Community Social Use

Oral Histories 

The Cowling Arboretum has since its inception in the 1930s, and indeed prior, functioned as a social interface between Carleton College and the local communities of the wider Northfield-Dundas-Waterford area. It has been the subject of a host of uses throughout its history; for one, it has provided a place of refuge for niche groups and, in its relative isolation, attracted surreptitious activity as well. It has, too, operated as an interface of economic activity between both the college and local community, manifest at both individual and institutional levels. And perhaps most prominently, the Arb has constituted a space of leisure and recreation for both the campus and local communities. While these general facets may be applied to the contemporary, however, the contours of each have undergone considerable change over time. We endeavored to elucidate the historical social-cultural uses and meanings of place attributed to the arboretum through the processes manifest therein. In doing so, we centered the local perspective of conceptions of social significance and usage of the arboretum extracted through a semi-structured interview methodology. 

We ultimately spoke with three volunteers, each of whom have spent considerable time both in the Northfield-Dundas-Waterford area and engaging with the arboretum. Our first volunteer, Nancy Braker (‘81), has been the director of the Cowling Arboretum since 2007. In addition to her present occupation, which necessitates an intimate understanding and engagement with the arboretum, she spent a considerable amount of time in the Arb during her four years on campus as a student four decades ago. These experiences past and present proved her a valuable interlocutor as she contributed to a richer understanding of the arboretum’s more recent history as an interface between the community, college, and the state. 

Raymond Ozmun, our second informant, was born in Waterford Township, Minnesota in 1933. He spent his childhood in Waterford and neighboring Northfield, eventually building a house in the former in 1968. He now resides in Northfield proper after moving from his Waterford home just last year. During his long life, Ray has been on the Waterford Township Project & Property Committee, been a member of the Northfield Police Force, run a supper club, been a self-employed carpenter, and of course, has spent a great deal of time in the arboretum. In short, he has been well integrated within the broader Waterford-Northfield community for decades, making him an ideal interlocutor in our quest to elucidate the discursive historical relationships between the local community and the arboretum. 

Kathy Vang, our third volunteer, moved with her family to Waterford Township at the age of 10 in 1953, only moving out in 1999 when she relocated to Dundas. A nurse at Northfield and Fairview Ridges Hospital in Burnsville for a combined 50 years, her status as a longtime community-oriented actor made her an invaluable interlocutor for this project. 

Recordings of respondents’ interviews were manually transcribed and subsequently codified into four “frames,” which functioned as response typologies. Responses relating to the economic uses of the arboretum were classified into the “economic activity frame;” responses discussing leisurely activity were classified into the “leisure frame;” responses discussing clandestine or illicit activity were classified into the “clandestine activity frame;” and responses relating to change in arboretum use were placed into the “change frame.” Such a methodology was employed in order to better organize the data as we engaged with over four and a half hours of auditory content. Framing also served us well in the ultimate presentation of our findings, as the specific frames lend themselves to the production of a fluid and coherent demonstration of the arboretum’s social use from past to present.


We conducted on-the-ground, semi-structured in-depth interviews in our endeavor to elucidate the historical social-cultural meanings attributed to, and usages of, the arboretum throughout its history by the broader Northfield-Dundas-Waterford community. We employed a bifurcating sampling methodology, using both a ‘gatekeeper’ or ‘snowball’ sampling process–which entails the procurement of an individual interlocutor who refers the researcher to other potential informants, who ideally do the same–as well as sending direct emails to specific volunteers individually picked due to their proximity to the arboretum and its history. The former was manifest through the contact and concurrent explanation of the project to the Waterford Township clerk’s office and Northfield Historical Society. In total, we contacted two societies/organizations and four individuals, yielding four responses and three interview volunteers. 

The interviews were conducted using a semi-structured in-depth methodology in which the interviewer had prepared an array of general questions while maintaining the capacity to expound upon tangential and/or unforeseen subject matter. This made for a more relaxed and intimate conversational environment ideal for establishing immediate rapport with volunteers whom the interviewer had not held correspondence with prior to this project. Each interview was recorded on Zoom, including the two conducted in an in-person format at the interviewee’s home, and lasted between 60 and 90 minutes; the recordings were subsequently transcribed and coded into four frames, those being the ‘Arboretum as an interface of economic activity,’ ‘leisure,’ clandestine activity,’ and ‘change’ frames. None of our informants were exceptionally familiar with the Millpond Dike and quarry site subject to our excavations throughout the term, but they nevertheless had a great deal of information to offer regarding the area immediately adjacent to those sites. The informants were not offered monetary nor material recompense, but each were nonetheless eager to contribute to our community-oriented project, and each provided valuable accounts toward the elucidation of the history of the arboretum as an interface of the college and the local area. 


