Oral Histories

By Sigrid Edstrom, Alejandro González, and Emma Jahn.


“oral histories are of equal value to written ones” Renfrew and Bahn

The purpose of our project was to determine the history of the Olin Farm site via Oral Histories we gathered from various sources regarding the school’s relationship to the site. In Archaeology Essentials by Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, they declare “oral histories are of equal value to written ones.” In our project, we attempt to highlight the importance of the oral history of the Olin Farm and how it has shaped and continues to shape the physical identity of Carleton’s beloved campus.

Research Question

Based on oral historical accounts, how has the use of the Olin Farm site changed throughout history?


Based on labs and information given at the beginning of the term, our hypothesis was that the Olin Farm site was used as a farm by Carleton and eventually became a place for refuse to gather due to various functions throughout its history.


Due to the nature of Oral histories, we understood the pertinence of utilizing the powerful tool of interviewing. The interviewing methods utilized were inspired by those learned in The Active Archaeology Notebook by Leah McCurdy.

Interviews draw on the information that is known to the public rather than that which has been intentionally collected by archivists. We were intentional with our interview process in order to extract the most pertinent and useful information for our research question.

To narrow down our broad search of “farming” in the Carleton archives, we went specifically to the Cowling Arboretum Collection in the Carleton archives.

Because the land of the Olin Farm has belonged to Carleton for over 100 years, we knew interviews with living people would only take us so far in the pursuit of the answer to our research questions. Because of this, we chose to dive into the Carleton archives in hopes of finding additional physical documents saved about the Olin Farm Site


Types of data include:

Interviews Conducted

Voice Articles


Archival Information from Carleton digital collections

Interviews Conducted

Nancy Braker: Puzak Family Director of the Cowling Arboretum Class of ’81

“Once the college owned the farmland and the houses it was operated as all one farm.”

“The majority of [the Olin Farm] was bought when Donald Cowling was the president and he had a deep interest in protecting the view from the college, so it looked beautiful for the people working and studying in the college.”

“They used the farm for food production”

“In the early 60’s there was a decision made that it wasn’t economically appropriate or useful for the college to run the farm itself, and at that time food production and transportation becoming easier, so the decision was made to switch to buying food on the open market as opposed to producing it themselves”

Mark McKone: Biology professor at Carleton and current resident of the house on Olin Farm site

We asked Mark if he found significant artifacts or objects on or around his property. He replied:

“Maybe I’m not very observant but I haven’t really found specific objects that I remember”

John Ophaug: Lawyer in Northfield, MN. Hired by Carleton in 1999

“The business office has the records of the purchasing of the farm site land”

Steven Spehn: Carleton Director of Facilities and Capital Planning

a pdf document sent to us by Steven

Voice Article

According to this article, for fifty years, Carleton ran chicken and hog operations on the West side of Highway 19. The article also highlights ulterior motives for President Cowling to purchase the farmland in 1916.


Archival Information from Digital Collections

The Olin Farm as a mechanism for education:

source: The Course Catalogs from 1916-1917
Information on President Cowling’s motivations for purchasing the land

Our Analysis

Our interview with Nancy was conducted via zoom, and although we faced some technical issues, it was a good interview overall. Nancy gave us some information about the past of the Olin Farm site; the points to highlight are Cowling’s ulterior motives to purchase the arboretum, the usage of the Olin Farm, and the Olin Farmhouse, and a potential origin for the slag found in our site.

Nancy claims that Cowling “had a deep interest in protecting the view from the college, so it looked beautiful for the people working and studying in the college,” which is in line with the archival evidence we found, and the Voice article that we read. We were also told that the reason why the site became a farm was because “they needed to have it be productive […] it was not considered appropriate to let land just sit around not being productive.” Which does not only corroborate the story of Carleton using the Olin Farm for meat and milk production, but it also gives an explanation to the real reason why the land was used as a farm. This information disproves the theory proposed by the PDF that Spehn referred to which claimed that the farms had been purchased with the objective of feeding the 200 men that the Men’s dorm (Burton) would host.

Something that Nancy told us that surprised us was the potential origin of the slag found on our site. According to Nancy, east of our site there is a ravine; Nancy also claimed that up the ravine there was a slag dump for the slag produced by the coal furnaces used to heat the campus. Nancy even told us that the amount of slag we found on our site was insignificant compared to what she had seen up the ravine. This would imply that some of the slag was moved (potentially by the ravine) and then was naturally scattered around our site.

