Old farms drawing modern travelers

You just can't keep `em down on the farm. But you can sure bring `em back for a breath of fresh air.

In idyllic rural settings across the country, modern travelers are stopping at a fascinating breed of tourist attractions to get a first-hand sense of life on the farm.

The destinations include farmhouses that have been turned into small museums, bed-and-breakfast inns set in rolling pasture lands, and working farms and ranches that take in guests.

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Consider this travelogue through the fields of America:

The Marilyn and Alden Hopkins family have owned their land near the coast of Delaware since 1845, making theirs a Delaware Century Farm - one kept in the same family for at least 100 years. In 1983, Alden took timber from his land to build a covered bridge and gave the historic place a new name, the Covered Bridge Farm.

The oldest part of the old farmhouse, which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, dates from 1830. This fall, it became part of the Delaware Farmland Preservation District, 25,000 acres pledged to remain farmland.

Alden and Marilyn, a retired teacher, preserved a sense of heritage by turning part of their property into a little farm museum. Visitors of all ages can enjoy a stroll around the grounds, crossing the covered bridge and absorbing a sense of rootedness from the unchanged land secured by old trees, a red barn and white farmhouse, fences and fields yellowing with cornstalks in early fall.

There is a quaint gazebo, and several outbuildings that have been converted to display collections: old tractors and farm vehicles (which Alden keeps in running condition) in the barn, and vintage farm tools in the old milkhouse.

A favorite spot is the walk-through, two-story doll house, complete with furnishings, toys, a new blue floor, wallpaper and a mailbox where schoolchildren leave notes.

Inside a newer house on the grounds, front and back parlors with old family pieces, china and cranberry glass create a real sense of Victoriana. At Christmastime, Marilyn's extensive collection of dolls, many in skating or caroling costumes, is displayed.

Tours are free and by appointment only. Call (302) 684-1591.

In the center of Mitchell, on Interstate 90 in the southeast corner of South Dakota, is a remarkable structure: the Corn Palace.

The original building, of fantastic Moorish design with towers and minarets, was constructed in 1892 to highlight the fact that the fertile land was good for growing crops.

The present structure, the third version of the Corn Palace, was built in 1921 and is more onion-dome in design, but like the original is covered with designs of ears of corn, outlined with grasses and grains.

Each year in summer and early fall, 2,000 to 3,000 bushels of various shades of corn and grasses are used to refurbish and redesign the palace.

Inside is a large auditorium, which in summer months caters to visitors with 
shopping kiosks, videos and displays. The other nine months it serves the local community as a venue for entertainers, the circus, basketball games and proms.

Other events include: in mid-June, the Corn Palace Balloon rally, with hot-air balloon races; in mid-July, the Corn Palace Stampede Rodeo, featuring calf roping and barrel racing; in September, the Corn Palace Festival, with a carnival, and the Polka Festival, with three days of dancing and music.

Guided tours of the palace are given year-round. Admission is free.

For information, call (800) 257-CORN.

Many travelers find a link to the land at a restored fieldstone colonial house called The Inn at Fordhook in Doylestown, PA, in picturesque Bucks County near Philadelphia.

The elegant house is the former home to W. Atlee Burpee, the legendary seed grower who developed a vast mail-order business with his seed catalogs.

Burpee's grandchildren have turned the house into a bed-and-breakfast inn named for his big selling Fordhook lima bean seeds. The house - sitting on 60 acres of rolling pasture with a small carriage house nearby - contains six homey guest rooms as well as the study where Burpee wrote his catalogs.

Although the seed company has been sold and seed cultivation no longer takes place at Fordhook, many of the old seedbeds have been turned into a community garden, giving the place the feel of an old-fashioned farm.

For more information, call (215) 345-1766.

In Southern California, the Rankin Ranch exemplifies a new breed of vacation retreat: the working cattle ranch that invites in city slickers.

Set in a secluded valley with 12 duplex cabins for guests and a central, high-ceilinged dining room featuring Western-style grub, visitors of all ages feed farm animals, ride horses and even herd cattle with the real cowboys who work the ranch.

The ranch has been in the Rankin family for more than 130 years and has been accepting vacationers for more than 30 years, making it one of the old-timers in the field of agritourism. The theme is quality time for family vacations - distinguishing it from fancy dude ranches that lure would-be cowboys from corporate America.

"It's a unique way to spend a vacation," said rancher Bill Rankin. "People go away with a better sense of what agriculture in general - and cattle ranching in particular - is all about." Call (805) 867-2511.

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