The other day at Jackson Street Roadhouse in St. Paul, my 19-month-old daughter hopped aboard a Great Northern Railway first-class coach from 1893. Her eyes moved slowly from floor to ceiling, surveying the ornate woodwork, the plush seating, the ceiling-mounted oil lamps. After a few seconds, she blurted her assessment: “Wooooow.”
Set in an old maintenance facility for the railway, Jackson Street Roundhouse is a small museum filled with intrigues for kids and gearheads alike. After the first-class coach, my daughter ran through three more passenger cars before settling in with some model trains. My husband got his own “wow” checking out a 20-cylinder engine from the 1960s, dubbed the “Hustle Muscle.” I flipped through a collection of vintage train posters. Then we all hopped aboard a bright orange caboose for a 10-minute cruise through the railyard.
Like a lot of families, the three of us are devoted members of the Minnesota Children’s Museum, where we spent the better part of last winter petting dinosaurs and army-crawling through child-size ant tunnels. With the arrival of spring, we finally hoped to explore a wider array of kid-friendly museums and cultural options, especially small museums and lesser known gems.
For train-crazed families, another great option is the Twin City Model Train Museum. Founded in 1934, the volunteer-run St. Paul venue features an elaborate setup “representing what the Twin Cities railroad system looked like in the 1950s and 1960s,” board member Bob Niederkorn said. Think train depots, historic mills, even rail bridges over the Mississippi River.
“We’ve worked from photographs and actual blueprints to re-create most of the structures,” he said. An electronic sound system fills the air with whistles, bells and revving diesel engines.
The only problem: The delicate model trains are strictly hands-off. Niederkorn said most kids can channel their energies into pulling levers and flipping interactive switches. For younger kids, an array of Thomas the Tank Engine trains is provided.
Kids can crawl all over a 1949 Ward LaFrance firetruck at the Firefighters Hall and Museum, an under-the-radar museum on a residential street in northeast Minneapolis. The 10-year-old museum features five historic firetrucks including a 1919 American LaFrance with a wooden, tractor-drawn aerial. A 1988 International firetruck takes families for short rides through the neighborhood on Saturdays (April 1 through Oct. 1, weather permitting).
“But we’re not just a firetruck museum,” trustee Joseph Waters said. Other attractions include a 1929 smoke injector, an old railroad handcar and an exhibit on the Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
With summer coming, farm museums should top any family’s to-see list. Located next to the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus, Gibbs Farm and Museum was established on an 1850s farmstead. Jane Gibbs was one of Ramsey County’s first homesteaders. She befriended many Dakota people, learning to speak their language and even earning the Dakota name Little Bird That Was Caught.
Her American Indian friends visited every fall, camping on her property for up to three weeks before heading north to harvest wild rice. Site manager Terry Swanson said as many as 100 teepees once covered the Gibbs property on a single night.
Gibbs Farm is unusual in that it reflects the cultures of the Dakota and white settlers. Attractions include two farmhouses, two barns, five gardens (including a Dakota medicinal herb garden) and three teepees. But the biggest crowd-pleaser is the assortment of farm animals. This summer, look for chickens, ducks, geese, a cow, a pony, a pig, a goat, a pregnant mama sheep and, sooner or later, her lambs.
If you like the Science or Bakken museums, also try the Works, a hands-on engineering museum in Bloomington. Here, a 5-year-old might enjoy working with giant foam blocks while an older sibling makes a machine using zippers, gears and other parts. (Toddlers and their families should try pre-K Mondays.) Also look for an enormous marble run and a ramp where kids can race hand-built cars.
“We have a design lab on our second floor,” marketing manager Sarah Curtis said. “This is where kids and families can work on a series on engineering problems at their own pace.”
The lab is outfitted with circuits, fans, buzzers, lights, wind turbines and wooden planks, just to name a few raw materials. The second floor also features a maze where kids can experiment with finding, tricking and controlling motion sensors.