BY MARIA WARDOKU
From the road, the Andrew Peterson Farmstead looks like any other small farm you might expect to pass by in Carver County, with an old red barn and a few horses wandering the fields. But as students are discovering through the Resilient Communities Project, there is much, much more here than meets the eye. The story of the Peterson Farmstead stretches back 160 years, and in some ways, is only just beginning.
A surprising history
The story begins with Andrew Peterson, a Swedish immigrant who settled on the land in the mid-1850s. Peterson kept a journal detailing life on the farm, chronicling each day from 1855 through 1898. His journals provide a uniquely rich historical record of the period and daily activities and events on the farm. In the 1950s and 1960s, Swedish novelist Vilhelm Mober used Peterson’s diaries as the basis for a trio of novels about Swedish immigrants to Minnesota. The novels were turned into two acclaimed movies in the early 1970s (The Emigrants and The New Land). More recently, in 2012, a musical based on Andrew Peterson’s life was produced in Sweden.
Beyond providing the primary source documents for the novels, movies, and a musical, Andrew Peterson also left a legacy as perhaps the most prominent horticulturist of the period in the entire Upper Mississippi River Valley, according to the Minnesota Historical Society. Peterson was a master of diversified farming.
But the story of the farmstead didn’t end with Andrew Peterson’s passing in 1898. In 1978, the Farmstead was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. When the owner of the back 51 acres, Ward Holasek, passed away in 2013, he left his property to the Carver County Historical Society. The will was contested, but a complicated settlement was reached, where a property swap was agreed upon. The Historical Society ended up owning 12.17 acres including the original Peterson farm building site. It has since begun work to restore the property.
Restoring the farmstead
When Carver County was selected as this year’s RCP partner, Carver County Historical Society Executive Director Wendy Petersen-Biorn jumped at the opportunity to connect to expertise at the University of Minnesota to assist with planned work on the farmstead. Several University of Minnesota courses are helping to tackle the substantial task ahead of restoring and preserving the farm, and transforming the property into an educational and tourist destination.
Alexandr Young is a student in a historic building conservation class offered through the U of MN’s School of Architecture that is working on the Peterson Farm project this fall. “Our class is doing a conditions survey report of the buildings that comprise the farmstead,” explained Young. “Through careful documentation and analysis of the interior and exterior of these buildings, the class will make recommendations for treatment.”
Now more than halfway through the semester, the class has made good progress toward that goal. Student Sarah Ward shared that at a recent in-class presentation, “each group gave an overview of the condition of the building materials present, such as wood trim, flooring, glass in windows, drywall, paint finishes, etc. We identified any pressing matters that, if left unaddressed, could lead to further deterioration. We also identified original materials that are in good condition.”
The experience is proving to be both rich and rewarding for the students. “We all glean different perspectives and insights,” said Joel Holstad, another student in the course. “I am [gaining] a profound appreciation for the craftsmanship of the structures and the creativity [involved] in their construction. Peterson built well, and yet he is only [one] example of what, at one time, was a common expectation that we would provide for ourselves. Can we imagine today a homeowner grabbing a shovel and digging out their own basement? Or dropping a tree and turning it into useful lumber?”
Beyond advancing students’ professional growth, the RCP project will pay dividends for the Carver County Historical Socciety. “The work the students are doing will become part of the infrastructure planning for the property,” said Executive Director Petersen-Biorn. “It will save us years of work and thousands of dollars.”
Looking to the future
The School of Architecture class is only the first group to dig into the Peterson Farmstead, and the work so far only the first step in the Historical Society’s larger vision for the Peterson farm. The site will also be the focus of a master’s thesis project in the Department of Anthropology, as well as a project in a Department of German, Dutch, and Scandinavian class this spring that will investigate opportunities to market the farmstead as a tourist attraction. According to Petersen-Biorn, “the farm and historically significant diaries of Andrew Peterson will be used to encourage visitors of all ages to discover our diverse heritage and to understand how the past shapes the present and the future.” The serene rural character of the site belies the ambitious goals and whirlwind of student activity that will help to write the next chapter of the Andrew Petersen Farmstead’s story.
Maria Wardoku is a Master of Urban and Regional Planning student at the University of Minnesota’s Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs