The Carleton Farm’s Dual Economic Histories – 1916-24

By Collin Kelso, with help from Dr. Sarah Kennedy

Introduction and Goals

The history of Carleton College’s on-campus farm is quite long, dating back to May 1st, 1916 with the purchase of the Olin Farm; however, one relatively underappreciated element of this history is the sheer complexity of the farm’s early years. In this project, I use the archival and artifactual records of the Olin Farm Site to help understand this complexity, and to place it within the wider context of Midwestern farming at the time. From these two records, two parallel, yet distinct, economic histories emerge: one of the Carleton Farm’s institutional circumstances, and another of the everyday farmers who worked it.

Research Questions

  • What do the Carleton Farm’s archival records say about its economic history from 1916-1924? Are there any correlates – academic or archival – that corroborate this expansion?
  • What does the Carleton Farm’s artifactual record – obtained by both excavation and survey – say about this history? Are there any artifacts or artifactual trends that would imply a certain economic standing?
  • How do these histories build on (or conflict with) each other?

An (Un)Usual Midwestern Farm

During its early years, the Carleton Farm, and by extension, the Olin Farm Site, is analogous to an archetypical Midwestern farm of the time; this is due in large part to the economic circumstances of the day. Historians Dennis S. Nordin and Roy V. Scott argue that, leading up to the 1920s, Midwestern farming as a whole expanded rapidly. Commodity and land prices exploded, in part due to the United States’ involvement in World War I, and many farmers experienced prosperity as a result; they state that “agricultural historians generally refer to these years of the prolonged boom as the ‘golden age’ of agriculture. Some statistics support their contention that farmers’ incomes and assets grew.”, and highlight that Niels Nielsen, a Nebraskan farmer, “reported in Profitable Farming that you ‘scarcely hear a note of calamity.'” (Nordin and Scott, 25-27). In this era, Midwest farming also became subject to greater specialization: “Agricultural generalists who marketed small amounts of many categories of grain and livestock products were quickly becoming Midwest anomalies. Milk was increasingly becoming the product of dairy specialists.” (Nordin and Scott, 43). However, a crash in commodity prices in 1921, attributed in part to the end of World War I, ended this trend in expansion – Nordin and Scott sum up contemporary farm owners’ sentiments well: “The golden age seemed a mirage for farmers struggling to survive financially with excessive debts and cope emotionally with uncertainty about their families’ futures.” (Nordin and Scott, 53-54). It is clear to see that the economic circumstances encompassing the Carleton Farm’s incorporation are quite mixed; these can be seen in the Carleton Farm’s archival record.

The Carleton Farm was subject to many of these aforementioned trends; however, it was atypical of Midwest farms in that it was institutionally-sponsored, and meant to serve the Carleton student population. Leal A. Headley and Merrill E. Jarchow, both former Carleton professors, give a rationale for the Olin Farm’s purchase: “With the near completion of the men’s dormitory in the spring of 1916 and the expectation of feeding ‘more than 200 hungry men,’ the College ‘dis­creetly increased the facilities of the vegetable and dairy supply’ by pur­chasing the Olin farm of 100 acres.” (Headley and Jarchow, 31). This gives a rationale for the Farm’s expansion – and expand it did. During the first eight years of Carleton’s ownership of the site, the College constructed a hog house, henhouse, dairy, dormitory, root cellar, and a new farmhouse (Carleton Farm Financial Records, 1915-24). Additionally, in its first eight years of operation under Carleton, the farm’s gross revenue increased by an average of $2082 per year (see graph), with an R 2  value of .8125 implying regular increases (This growth, however, was largely restricted to the farm’s cattle operations; pork and poultry, pertinent to the Olin Farm Site, were quite minor in comparison) (Carleton Farm Financial Records, 1915-24). 

Total income by year from 1915-1924 (Data from: Carleton Farm Financial Records, 1915-24). A linear regression was done on the income minus shortage, giving the equation: Y=2082X+2204, with an R2 value of .8125.

However, despite physical expansion and a steady growth in revenue, the Carleton Farm was not immune to hardship. By 1924, the Farm had largely failed to make a profit; consistent shortages between gross income and expenditures were present throughout its early years (see above graph), and by 1924, the Farm had accumulated a “current deficit” of $95643.97 (Carleton Farm Financial Records, 1915-24). This may be due to several factors. Firstly, expansion is expensive; Carleton’s cattle holdings grew consistently year-on-year between 1915-212 (Carleton Farm Financial Records, 1915-24), coinciding with a large rise in cattle prices at the time; between 1915 and 1919, the average price of a Midwestern milk cow (per head) jumped from $58.20 to $92.00 (Nordin and Scott, 27). This problem was likely worsened by the aforementioned physical expansion of the Farm. (Carleton Farm Financial Records, 1915-24). The Carleton Farm may also have suffered from the hardships experienced by many Midwestern farms during the early 1920s, thus hurting business; in particular, the prices of cream (by pound) and milk cows (by hundredweight) between 1908-55, at their highest during this period at $0.63/lb (December 1919) and $95.30/hundredweight (February 1920) respectively, fell drastically, reaching the lowest points in this period: $0.28/lb (June 1921) and $51.60/hundredweight (November 1922) respectively (Nordin and Scott, 53). This likely hurt the Carleton Farm’s bottom line significantly.

Income shortages, by year, of the Carleton Farm Current Account from 1915-24; note the steady increase. (Data from: Carleton Farm Financial Records 1915-24)

Despite these worrying financial signs, the Carleton Farm stayed afloat; this may be attributed to several factors. For one, Carleton regularly injected capital into the Farm from its endowment; this was made as an advance to be paid back later (Carleton Farm Financial Records, 1915-24). The Farm was also involved with Northfield-famous Holstein Cattle from 1917-18 on (Carleton Farm Financial Records, 1915-24). While Carleton’s cattle herd was not entirely made up of Holsteins (Carleton Farm Financial Records, 1915-24), these cattle were reportedly quite profitable; according to Headley and Jarchow, “it was the breeding and milking of Holstein cattle which finally lent economic stability to the local community. … During the depression years of the early 1930s, it was the monthly milk checks that kept open the three banks of Northfield while many another town in the Northwest – some four or five times as large as Northfield – did not have one solvent bank.” (Headley and Jarchow, 18). While Headley and Jarchow do not explicitly link Carleton to these “milk checks”, they do state that “in 1961 the [Carleton] herd was officially ‘classified’ indicating its excellence.” (Headley and Jarchow, 308). For these reasons, a combination of Carleton intervention and high-quality Holstein cattle likely helped the Carleton Farm weather the hardships of farming in the Midwest of the early 1920s.

Carleton Farm(ers): A Parallel History

The economic history of the Carleton Farm during its early years may line up with the economic history of the Carleton farmers themselves. According to Nancy Braker, current Manager of the Carleton Arboretum, the farm was initially owned by Carleton, but managed and operated by outside farmers: “Carleton hired staff who acted as farm managers/workers and lived in the Olin Farm house, near where your work is taking place … These would have been local people hired to manage or work at the farm since at that time it would have been unusual to recruit staff from very far away. Carleton might even have hired the former landowner farmers to continue working the farm, so it is hard to say if the people running the farm would have moved in with belongings brought from other places or just stayed in place.” In its early years, the Carleton Farm had a fraught financial history; however, it is unclear as to whether these economic troubles extended to the farmers themselves or not. The artifactual record helps shed light on this issue.

Among a wide assortment of artifacts found on the site, two may be indicative of a more average economic standing for Carleton’s farmers. To begin, an 1881 ROGERS-branded spoon was found in excavation unit TU-3, Level 1; this spoon is of “La Vigne” style and is dated to 1908 (Centennial Antiques)1. This spoon is silver-plated and ornately decorated, plausibly indicating a high initial cost. However, this high cost may be counter-intuitive; according to James Deetz, a style of pottery (“hand-painted creamware”) typically reserved to the upper class was given to a lower-class family at the site of Parting Ways in Plymouth, Massachusetts (Deetz, 198-199); a similarly ornate spoon, which can also be used to eat, is arguably analogous to this pottery, and may thus indicate frugality.4 Other interpretations of this spoon do exist, however; the farmers could have used their silverware for long periods of time, or externally-hired farmers may have brought silverware from their original homes. Regardless, all of these interpretations point to the farmers’ frugality.

The spoon in question. Note the distinct “La Vigne” decoration style; this allowed for dating.

