensen says, has collected "hundreds of artifacts from all over the state."
Those artifacts — some 6,000 of them, Bailey says — are meticulously labeled, categorized and catalogued. On a tour of "Mrs. Wheeler's house" (Sariah Wheeler was determined to have a well-appointed, genteel house of her Victorian era, Bailey says), the sheer variety is evident.
The comfortable parlor is divided, as the times dictated, between the men's area to one side, featuring multiple chairs and a very large piano, and the women's area to the other side, with more seating and lace-making stands.
The Wheeler kitchen is chock-full of turn-of-the-20th-century details, from a big wood-fired oven to a sink and pump that pulled water from a pail down below, the water having to be fetched from the farm's well. The neighboring pantry is stocked with cookie and biscuit baking pans, as well as tins of honey, Clabber Girl baking powder and products like Nabisco's Uneeda Biscuits and Keebler Oven-fresh Saltines.
The bedrooms are upstairs: One for the girls, antique dolls reposing in the light from a northern window; one for the boys, decorated with toys of another time, including a ride-able wood horse with wheels and a ram's skull; and the master bedroom for the Wheeler parents. It would get warm up here in the summer, Bailey says, so some members of the family would have retreated in summer to screened-in sleeping quarters behind the house.
Among the out-buildings is an imposing stone and wood barn and milking parlor, which illustrates the farm's evolution and preservation over a century. Built about 1910, the structure actually burned in 1973, yet was restored in 1981 to become the picturesque hay and cow shelter that we see today.
Just to the north is another large barn structure, this one housing horse-pulled farm equipment and fire-engine-red gasoline-powered tractors. These date to the 19th and early 20th centuries, and displays and photographs tell of their development, the Murray and Salt Lake City businesses that specialized in them, and the farmers who used them.
One billboard sheet on the display wall features a copy of "The Deseret Farmer," a periodical employing Utah's earlier name. Another advertisement, from the local Consolidated Wagon & Machine Co., promotes "The Right Way to Handle Manure," with a detailed illustration of the wagon-like Cloverleaf Manure Spreader.
And since this is a "working farm," there are animals everywhere. Many, such as some of the goats and chickens and white turkeys, are involved in FFA (Future Farmers of America) projects involving hundreds of Granite School District students, Bailey notes.
Other creatures include the horses Thunder and Pete; Belgian draft horses in the pastures; and dairy cows, including, among others, Lola, Bella, Dora and Penny. All are Wheeler Historic Farm residents and mainstays.
Scharman points out that milk cows, including the calves, may look thin and bony, but they aren't underfed, which is what visitors sometimes assume. They're simply anatomically different from chunkier cattle raised for their meat.
Wheeler Farm is supervised and worked by four full-time staff members, Bailey says, with eight to 10 farmhands, plus another eight to 10 workers in the summer.
Besides picnicking, playing and curiously strolling about, there are plenty of activities to entertain and educate visitors. There are tours, including entry into the Wheeler residence at 3 p.m. daily, Monday through Saturday; wagon rides around the complex and chore demonstrations.
"We like to say everything here is free or extremely affordable," Scharman says.
Access to the farm and the picnic grounds is free, and so is simply walking about. Some seasonal activities, such as the recent Pumpkin Days, include small fees. Otherwise, activities from cow milking to riding in the tractor-pulled wagon, as well as house tours, cost from $1 to $4. Check in at the counter in the large, modern Activities Barn for maps and information.
In addition, small bags of bird feed are available at the counter in the activity barn for 50 cents each, for there are lots and lots of birds at Wheeler Farm eager for you to spread such bounty about.
These include ducks, geese and pigeons, and even roaming wild turkeys. Wheeler Farm is along a flyway, and birds stop by to rest — or simply stick around, Scharman says.
"Really, it's a sweet gig," she says. "And so they never leave."
If you go …
Wheeler Historic Farm, "Est. 1887," as its logo notes, is a unit of Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation at 6351 S. 900 East.
It has walking and jogging paths, picnic tables, a multipurpose playground for children, historic exhibits and buildings, and animals, as at a working farm.
Admission to the grounds, parking, walking and park picnic facilities is free. It is open "dawn to dusk."
Some activities have minimal fees. Watching — or participating in — the milking of the cows is $1 per person. Tractor-pulled wagon rides are $2 per person. The Wheeler residence tour is $4 for adults, $2 for children 12 and younger. Children under the age of 2 are admitted free to these activities, with a paying adult.Comment on this story
Photographers, for professional purposes, or for family or wedding photos, are required to check in at the central Activities Barn.
The Activities Barn, with a spacious hall and other facilities, is available for weddings, business meetings and other gatherings.
For information or reservations, call 801-264-2241. Office hours are 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Saturday.