Ground Survey and Farm History

By Brian Best, Elaina Boyle, Shoko Ishikawa, and Evan Orjala


Located north of the intersection of Three Oaks Drive and Minnesota Highway 19 passing through Northfield, Minnesota is an area classified as the Olin Farm. Preliminary research sheds light on the history of this land after the founding of Northfield. Between the 19th and 20th centuries, the site housed a private residence and livestock operation until it was bought by Carleton College and incorporated into the institution’s own farm. Now part of the Cowling Arboretum after its abandonment, the Olin Farm site provides a place for inquiry into the material history of farming through archaeological ground survey. Specifically, what do artifact clusters found through a ground survey of the Olin Farm House reveal about formation processes during the 20th century?

A History of Farming in Northfield

Farming in the greater Northfield area began in the 1850s, when White settlers first began appropriating local Dakota land for homesteading. Farmers initially grew wheat and other crops that were optimal for their families’ survival. This changed in 1878 when Northfield-area wheat was stricken with a blight disease. Farmers were forced to explore other options such as raising livestock. Local farmer and editor of Heatwole’s Dairy Paper, W.F. Schilling believed that Northfield could become a major destination for cattle-trading and dairy production if farmers raised a highly-productive breed of cattle known as Holsteins. Schilling’s idea caught on, and eventually Northfield was home to 4,000 purebred Holsteins. This fact contributed to the decision of solidifying the town slogan “Cows, Colleges, and Contentment” in 1914.

Beginnings of the Olin Farm

A newspaper clipping of the obituary of A.M Olin from 1931, archived in the Northfield-Rice County Digital History Collection, recounts the early origins of the Olin Farm and its namesakes. Alvah M. (A.M.) Olin was born in Wisconsin in 1843 and was brought by ox team to the area which is currently Northfield in 1855 by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas H. Olin. Upon arrival, there were only four shacks in the immediate area of present Northfield, and it wasn’t until the Fall of that year that the town was laid out by John W. North. The elder Olin had previously established a claim southeast of town the year prior, but it had been stolen, so they homesteaded at another site –– the Olin Farm. The clipping states: “The Olin homestead, located at the turn of the Stanton road just at the north edge of town, now forms part of the Carleton farm. Close at hand are the last vestiges of the old stage road which followed an earlier Indian trail.” A.M. Olin served in the Civil War, returning in 1867 to be married the following year. He and his wife resided on a separate farm for 18 years, before taking over operations at the Olin farm presumably around 1886. According to the clipping, the couple lived at the farm until 1912, when they moved into Northfield proper. 

The Olin Farm as a Carleton Farm

It is plausible that when A.M. Olin took over the Olin Farm, he raised livestock such as Holsteins, as was trending around this time thanks to men like W.F. Schilling. When Carleton acquired the land in 1914 –– likely after just a couple years of ownership by the Parr family –– livestock rearing was certainly the college’s intention. A Carletonian article from December 14, 1921 reveals the college’s intentions for the Olin Farm under the leadership of new manager D.M. Collette. The article states: 

Under his management the Olin farm will probably rise to greater prominence and become better known as a Carleton farm. Mr. Collette expects to start several new projects here. Before this, both the cattle and the hogs have been kept on the large Carleton farm. Now, Mr. Collette intends to start raising and feeding the hogs on the Olin farm. This will better distribute the live stock on both farms and will work toward the improvement of both. Several of the buildings on the Olin farm have undergone some improvements lately. According to Mr. Collette, this is a feeding rather than a breeding project, which will make use of all the garbage from the two dormitories. Under this plan the number of chickens will be increased to one thousand and about four hundred hogs will also be fed during the year.

It seems that it was the college’s plan to incorporate the Olin Farm into the larger Carleton Farm located across the highway –– with the new Olin Farm facilities largely taking over hog and chicken operations. The name “Olin Farm” seldom appears in any records after the 1920s, suggesting that this plan was upheld. However, in the ensuing decades after this article was published, there is no information about hog rearing at the Carleton Farm, leaving the success of the Olin site in question. What is known is that, according to a November 4, 1950 Carletonian article, that the Carleton Farm had become fully mechanized the previous year, and was sporting 150 registered Holstein cows. Less than 14 years later, in May 1964, the college’s herd was sold at auction and the farm was dissolved, coinciding with the tearing-down of structures at the Olin site as well.


