From Barren Lands to Communal Springs: A Brief History of the Creation of Carleton Farm 

By Arya Misra ’22

The Farm Group had always been closely related to the Carleton Arboretum. From its inception, its existence and function has been linked to that of the Arb. In 1914-15, despite a lack of support from students, faculty, and trustees and with a glaring deficiency of funds, Dr. Donald Cowling took the initiative to buy nearly 800 acres of land to build the Arboretum. It is speculated that his reason to make this investment was to use this land for future campus expansion. Farmland acquisition was also part of the motivation, as the Carleton Farm, started in 1914, was expanded throughout the 1920s. Perhaps the most important driving force behind the purchase of this land was the ambitious plan of Dr. Harvey Stork to create a landscape arboretum on a grand scale. 

The Carleton Farm certainly did not look like what it does today but its condition was far worse when first bought by Doctor Cowling. Before World War I, the northeastward view from the Goodsell Observatory opened up to an eroded and weed-infested pasture and a perennial meandering creek. Beyond the pasture was the tumble down farm that was referred to as the Rice Farm and Barnyard. Shabby barns and decrepit sheds littered the land with broken machinery. Finally, a driveway past this uninspiring view lay the city dump complete with discarded entrails and bones from the local slaughterhouse and waste from the neighboring areas that could not be disposed off in the river. The only function of this wasteland was to serve as a shooting ground for Carleton students. In the words of Dr. Stork, “anyone who could not account for six rats in the course of a half hour’s shooting with a .22 rifle was not an accepted marksman.” 

Another feature of the land was a hobo camp which Dr. Stork called “a way station where the numerous knights of the road overnighted.” From his letters to Bruce Pollock, Vice President and Treasurer of the college in the 1940s and 50s, Dr. Stork emphasizes the importance of the environment around campus and his vision to create a better space that would reflect the educational setting of Carleton as an institution. The changes that took place were somewhat prompted by bacteria-laden milk and a resulting lawsuit, but by 1915, under the guidance of Dr. Cowling and the President of the Board of Trustees, the Carleton Farm began its first big evolution. 

The Farm was purchased and landscaped to build new Farm buildings and a purebred herd of Holstein cows was bought after tests were done to confirm the cows to be free from tuberculosis. The land that was unable to be used for farm cultivation was mapped to be turned into the Arb. Though the area near the railway was first set to be farm land, as the area between the railroad and the river was not wide enough for ox-bow and cultivation and prone to flooding, it was left alone for the Arb and later was used to expand the campus. Dr. Stork further detailed the exact areas that were divided between the Farm and the Arb, hinting at the intricate balance between the two. 

In the 1920s, plans were made to lead the Farm Group through a second evolution. A more organised set of buildings circumventing a central “flower court” were designed to solidify Carleton Farm’s function as a farming- and dairy-focused operation. However, two events seem to have stopped the realization of this grand plan. Firstly, a fire in 1926 caused by faulty wiring burned down one of the barns and cost $40,000 ($550,000 in today’s money) to rebuild with fire protection. This incident also led to the building of the water tower in 1928. Secondly, the Board of Trustees thought the Farm to be financially unviable and had even considered selling it. A combination of the two seem to have rendered the Farm Group plan not worth the investment. While in 1920s, all of 590 acres of Farm land was managed by six student employees and an overall manager, by 1950s, the herd was halved in order to bring the labor down to three employees and one manager. Soon, agriculture and dairy production were no longer desirable areas for student work-study. 

Yet, the Carleton Farm continued to make headlines in local papers. In 1955, though close to its final few years, the Farm had still remained an integral element of the campus. The herd was not only supplying all the butter, cream and milk consumed by the entire student body but winning medals all over the country. The Farm was also producing hay, oats, corn, and alfalfa for the livestock feed and was supplying the surplus to the local community. In 1966, the herd was sold off despite pushback from students who were attached to the memories of the Farm and were involved in cattle rearing as student workers. Until the 1970s, the Farm Group remained barren with most of the building in the group, including the barns and the machine sheds, torn down. In the shadows of the magnificent farm buildings and the renowned Holstein cows, there remained two distinct structures that are not often talked about. All through the history of Carleton Farm, two houses were used for boarding with the bigger house hosting two families and the smaller one containing one. The remaining structures that connect the College to its history of the Arb, farming operation and the famous Holstein cows are Farm and Parr House.