The informants’ responses were coded into four frames, including the ‘arboretum as an interface of economic activity’ frame; the ‘arboretum as an interface of clandestine activity’ frame; the ‘arboretum as an interface of leisure activity’ frame; and the ‘changing interfaces of the arboretum’ frame. The majority of interviewee responses were coded into these four frames, although some responses could viably be coded into a fifth sub-frame of the changing interfaces frame delineating responses regarding the Millpond Dike and quarry site. 

Economic Frame

The economic frame emerged during the interview process primarily in narratives relating to the farming activity in the Arb through the mid-20th century [Fig. 1]. Carleton used some acreage surrounding the two farmhouses–one of which being the contemporary Farm/Parr student interest house [Fig. 2]–as a farm which produced food and provided educational and vocational opportunities for students:

When Carleton purchased that land [in the Upper Arb near our excavation sites in 1917], it was used as a farm. They produced mostly dairy, and they had poultry and swine for the dining halls, and sold anything that was excess. They had a prize winning dairy herd up until the mid sixties. And they had their own farmer that had staff and lived at the farmhouse. – Nancy Braker

[Fig 1 (left)]: The farm at the Cowling Arboretum, complete with horses and cows; early-to-mid 20th century. Credit: Carleton College

[Fig 2 (above)]: Farm House, now a student residence, and formerly residence of the foreman and his family; early-to-mid 20th century.
Credit: Carleton College


Important to our purposes, however, is its employment structure: the foreman was hired and paid by the college to manage the farm, and he and his family were allowed to live in the farm house(s) on campus property: 

I had an uncle that, before he went into the service [for World War II], he rented one of those houses. He rented the house, and he worked for Carleton on the farm; did the milking, took care of the horses and stuff. …And other foremen later rented it out [and were paid by Carleton] to farm. – Ray Ozmun

Such a setup represents a mutually beneficial economic relationship between the college and locals. Carleton hired a member of the local farming community, as opposed to hiring from an extralocal setting or appointing a preexisting campus employee, to manage and work this incredibly consequential and conspicuous aspect of campus life. While the farm no longer exists, this direct economic relationship between Carleton and local farmers remains, at least to an extent: 

…There’s still one chunk there. Carleton owns it, but the guy whose dad used to own it runs it; he farms for Carleton. But yeah, someday it’ll all be wildflowers. And they have some sort of agreement. – Ray Ozmun

Leisure Frame

The arboretum as an interface of leisure frame was proportionally the most represented out of the four main frames. All three interview subjects spoke about the wide range of activities they, or other members of the community, have been engaged in at the Arb. Indeed, the Arb has played host to a veritable plethora of activities, including walking, running, biking, skiing, and more:

I’ve talked to a lot of people from the area who remember using the arboretum a lot as kids, you know, riding their bikes, fishing, wandering around. – Nancy Braker

[The arb] was our playground. …Skiing, skating, swimming, fishing. …I remember we used to ski on the pond near the [Waterford] mill. …We also skated on the river by the dam. …We did cross-country skiing, too. – Kathy Vang 

Such varied activities were concentrated in part around the ruins of the Waterford Millsite during the mid-20th century, perhaps due to its proximity to the township [Fig. 3], its presence as a distinct feature in the environment, and/or the swinging bridge connecting Waterford with the other side of the Cannon at that locale. Whatever the case, it appeared to act as somewhat of an epicenter of activity: 

There was a lot of activity around it [during her childhood]. There were far less trees; it was more open. …People had picnics there, and there was a swinging bridge [which connected it to Waterford]. …People fished off the sandbank just down the river. – Kathy Vang

[Figure 3]: Map of Waterford and a section of the north-northeastern section of the Arb, complete with the Grange Mill Ruins (14, 15) and Millpond Dike (16), illustrating the proximity of the town–and its residents–with the mill site and arboretum; October 19, 1969. Credit: Ray Ozmun

These pastimes have persisted well into the contemporary. There are several historical leisure-based uses of the arb, however, that are no longer extant, including scenic driving:

That was [sic] my later years, when I spent time going through the Arb with my car and my motorcycle. …We used to race around some of the corners on the trails with cars and motorcycles. – Ray Ozmun

Interestingly, the old Pine Hill Village site [Fig. 4], subject to the 2017 excavations of ARCN 246, provided both a leisure and economic point of interaction between the campus and local community: 

