Select Analysis of Artifact Findings at the Olin Farm Site
Ashok Khare, with help from Dr. Sarah Kennedy and Jonathon Cooper
Part of the Olin Farm artifactual record anthology compiled by Ashok Khare, Collin Kelso, Emmett Forster, and Kyra Landry
During our surveys and excavations at the Olin Farm site, we found a large quantity of distinct and interesting artifacts. These included pottery fragments, glass shards, and metal objects of varying uses. Above all, however, we found an extraordinary quantity of slag – a waste product in the metalworking and smelting process. Given the quantity of unique artifacts that we found, I thought it would be interesting to do a deeper analysis of a small selection of them to see what information they could provide on the site and its inhabitants. I focused my research around metal or metal-related artifacts. Specifically, I studied the slag along with two especially distinct metal artifacts: A souvenir tag engraved with the words “Maisel’s Indian Trading Post” and a spoon whose handle displayed the words “1881 Rogers A1”.
In conducting my research, I mostly used documentary sources found by keyword searches. When I could find specific information – for example, the “Maisel’s Indian Trading Post” engraving on the souvenir tag – I used that in my keyword search. Otherwise, as in the case of the slag, I mostly centered my searches around the context of the object – for example, “farm slag”, “farm smelting”, or “Northfield smelting”. Using the information I got from the documentary sources, I then did my best to analyze my chosen artifacts to see what information they provided about the site, its history, or its inhabitants.
Part 1: The Slag
To me, the vast quantity of slag found at the site initially suggested a large smelting operation in the area, which prompted me to look outside of the farm for its source. However, an interview between Professor Sarah Kennedy and Jeff Machacek, an employee of the Northfield Woodworking company, revealed that the local Northfield foundry did not dump their waste in the Arboretum. Rather, Machacek raised the point that several old farms had a small forge setup for use in making general repairs. He also suggested that our slag resembled “…the remains of a coke-fed hearth” (Machacek 2022).
Machacek’s point is corroborated by several documentary sources regarding the broader farming community. The first, a 1937 bulletin written by Christopherson et. al. titled The Farm Shop, mentions a metalworking forge as a feature to consider including in a farm’s workshop. James M. Drew’s 1935 metalworking guide, Blacksmithing, also mentions forges as a notable part of farm workshops. Finally, Fred Eugene Armstrong’s 1923 bulletin Farm Repair and Construction Work focuses on Minnesota farms specifically. His report, taking into account 560 farms across the state, mentions that one fifth of them have forges.
Given this widespread agreement on the inclusion of forges on some older farms, I wondered if the Olin Farm could also have contained a forging or metalworking area. However, searching through archival files on the Olin Farm, I could not find any information about such facilities or equipment. With this in mind, I cannot say definitely that the Olin Farm had a metalworking or smelting setup. But despite the uncertainty, based on the information I gathered, I still believe that it is distinctly possible for the Olin Farm to have hosted a forge at some point during its history.
In the case that the Olin Farm featured forging or metalworking facilities, my next question centered around what exactly they were forging. Drew’s guide specifically describes the forging process for iron and steel. It would make sense for these metals to be prominently featured in a farm’s metalworking industry, as most of the tools and machinery used on the farm would be made out of either iron or steel. With this in mind, I started researching characteristics of slag produced from iron or steel forging. The Nippon Slag Association details that the main components of iron and steel slag produced by most mainstream smelting methods were CaO and SiO2. With this knowledge, I brought a sample of our slag to Jonathon Cooper, the technical director in the Geology department. Analyzing the sample using an electron microscope, we found that the majority of the sample consisted of Si, Al, and O, with traces of elements such as Ca, Fe, and Mg mixed in.
These findings were very curious. If iron and steel slag produced using mainstream methods contained high amounts of CaO, then why was there such a low concentration of Ca in our slag sample? Through some additional research, I found that CaO is the result of the thermal decomposition of limestone, which is a common flux that just so happens to be mentioned in Drew’s guide when he discusses smelting iron. Thus, the absence of CaO in our slag sample – suggested by the absence of Ca – could indicate that an alternative flux to limestone was used in the forging process. Unfortunately, based on the chemical composition data, I was not able to find a specific alternative that may have been used. Another possibility that might explain the lack of CaO in the slag is that the slag was not produced via iron smelting. A study done by Andreas Hauptmann mentions that slag can also be formed when melting or re-melting metal, as well as while refining and casting metal. Perhaps these processes did not require the use of limestone as a flux, and so produced slag with a low concentration of CaO.