It was hypothesized that ground survey provide a screenshot of 20th century farming and Carleton College’s usage of the land by revealing different clusters of artifact types. Said clusters could represent changes through time and space at the site. 

The Olin Farm site spans from North of the Olin Farm House to the Arboretum trails that surround the North, East, and West ends of the site. We chose a 100% coverage ground survey, consisting of 15 survey units each 5 meter by 5 meter in dimensions. We marked these by putting a flag in the corners of each unit. Each unit had a unique ID determined by the column (A, B, or C) and row (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5). Doing an aerial survey would have been too challenging because of the high density of tree and vegetation cover, making it difficult to see the site surface from above. Time constraints and the limited number of surveyors forced the ground survey units to be located in the South-Central area of the site, which was the clearest and most level part of the site. 

The class for ARCN 246 was split into groups of three. Two members of each group would conduct the ground survey while the third member would record the discovered surface artifacts. The two surveyors stood approximately 2 meters apart on the Northern edge of the unit, then slowly walked Southward. If someone spotted an artifact, the rest of the group would gather. Then, the recorder would document on the appropriate survey form where the artifact was found and what type of artifact it was (Bone, Ceramic, Glass, Lithic, Metal, Plastic, Tile/Brick, or Other). This process continued until the group reached the Southern edge of the unit. Each group would then move to the next unit until the entire column was completed.

Exemplar Survey Unit Document

The document below is an example of how the survey data was recorded. This particular unit was on column A and row 1 and was surveyed on April 26th, 2022. Since the ground was covered by leaves and other vegetation, the visibility was recorded as 80%. The weather and collection strategy, in this case a gridded unit with 100% coverage, were also recorded. When an artifact was found, it was marked by a dot in the SU sketch, then the type of artifact was written in the Notes section. In Unit A1, there were 2 metal foils, 1 plastic wrapper, 1 ceramic shard, 10 bones, 3 rusted metal, 1 fragment of a saw blade, and 1 string. Each was classified under the appropriate artifact types.

Example of a Survey Form for Unit A1

Data Analysis and Results

Once the survey was completed, the artifact data for all 15 grids were entered into the ArcGIS to be incorporated into heat maps, representing the density of artifacts by type and by survey unit. These densities would be verified as being “notable clusters”. Notable clusters were defined as any set of 2-3 survey units bordering each other (all going horizontally or vertically) which collectively have 5 or more of the same artifact type. The results of the eight heat maps are pictured below:

Narrowing the focus to farming history at the site, analysis was concerned with two artifact types: metal and bone. Given the history with livestock, these findings are likely to be connected to the farm heritage of the site. Observing the heat map for metals, two distinct artifact clusters are evident. The first cluster is in the Northwest corner, with the following units having notable concentrations:

Survey UnitA1A2A3
Number of Metal Artifacts Found6164

The second cluster is in the Southeast corner, with the following units having notable concentrations:

Survey UnitC4C5
Number of Metal Artifacts Found83
Metal Machinery Fragment Found During Ground Survey After Cleaning

This metal fragment was found in survey unit A3, partly buried but visible from the surface nevertheless. It consists of a hollow steel cylinder with pin holes on either side, but then widens to form what appears to be a circular disk, though most of this component is broken or missing. Several weeks after the survey, we returned to the site to retrieve the piece and then brought it to our archaeology lab to be cleaned and analyzed. Cleaning revealed the marking “17S” on the face of the broken disk. Personal communication with Craig Rau revealed that this piece was likely a chain-driven sprocket which ran a shaft on a piece of equipment such as a thresher, planter, binder, manure spreader, or tiller. Given this artifact’s location in the northwest portion of the survey area near the stone foundation, it corroborates the hypothesis that farm activities were centered in that area. 

It should be noted that all other survey units reveal 1 or no metal artifacts. 

The heat map for bones indicate that one notable cluster appears in the Northwest:

Survey UnitA1A2
Number of Bone Artifacts Found101

It should be noted that there is another concentration of bones toward the Center of the site, specifically:

Survey UnitB2B3B4
Number of Bone Artifacts Found332

This potentially sheds light on the usage of the site being used as an area for hog farming. Unit A1 in particular provides insight with its large concentration of Metal (6) and Bone (10) artifacts. However, going beyond the history as a place for raising swine, the area indicates usage as a dumping site. Looking at the heat map for glass artifacts, one can see the mass concentration of glass that is located toward the South of the region.