While the Navy was there, they had guns, like an M1 rifle. And there was a gravel pit in the arb, and that’s where Carleton got all their gravel for all their streets and some of the finer sands for those paths. But the soldiers used that for a firing range. The bullet itself had a little copper head on it, and it was filled full of lead; it was a pretty good sized bullet, probably about three inches long with the shell. And of course you could pick them up, because the lead from the little copper heads dug into the gravel when they fired them. And my brother and I used to go and dig them up, melt them down, and go into town and sell the lead. – Ray Ozmun

[Figure 4]: Pine Hill Village in the Upper Arb, residence in the postwar decades to members of the armed service and their families; circa 1950. Credit: Carleton College & the Archaeology in the Arb Project

To the Northfield-Dundas-Waterford community, the arboretum operates essentially as a privately-owned, public-access park at which locals are given the liberty to frequent year-round for leisurely purposes. Both informants who spent their childhood and young adult life in Northfield-Waterford recall their time in the Arb fondly; to be sure, the arboretum facilitates the engenderment of a sense of campus-community cohesion in providing a locale for extra-institutional social activity as a shared space between the college and locals.

Clandestine Activity Frame

The arboretum as a locus of clandestine activity frame was touched on primarily by Nancy, who spoke at length about the more furtive actions of the student body she has witnessed during her time as Arb director. The arboretum and its spatial position, relatively isolated from the authority structures of both the campus and Northfield, make it a presumably ideal locale for clandestine activity, or at the very least for sizeable gatherings which may be for whatever reason best suited for such a setting. We have seen this manifest quite conspicuously in the material record at the quarry site. According to one respondent, however, such activity was markedly less pronounced for members of the local community:

It might have been for the students; I might get away with dragging through with my car. …I don’t remember the community using it [for clandestine activity]. And maybe they did, but I didn’t know, right? – Ray Ozmun

That said, locals certainly weren’t ignorant of the comparative lack of policing in the arboretum, and made sure the students were not alone in taking advantage of that fact for leisure, both in the past and present:

There were three different bridges that you crossed that little crik to get back to that part of the arb. It was always fun. We did it with our motorcycles. We weren’t supposed to, of course, but crossing those little narrow bridges with our motorcycles. – Ray Ozmun

There’s a contingent from Northfield of underage drinkers who we’ll find usually in corners near parking lots because they will drive out there. – Nancy Braker 

However, more than these relatively harmless forms of recreation characterized the broader range of surreptitious activity transpiring in the arboretum. Indeed, the Women’s League Cabin [Fig. 5] on the northeast edge of the upper Arb was repeatedly broken into during its history, likely by non-Carleton actors due to the accessibility of keys to the student body:

But it got to the point where too many people were kicking in the door and then they just tore it down. – Ray Ozmun

There were issues at the cabin [in the past]. One of the things that the class I was in did was figure out how to build shutters for the windows, because it was getting broken into all the time. We were concerned that the administration would say [we couldn’t use it anymore because] this is a constant input of funds to fix things. – Nancy Braker

It is worth noting that the concentration of these clandestine activities at the cabin site has not dissipated completely following the cabin’s destruction in the 1990s: 

There are [problems]. Just last fall we had a group of probably high school students [hold] a huge party at [the Women’s League Cabin] site. They hauled in a bunch of upholstered living room furniture and then set it on fire before they left. There was this huge fire scar, which obviously is not a respectful use of a natural area. So, you know, we can have both kinds of situations. – Nancy Braker 

These anecdotes illustrate a more malignant component of the college-community dynamic, one characterized by the explicit and deliberate incursion of demarcations between college and community. While both the student body and local community used the arboretum for clandestine leisure, the illicit breakdown of both physical and symbolic boundaries at the Women’s League Cabin provides a succinct demonstration of the isolation inherent to the arboretum, a spatial reality which surely fuelled the brazen attitudes which time and time again made the cabin their victim. It elucidates, too, a sort of paradox of relationality: in a sense, Carleton’s arboretum property being broken into demonstrated it was as apart of the broader community than anywhere else; it was not so esteemed an institution nor so socially removed from the local populace to be innately protected from exterior incursions. Yet, by the same token, these very same break-ins represent just how removed Carleton is from the rest of the community in both the arboretum’s spatial isolation and the capacity of the college to abandon a building of such cultural significance, not necessarily because they lacked the resources to repair but rather because it was simply too much of a nuisance to do so. Such a privilege is generally removed from the normative social-economic paradigms operating throughout the rest of the Northfield-Dundas-Waterford community.