Additionally, the Olin Farm Site is inundated with iron slag; many excavation units, along with areas on the surface, are rich in the material. According to “Olin Farm Fast Facts”, the Carleton Farm “had its own coke/coal burning furnace and produced [sic] own metal tools during WWI and WWII” from 1914 to the 1960s (Olin Farm Fast Facts); this may stem from frugality, as it is probably cheaper to smelt and repair expensive metal tools oneself than buy entirely new ones.5 This was true even in the Carleton Farm’s early years; blacksmith J.M. Drew states that “The time that may often be saved by having at hand the means and skill to repair damages to machinery and tools is often a much more important matter than the cash saved by doing one’s own work.” (Drew, 5). Thus, home blacksmithing saves both money and time. These monetary savings were likely multiplied by the home smelting of iron ore, as opposed to the use of ready-made iron; this home smelting is suggested by the sheer quantity of iron slag strewn about the site. Drew makes a good case for why the Carleton farmers would be incentivized to do their own repairs: “What farmer has not often been obliged, by some slight breakage, to go to the town or village shop, … and there find that he must wait for several horses to be shod before his little job” (Drew, 5). However, the time spent smelting one’s own ore would likely (at least partially) negate the time saved by home repairs. Thus, money played a part in these farmers’ decision to smelt and use their own iron; this further underscores their frugality. 

A piece of iron slag, common to the site.

The archaeological interpretations posited by the spoon and the slag, along with the separation between Farm and farmer noted by Nancy Braker, thus make a case for the frugality of those working the fields of the Carleton Farm. However, there is a high degree of uncertainty with this interpretation; this mainly stems from a lack of specificity surrounding the spoon’s date, a lack of certainty surrounding the slag’s origin, and a simple lack of artifacts analyzed. 

Combining these Two Conclusions / Future Research

In conclusion, the archival and artifactual data present in the Olin Farm suggests two economic histories – one, surrounding the Farm itself, is fraught with trouble, and the other, surrounding the farmers, may reflect the same. However, given time and data limitations, these interpretations unfortunately stand on shaky ground. Given more time for excavation and research, and the fact that Carleton eventually ended its (direct) involvement with farming in 1964, when “the trustees concluded that their college farming was a ‘dispensable luxury'” (Headley and Jarchow, 308), I suggest looking into the following questions:

  • How do the Carleton farmers’ economic histories change leading up to 1964? While the economic history of the Farm itself is largely known (financial records exist for almost all of the Farm’s history except for, frustratingly, the years immediately after 1924), the economic histories of the farmers themselves may be lacking. 
  • Does further evidence corroborating the farmers’ frugality exist? My interpretations surrounding the farmers’ economic history are uncertain; more evidence would help alleviate this.
  • There is an unfortunate lack of Carleton Farm Financial Records from 1924-31; if these are found, how would they change/influence this interpretation of the Carleton Farm’s economic history? Would they corroborate or disprove my findings?


  1. There is a degree of doubt in this date; while Centennial Antiques dates it to 1908, it is unclear what context surrounds it; e.g. whether the “La Vigne” style dates to 1908, how long it lasted, etc. 
  2. This data only takes book values into account; after 1921, book values for Carleton’s cattle stock are unknown. The data between 1915-21, however, is statistically significant; a linear regression was done, yielding an R2 value of .7504. 
  3. While this takes into account the general trend of livestock prices at the time, it does not account for Minnesota-specific livestock prices, dairy cow prices, or Holstein cattle prices. 
  4. The idea of this spoon being secondhand was originally posited by Bee Candelaria.
  5. This idea was originally posited by Sarah Kennedy.


  • Nordin, Dennis S., and Roy V. Scott. From Prairie Farmer to Entrepreneur: The Transformation of Midwestern Agriculture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.
  • Headley, Leal A., and Merrill E. Jarchow. Carleton: The First Century. North Central Publishing Company, 1966.
  • Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Anchor, 1996.
  • Carleton Farm Financial Statements: 1915-24.
  • Kennedy, Sarah. “Olin Farm Fast Facts”. n.d.
  • Drew, J. M. Farm Blacksmithing. St. Paul, MN: Webb Publishing Company, 1918.
  • “Silver Plate Pattern Identification Guide”. Centennial Antiques. n.d.