In the 1870s, the Harkin Store had a big role to fill. The rural general store in the Minnesota River Valley was both the economic and social center of the growing community of West Newton. Steamboat trade made the town's future seem bright, but then - as with so many other rural towns - the railroad passed it by.
The store's original owners, Alexander and Janet Harkin, who were born in Scotland, arrived in the Minnesota Territory in 1856 to farm. After several difficult years, the Harkins and their farm began to prosper and Alexander was appointed or elected to a variety of positions including coroner, school board treasurer, justice of the peace and postmaster. In 1867, he opened a combination general store and post office.
Their fortunes changed soon after, however, when in 1873 the railroad bypassed the community and locusts descended on southern Minnesota - and stayed for four years. West Newton and the Harkin Store declined for the next few decades. The store eventually closed in 1901 as river and road traffic dwindled and the post office was replaced by free rural delivery. Its doors were locked and the store and its merchandise remained untouched until the site reopened as a museum in 1938.