Students are helping to restore the Andrew Peterson Farmstead through the Resilient Communities Project partnership with the Carver County Historical Society. © Steve Schneider 2015
BY MARK W. OLSON
It’s been more than 160 years since noted Swedish pioneer Andrew Peterson homesteaded his farm, just east of Waconia.
Now, the Carver County Historical Society has taken several steps toward turning the historic property into an interpretive site.
Ward Holasek, who died in late 2013, deeded the society 51 acres of property, containing one original Peterson farm building.
After two years of legal wrangling, the society swapped most of the 51 acres for 12.17 acres of the adjacent property, owned by Holasek’s sons, containing the remainder of the Peterson buildings, and a small pasture.
The Carver County Historical Society’s mission for the property, “is to preserve and interpret the Andrew Peterson farm through Minnesota’s rich immigrant and agricultural history,” said Carver County Historical Society Executive Director Wendy Petersen Biorn.
Andrew Peterson’s farmstead is notable because it still holds a number of original 1800s buildings. However, the farm is also significant because Peterson kept a diary throughout his decades on the farm detailing his day-to-day activities (14,000 entries from 1855 until two days before his death in 1898). Andrew and his wife, Elsa, raised nine children on the farm.
Peterson’s diaries were a resource for renowned Swedish writer Vilhelm Moberg in his four-book series “The Emigrants.” The novels tell the story of a Swedish pioneer family’s journey to Minnesota. It’s a story that still resonates in Sweden.
“A big piece of American immigration and Swedish emigration history is saved,” stated Jan Hermelin, with the Swedish-based Andrew Peterson Society, via email.
“The buildings together are a unique, nice unit that tells very much about the first settlers’ life in Minnesota. Together with the Andrew Peterson diaries that are kept in the Minnesota Historical Society library in St. Paul, it gives a total documentation of national interest,” Hermelin said.
In recent years, several groups from Sweden have toured the farm and helped with restoration efforts.
The Carver County Historical Society is in the early stages of gauging uses for the property.
It hired a caretaker, T.J. Malaskee, who recently spent his first night in the 1870 house built by Peterson.
It’s an appropriate home for Malaskee, who is president of the State Grange of Minnesota. The grange started as farmers’ organization in 1869 to take on the railroads and unfair business practices, Malaskee explained. Now the grange works with farmers markets, community gardens, nursing homes, at-risk children and other community endeavors.
Peterson was a member of the local Laketown Grange — chartered in 1874, Malaskee said. And while the local grange is no longer in existence, “I think there are options for reorganizing the Laketown Grange as a friend of the Andrew Peterson farm group that could focus on the needs of the Peterson farm, being a voice, being a community group that would present the Peterson farm to the public,” he said.
Malaskee will serve as the site interpreter, and will give tours of the farm.
Over the winter Malaksee is also working on developing heirloom gardens and a heritage breeding program — starting out with poultry and small livestock.
“It’s been a working farm for over 150 years and I don’t intend for it not to be a working farm anymore,” he said.
Preservation efforts have been ongoing for several years at the site — notably a 2006 visit by Swedish volunteers who restored the granary; and foundation restoration of the north barn in 2012.
However, now work will begin in earnest on the remainder of the north barn, which Peterson built in 1887, and was originally used to house hogs. The barn is in ill-repair, with its east side collapsed, and the gabled roof disassembled.
The Historical Society recently received $182,223 in Minnesota Legacy Amendment funding to hire professionals to restore the barn.
Petersen Biorn notes that the project, expected to start soon, will include webcams so people can watch the progress of the restoration during its estimated four months.
Meanwhile, college students have been studying the farmstead as part of the Resilient Communities Project, a one-year partnership between the University of Minnesota and local Carver County groups.
Todd Grover is an adjunct assistant professor with the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and a partner with MacDonald and Mack Architects, which specializes in restoration and reuse of historic buildings. Each year, Grover’s students develop a preservation plan for a historical building. This year, the students studied the Andrew Peterson farm buildings — with special attention to the 1917 barn and the Andrew Peterson house.
The students will develop a “condition assessment” that the Historical Society can use in its planning. For instance the students will identify any structural issues with the barn and house.
“It gets fairly specific, not just ‘Repaint the barn,’” Grover said.
While rehabilitation begins on the farm buildings, Josephine Mihelich is rehabilitating history.
Since the 1970s, Mihelich has been advocating for the Peterson farm’s preservation.
Mihelich authored the 1984 book “Andrew Peterson and the Scandia Story,” which she researched for seven years and raised $25,000 to publish. The comprehensive book tells the history of Peterson and his neighbors.
Mihelich is now working to republish the now out-of-print book (copies regularly sell for over $100 online).
Petersen Biorn is mulling many of the possibilities for the farmstead, such as offering historic craft classes or working with the Three Rivers Park District (the Carver Park Reserve is located across the road) to rent out skis and snowshoes.
This spring, Petersen Biorn hopes to have a pig roast to serve as a fundraiser and ribbon cutting for the farm. The farm will offer by-appointment and walk-on tours by this spring, she said.
“The farm and historically significant diaries of Andrew Peterson will be used to encourage visitors of all ages to discover our diverse heritage and understand how the past shapes the present and the future,” Petersen Biorn said.
Mark Olson, the Chaska and Chanhassen community editor who has worked in Carver County for 20 years, makes any excuse to write about local history. In his spare time, Mark enjoys perusing old books, watching blockbusters and taking Midwest road trips.