the Veblen Farm?
by Jonathan Larson
There is something particularly appropriate about exploring an abandoned
farm site on a gloomy day. A leaden stillness remains where once the
sights and smells and sounds of people and animals joined forces in a
productive effort as old as recorded history.
The squealing and snorting and pawing of animals are gone--replaced by the
lonesome sound of a loose piece of barn siding banging in the wind.
The joyous cries of children, the flapping of laundry in the wind, the grunts
and curses of hard work are gone--replaced by a questioning rustle of the wind
gently turning the leaves of the cottonwood trees.
Who were these people who braved the isolation of the prairie to build and
grow? Why did they come to this place so they could toil and sweat and freeze?
Many, maybe most, abandoned farmsites have an interesting story to tell--a
story of courage and struggle, defeats and victories. Most may never yield
This abandoned farmstead is different. The heroic courage of its builders cannot
and will not be forgotten. For this is the site where Kari and Thomas Veblen,
poor but extremely hard-working immigrants from Norway, chose to settle and
build a life, plow the virgin prairies, and raise their family. It is where
their son Thorstein grew to manhood while absorbing the lessons of the rigor,
rituals, and rhythms of pioneer life.
From these lessons, Thorstein Veblen would become, and in many minds still
remains, the foremost American social and economic theorist. Young Veblen may
have been an indifferent farm hand, but when it came to his calling in life,
hard work produced a stunning array of writing.
From his first published essay in 1882 until his last in 1927, Veblen's writings
include 125 reviews, articles, editorials, essays and books of breathtaking
genius and scope. Often referred to as the last man who knew everything, Veblen's
The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)
The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904)
The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts (1914)
Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution (1915)
An Inquiry into the Nature of Peace and the Terms of its Perpetuation (1917)
The Higher Learning in America, A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities
by Business Men (1918)
The Vested Interests and the State of the Industrial Arts (1919)
The Engineers and the Price System (1921)
Absentee Ownership and Business Enterprise in Recent Times: the Case of America
Even though Thorstein Veblen wrote none of his books on this farm, the farm
environment profoundly influenced his writing. Not only did he spend his childhood
watching and helping his parents build the farm and tame the prairie, but for
seven years after he had obtained a Ph.D. from Yale and no one would hire him
because of his advanced thinking and rough pioneer ways, he lived and studied
and read while living here--learning biology from the wildlife that surrounded
his home--debating the political issues of the day at the local blacksmith's
shop in nearby Nerstrand--or talking softly with his father as they sat on
the porch and smoked their pipes far into the long northern summer evenings.
Though highly educated with numerous colleagues in academe, Thorstein Veblen
insisted throughout his life that his father was the most intelligent man he
The evidence that Veblen was not exaggerating abounds on the old farm. The
house, virtually a mansion by pioneer standards demonstrates the abilities
of Thomas, the Norwegian master carpenter. The barn with its framing shaped
from logs using only hand tools, is a tribute to Thomas' thrifty use of the
materials at hand. Thomas was not merely skilled, thrifty, and hard-working
but well-read and innovative as well. He was considered the most modern farmer
in the county.
While most pioneers treated their children as a source of cheap labor, Thomas
sent all of his children to college. To save on expenses, he built a house
for them which still stands today in Northfield.
Thorstein Veblen did not forget his father when he wrote. In fact, the three
central themes of his philosophy can be viewed as a loving tribute to his father.
When Veblen postulated his "Instinct for Workmanship" which is a
theory that real craftsmen often make things better than they need to be for
the sheer love of building well, he must have been thinking of his father who
planked the ceilings and installed butternut wainscoting in the farmhouse.
When Veblen talked of the "Parental Instinct", which is the notion
that parents often make great sacrifices to make the lives of their children
better than their own, he needed look no further than the house built in Northfield
so that the Veblen children could afford to attend Carleton College.
When Veblen developed the theory of "The Instinct for Idle Curiosity," an
idea which suggests that humans are most interesting when they explore their
boundaries, he needed no better example than Thomas, the pioneer who always
sought to be the most innovative farmer in the county.
The old farmstead demands an answer to the question, "Who were the builders--builders
whose abilities and drive were so monumental that they inspired one of America's
most important writers to works of true genius?'
Ole Rolvaag called such builders Giants in the Earth in his monumental novel
about Norwegian immigrants on the prairie. But Rolvaag's protagonist dies in
a blizzard and his wife goes mad. Surely if these were giants, Thomas and Kari
Veblen were super-giants. If the old farmstead is the monument to the life
of such people, it demands to be saved and restored as a tribute to the Viking
pioneer spirit for these giants must never be forgotten.
What do we know about Thomas, What do we know about Kari? How should the farmstead
be saved? What we can learn from the restoration? The importance of Veblen's
writing to modern problems of Capitalism. What can the viewer do?
TO: Correcting the history about T. B. Veblen