Overall, the presence of slag at the Olin Farm site provides insight into one potential form of activity on the farm during its period of operation. Although I couldn’t find a specific mention of a forge on the Olin Farm site, a precedent of metalworking facilities in farm workshops seems to be well established both in Minnesota and in general, based on the documentary sources I read. Furthermore, the chemical contents of the slag suggest that any forging that may have occurred at the farm involved the processing of iron and steel, based on the high levels of Si, Al, and O in the slag as well as lower levels of Fe and Mg. These chemical quantities generally line up with the composition of iron and steel slag described by the Nippon Slag Association, which specifies large amounts of SiO2 and smaller amounts of MgO and Al2O3. The lack of Ca in the slag, and thus the probable lack of CaO, may be due to the absence of limestone as a flux during the forging process. In turn, this could suggest that another flux was used at the Olin Farm, or perhaps other metalworking activities were performed that did not require limestone flux. All in all, the presence of forging and metalworking facilities on the Olin Farm, which would likely have been used to process iron and steel, is a possibility that I certainly would have missed had it not been for the large amounts of slag at the site.
A video exploring the slag at the Olin Farm is posted below – give it a watch to explore my research more in-depth!
Part 2: The Rogers Spoon
Another artifact that I thought could provide insight into the Olin Farm and its residents was a worn and oxidized spoon, which had “1881 Rogers A1” engraved on the back of the handle. After some research, I found an entry on the Centennial Antiques website that listed an identical – or at least extremely similar – spoon as “…made by 1881 Rogers (Oneida) 1908…in the La Vigne pattern” (Centennial Antiques 2022). Another antiques site, Brewster’s Antiques, elaborates that the La Vigne pattern specifically was from 1908. Thus, the spoon itself must have been from no longer ago than 1908.
From this information, we can make a number of possible hypotheses regarding the residents living on the Olin Farm to whom the spoon belonged. According to Marina Moskowitz’s The Measure of the Middle Class in Modern America, middle-class Americans were persuaded by the 1920s that silverplate flatware was appropriate for everyday dining, and thus such flatware became standard in middle-class homes (Moskowitz 2006). With this trend in mind, it is possible that ownership of silverplate flatware would then be a symbol of the middle-class. The Rogers spoon fits into this scenario very well as it is precisely the sort of flatware described in Moskowitz’s article. The A1 designation inscribed on the Rogers spoon describes the amount of silver required to plate 144 such utensils, confirming that the spoon is indeed silverplate. Furthermore, the spoon’s design dates to before 1920. Thus, in an early 1900s America where ownership of silverplate flatware was becoming increasingly associated with the middle-class, the presence of the Rogers spoon on the Olin Farm site may indicate that whoever owned the land in the early 1900s were themselves a part of the middle class. According to Professor Sarah Kennedy’s fast facts sheet on the site, the farm was passed from the Parr family to the college during that time. In our hypothetical scenario, then, we could more specifically draw the conclusion that either the Parr family or the first people managing the farm for Carleton were middle class.
However, it is important to stress that the possibility explored above is not a definite conclusion. For example, although the Rogers spoon fits well into Moskowitz’s scenario, we still cannot be certain that the presence of the spoon at the Olin Farm site implies that the site’s early 1900s residents were middle-class, or that the spoon even belonged to them at all. In his book Small Things Forgotten, James Deetz describes how some lower-class Americans received pottery from more affluent neighbors or relatives, thus enhancing their apparent social status. This could also be the case for the spoon. The Olin Farm residents who owned the spoon could have received it from someone else who was more affluent, while they themselves were not of a high social status. The possibility of the spoon being a gift also greatly increases the potential period in which it could have appeared on the farm. It is entirely possible that it was gifted to the farm’s residents long after the early 1900s, and thus would provide no information on the Parr family or the first college farm managers.