Change Frame

The fourth and final frame of discussion is the change frame. To be sure, it should be expected that there does not exist a paucity of changes within the broader history of the arboretum being that it is over a century old. Many of these changes entailed alterations in the contours of the college-community interface in the arboretum, whether from policy change or direct engagement between the college and locals. For example, the aforementioned scenic driving, which contributed to the popularity of the Arb amongst the local community, was prohibited by the 1970s [Fig. 6 & 8]:

[At one time] all the trails used to be open for driving, and people would go [into the arb] and drive in there. [Paul Jensen] was very concerned about driving and people causing problems by driving, and he really lobbied the college to put up gates and prohibit vehicle use. So that was a big change that probably happened in the early seventies. – Nancy Braker


The prohibition of hunting in the mid-20th century [Fig. 7] affected, too, the manners in which the local population engaged with the arboretum, although unlike the above example, this alteration entailed action at local, college, and state levels:

At some point, the property that the college owned was designated as a state game refuge, which was in the forties or fifties, something like that. It’s not a designation the state uses anymore, but they’ve allowed the ones that are designated to continue to be, and that prohibits any kind of hunting or trapping. So that was probably a big change at the time it was enacted. I haven’t seen anything that suggested the public was disturbed about that, although there were quite a bit of, you know, letters in favor of maintaining it. …Letters of support to the state game commission, you know, at a state level. …[Though] there’s now an exception to the game refuge status that allows deer hunting, so that was kind of a big policy shift that also involved the college board of trustees agreeing that there should be hunting in the area because there are no, you know, weapons allowed on campus and the Arb is a part of campus. So that had to be a kind of special exemption for archery hunting, but only during December when you guys aren’t on campus. Nancy Braker

The prohibition of hunting elucidates the complexity of social relationships attached to the arboretum, as it became not only an interface of the college and community but the state as well. Another mode of interaction eliciting change relates to the expansionist endeavors of the college. The procurement of adjacent farmland to incorporate into the arboretum is not a uniformly smooth process:

Carleton wanted the land on the north side of [highway] 19. They just kept dickering with Mikey Peterson, the one that lives there now, and they kept bugging Donny, his dad, and they would say ‘We want to buy all that land someday and put it into wildflowers.’ And it took awhile, but they eventually got the land. – Ray Ozmun

The complexity of the community-college relationship relating to the arboretum and changes therein is expounded upon through this example, as the purchase and subsequent usage of land by Carleton was and remains subject to draw the ire of locals: 

We hated to see land use for anything but farming. Because we wanted to preserve the farmland. We weren’t happy but there was nothing we could do about it. Carleton and the homeowner made the deal. And that was it. …We need corn and beans to feed the world. And the other thing is, it took tax dollars away from the township. – Ray Ozmun

Through these examples, we see the power the institution of the college–and, additionally, sometimes the state–has in enacting change within the arboretum. We are reminded that, while the Arb maintains social significance among the broader Northfield-Dundas-Waterford community, it is ultimately within the jurisdiction of the college; thus, the power to alter the uses of the arboretum by locals is vested in Carleton. Moreover, the above anecdotes relating to the college purchasing land from local farmers illustrates both the tactics and power the institution employs and maintains over the local population, as well as how it relates to changes in usage. 


The oral accounts provided by our interlocutors illustrate not only the broad historical uses of the arboretum, but the relationship between the college and community developed therein. The arboretum has, and indeed remains, a locale of economic enterprises, clandestine activity, and leisurely recreation. These disparate uses have changed across time as the college–and sometimes the state–imposes new restrictive policy which affects the local uses of the arb. Still, the arboretum remains a prominent and valued facet of the cultural makeup of the Northfield-Dundas-Waterford area, and one which is positioned at a reciprocal interface between college and community, as succinctly encapsulated by the present Arb director when discussing a potential highway re-route which would cut across the upper arb:

We’re kind of always monitoring that and making sure that we have enough support from the local community that they would push back against that. So if the arboretum was not open for people from Northfield to use, they would not care where the highway went, but if it is [public], and if they love it, and if it’s very dear to them, then they will contribute to an argument about not causing that to happen. So that’s just one of a couple different examples of these outside things that would happen that the college might not have a lot of control over if we didn’t have good support from the local community. – Nancy Braker 

Indeed, the arboretum has remained through a slew of historical changes in usage a central, defining component of the local community. It is far more than mere college property; rather, an intimately community-oriented meaning has been attributed to it through its historical uses, functioning as an ever-present social-cultural institution of the Northfield-Dundas-Waterford area which will remain as such for some time to come:

When we go out of town and say we’re from Northfield, people mention the arb. It’s been there, and it’s gonna be there. – Ray Ozmun