All of the information Nancy gave us was extremely helpful. However, there are some things that we would’ve liked to do differently. As mentioned before, the interview was conducted via zoom, and there were some technical difficulties. There were some internet connection bugs that made communication hard sometimes. Also, in the middle of the interview, our camera crashed which led to Nancy having to speak to a black zoom screen. Although these are small things that we have gotten accustomed to in the Covid-era, we believe that they somehow diminish the quality of the interview. Next time, we will try to conduct an in-person interview.

Additional Analysis

The nature of this interview, which was conducted via email, resulted in a slightly stilted conversation, but gathered some useful information nonetheless.  Further discussion with McKone, and perhaps a follow-up on the courses of research that he suggested would have been appreciated, but time constraints limited the conduction of such activities.  However, this does not dampen the relevancy of his suggestions.

As in other interviews, we were initially directed to the Carleton Business Office to seek more information.  However, we also inquired further about McKone’s own experiences physically interacting with the house, the property, and the site.  Here we noticed a result which seemed rather symbolic to the nature of the execution of the project as a whole: the limits of the “oral” component of oral history.  As we were limited by the knowledge of our interview subjects, potential information present at the site may have been missed.  In response to a question regarding any significant objects he may have discovered on his property, McKone stated both that he had not discovered anything of interest, but also that “maybe [he was] not very observant”.  In reading his words, the divide between the archaeological view and the layperson’s view became particularly apparent, but does continue to inspire further thoughts on communicative improvement in this and similar projects.

Encouraging further interaction and extending the dialogue between the interviewer and interviewee would likely result in deeper conversations overall.  By making sure that both participants start out on a relatively level footing, the expectations of the interview could be clarified and more specific results potentially reached.  For example, further definition of “significant” objects could have helped us to determine more information relevant to the project and prompt our interviewee to share further experiences about their time at the site.  However, given the techniques put into use in the interview which we did conduct, and the relative success thereof, the interaction was on the whole rather more productive than otherwise.


Prior to conducting any research for the project, our group was aware of the nebulous type of data that we knew we would come across. Oral history is an inherently intimate and sensitive field history to research about. It requires a close relationship to the sources at hand, and even more recent history is advantageous to get to the bottom of a research question.

In the grand scheme of Carleton history, the purchase of the Olin Farm in 1914 and subsequent usage of it as a farm is early in the history of Carleton. This makes the process of conducting Oral history research difficult. However, our data was still able to shed light on the history of the Olin farm.

The analysis conducted based on the information collected from our data set partially aligns with our initial hypothesis.

Part of our hypothesis speculated that refuse (trash) gathered in the Olin Farm site because of the use of the Olin Farm evolving throughout its history. Though trash was found at the Olin Farm site, its evolving function over the 20th century based on the data collected (including its farming uses becoming obsolete in the 1960s) did not indicate that anything significant happened to the site causing it to accumulate trash.

The Olin Farm’s evolving functions did not necessarily physically change, but the social conception of it certainly did.

When it was initially purchased, President Cowling wanted it for aesthetic visual reasons. It then was adopted into the Carleton College farmland. Once the farm became an economic burden, the college disbanded its use as a farm. The site then served as a resource for Agriculture classes at Carleton in the 1960s. Since then, it has been absorbed into the now beautiful, scenic, and highly trafficked walking passes of the Carleton arboretum.


McCurdy, L. (editor). (2019). Active archaeology notebook. Thames & Hudson.

Renfrew, C., & Bahn, P. G. (2020). Archaeology essentials: Theories, methods, practice. W. Ross MacDonald School Resource Services Library.

The Carleton Farm. Voice. (n.d.). Retrieved June 3, 2022, from https://apps.carleton.edu/voice/?story_id=1489049&issue_id=1488818

A History of Farming At Carleton . Agroecogroup2beginning. (n.d.). Retrieved June 3, 2022, from https://people.carleton.edu/~deitzman/Bio_160_Serv_Proj_07/Pages2/AgroEcoGroup2BEGINNING.html

Cowling Arboretum Digital Collections