Part 3: The Souvenir Tag
The final artifact that I analyzed was a metal souvenir tag that read “Maisel’s Indian Trading Post, Albuquerque, New Mexico”. According to its entry on the National Park Service website, Maisel’s Trading Post was a curiosity store that sold objects associated with Mexican and southern Native American culture. Located on Route 66, it was opened in 1939 before closing in the 1960s upon the death of founder Maurice Maisel. However, it was reopened in the 1980s by Maisel’s son, Skip Maisel. Such a wide period of operation makes it difficult to pinpoint the age of the souvenir tag and the dates during which it was owned by the Olin farmhouse residents. However, because we found a 1961 dime in the excavation level below the one in which we found the tag, the tag’s date of ownership can be narrowed down somewhat to after 1961. This is because, according to core stratigraphic principles, it would be unlikely for an object deposited on top of a second object to have been deposited before the second object was even created.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to use the trading post tag to glean information about the Olin Farm site and its residents. This is because by 1961, the Olin Farm site was being used as a storage area and dump for the nearby farmhouse as well as the college, according to Professor Sarah Kennedy’s fast facts sheet about the site. However, in the case that it belonged to residents of the Olin Farmhouse, I thought it would still be worth analyzing. Firstly, the souvenir tag can tell us about other artifacts that we may not have uncovered, but might have at one point belonged to residents of the Olin Farmhouse. An article written about the Trading Post by the Albuquerque Historical Society specifies that the store was specially known for its Native American pottery and jewelry products. If the residents of the Olin Farmhouse at some point owned a Maisel’s Trading Post tag, then it is not a stretch to hypothesize that they may have also owned such pottery, jewelry, or other products from the Trading Post. Thus, the presence of the souvenir tag can inform us of other possible belongings of the residents of the Olin Farmhouse, even if we didn’t find them in our excavation. However, it is also possible that the residents picked up only the souvenir tag from their visit to the Trading Post, or somehow got the souvenir tag from somebody else.
Finally, in the case that the residents of the Olin Farmhouse directly purchased the souvenir tag from the Trading Post, that would imply they likely had significant physical and financial resources which enabled travel from Minnesota to the store in New Mexico. Their apparent willingness to travel across the country and visit a tourist-oriented souvenir shop would suggest that they were at least wealthy enough to travel for the sake of visiting tourist destinations.
In conclusion, the artifact record of the Olin Farm we found through excavation reveals several possible attributes of the Farm itself, as well as its residents over the years. From the selection of artifacts I evaluated in detail, I was able to glean possible activities at the site as well as the social class and economic status of its residents at particular points in time. However, I would like again to emphasize that none of the possibilities discussed in this writeup are definite by any means, since I couldn’t find any unequivocal proof. Nevertheless, my findings show the power of the documentary record in uncovering potential stories of places and people.
- “1881 Rogers Antique US Silver-Plated Flatware”. Ebay. (n.d.) https://www.ebay.com/b/1881-Rogers-Antique-US-Silver-Plated-Flatware/20099/bn_18113999
- “1881 Rogers – La Vigne – Teaspoon – Silver Plate 6””. Centennial Antiques. (n.d.) https://centennialantiques.com/collections/oneida-silver/products/1881-rogers-le-vigne-silver-plate-teaspoon-6
- Armstrong, F. E. (1923). Farm Repair and Construction Work. Bulletin of The University of Minnesota, XXVI(47). Google Books.
- “Chemical Characteristics of Iron and Steel Slag.” Nippon Slag Association. (2003). https://www.slg.jp/e/slag/character.html
- Christopherson, C. H., White, H. B., and Neubauer, L. W. (1937). The Farm Shop. Special Bulletin. https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/168536/mn_2000_eb_190.pdf?sequence=1
- Deetz, J. (1996). In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor.
- Drew, J. M. (1935). Blacksmithing. Webb Book Publishing Company.
- Hauptmann, A. (2014). The Investigation of Archaeometallurgical Slag. Archaeometallurgy in the Global Perspective. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-9017-3_5.
- Kennedy, S. “Olin Farm Fast Facts”. (n.d.)
- Machacek, J. (Personal communication, May 10, 2022)
- “Maisel’s Indian Trading Post”. National Park Service. (n.d.) https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/route66/maisels_indian_trading_post_albuquerque.html
- Moskowitz, M. (2006). The Measure of the Middle Class in Modern America. Technology and Culture, 47(2), 440-441. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/200853
- Northfield Historical Society (1935). Northfield Iron Company, Northfield, Minnesota. Minnesota Digital Library.
- “Silverplate Patterns”. Brewster’s Antiques. (2022). https://www.silverpattern.com/i/silverplate-patterns/la-vigne-1908-by-1881-rogers
- “The History of Downtown Albuquerque’s Maisel’s Indian Trading Post”. Albuquerque Historical Society. (n.d.) https://www.albuqhistsoc.org/programs/ahs-2017-2018-programs/the-history-of-downtown-albuquerques-maisels-indian-trading-post/