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Why Fix 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 their secrets.

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 books include:

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 (1923)

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 ever met.

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?

RETURN TO: Correcting the history about T. B. Veblen


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