Survey UnitA5B5C5
Number of Glass Artifacts Found4121

When looking at this cluster, one can infer that the artifacts were located there for several reasons. These explanations range from dumping near the incline, or small parties held near the site. Limited by time constraints, dating of the glass could not occur. However, it can be inferred that the glass likely was dumped there during the mid-20th century or later due to lack of surface damage and relative translucency. There is also the fact that the cluster is located near the survey units going South, located near a depression in the site. It is possible that passerbys tossed these artifacts over the edge without traversing too far from the main pathways of the Cowling Arboretum.  


The survey findings are consistent with the hypothesis regarding farm activities at the Olin Farm site. Artifacts found in the Northwest portion of the survey area near a stone foundation are predominantly Bone and Metal. During the ground survey, a stretch of wire fence was noted as a feature and not documented as an artifact type. This fencing may imply the existence of livestock pens, and the enormous quantity of hog or cow bones (identified as such after ground survey) is almost certainly evidence of animal butchery taking place. Thus, one can conclude that there is surface evidence of the land’s history as a farming site for hogs and other livestock. 

On the other hand, survey findings, along with extensive excavation not discussed in detail here, verify that the Southern portion of the survey area has a more recent history as a trash midden. Future inquiry will have to be made into estimating the age of artifacts to create a more cohesive timeline for artifacts. In addition, cross referencing the findings of the ground survey with those of any excavation efforts made at the Olin Farm Site.


  • Bierman, Emily A. Sargent. n.d. Northfield History Scrapbook. Northfield, Minnesota: Northfield Historical Society.
  • Case, Nat. 2016.  “The Carleton Farm.” Carleton College Voice, September 1, 2016.
  • Hess, Stephanie. 2019. “Agriculture in the Northfield Region.” Northfield-Rice County Digital History Collection. Last modified January 2019.
  • “New Projects To Be Started At Olin Farm.” The Carletonian (Northfield, MN), December 14, 1921, Carleton College Archives,
  • Simpfle, Dave. “Carleton College Farm Furnishes Dorms’ Milk.” The Carletonian (Northfield, MN), November 4, 1950, Carleton College Archives,

Supplemental Readings

  • Blake, Stewart D. 1941. “Map of Carleton Grounds (1941).” Cowling Arboretum Collection. Carleton Digital Collections.
  • Busch, Jane. 1981. “An Introduction to the Tin Can.” Historical Archaeology 15(1): 95–104.
  • Carleton College. 1960. The Carleton Miscellany, April 1, 1960.
  • Headley, Leal A., and Merrill E. Jarchow. 1966. Carleton: The First Century. Northfield, Minnesota: Carleton College.
  • Irwin, Julia F. 2013. “Teaching ‘Americanism with a World Perspective’: The Junior Red Cross in the U.S. Schools from 1917 to the 1920s.” History of Education Quarterly 53(3): 255–79.
  • Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. 2020. “December 2020.” Dig Updates (blog), Historic Jamestowne. December 16, 2020.
  • Jarchow, Merrill E. 1942. “Farm Machinery in Frontier Minnesota.” Minnesota History 24(3): 316-327.
  • Kohlstedt, Sally Gregory. 2008. “‘A Better Crop of Boys and Girls’: The School Gardening Movement, 1890-1920.” History of Education Quarterly 48(1): 58–93.
  • Kroeger, Samara. 2021. “A Brief Overview of the History of the Carleton College Cowling Arboretum.” Last modified April 19, 2021.
  • McClure, Ethel. 1963. “An Unlamented Era: County Poor Farms in Minnesota.” Minnesota History 38(8): 365–408.
  • Northfield Historical Society. n.d. “Northfield Iron Company, Northfield, Minnesota.” Accessed May 27, 2022.
  • Piatak, Nadine M., Michael B. Parsons, and Robert R. Seal II. 2015. “Characteristics and environmental aspects of slag: A review.” Applied Geochemistry 57: 236-266.
  • Schilling, William F. 1908. “Suggestions for Grazing.” Minnesota Dairyman 3(7): 5.