Living history on a Minnesota farm

Larson brothers
Carl Larson (right) is 94 years old, his brother Bill(left) is 97. They farmed with horses, and remember when a gallon of diesel fuel cost just nine cents.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The Larson brothers farmstead has a lawn nearly the size of a couple city blocks and every inch is neatly trimmed.

The bright white barn gleams in the morning sun. and the 106-year-old farmhouse is sturdy, if a bit faded. Near the barn is a large pile of freshly split firewood.

"You know, I guess work doesn't hurt anybody. We're still able to take care of ourselves."

Ninety-seven-year old Bill Larson and his 94-year-old brother Carl, just spent an entire day splitting wood for next winter.

In the tidy farmhouse kitchen, a fire is crackling in the wood stove and the coffee pot is perking.

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Bill says no one visits without having coffee, and some Scandinavian goodies. Carl is the baker, turning out krumkake and rosettes.

The Larson farm near Oklee, Minn., in Red Lake County, was homesteaded by John Larson in 1896. Carl says his dad was in Montana working as a cowboy when he heard about free land in northern Minnesota.

"They heard you could get 160 acres of land for nothing. They thought that was too good," says Carl Larson, "so he came to Crookston and walked out here and staked a claim."

To get to Crookston and stake that claim meant a 40 mile hike across country. One can only imagine what John Larson thought when the free land turned out to be mostly a floating bog.

The brothers say their dad never talked about the decision to stay in Minnesota.

Larson brothers
Bill and Carl Larson traveled the globe during World War II, but returned to their Minnesota farm.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

"I'll tell you; this land was just nothing but swamp. It wasn't drained. It took a hundred years before it was fit to live in," says Carl.

It was most certainly not an easy life. Bill recalls his dad hiking about 20 miles to nearest town for supplies. One winter day a blizzard blew up as he walked home.

"He had bought a blanket in St. Hilaire for 75 cents, so he wrapped that around him and crawled into the snow just like a rabbit," recalls Bill. "In the morning the storm had subsided and he realized where he was, so he walked home."

The brothers were working on the farm by the time they were five, feeding chickens and driving horses.

They finished 8th grade at the one room country school nearby, but education beyond 8th grade was not an option. Carl says only town kids could go to high school.

Along with their father, mother and two brothers, Bill and Carl Larson expanded the 160 acre homestead to about 1,000 acres. That's nearly two square miles, and it was all farmed with horses.

Larson Brothers
The Larson brothers raised and sold registered draft horses for decades. Their horses won dozens of Minnesota State Fair ribbons.
Courtesy Steve Reynolds

"When we farmed with horses we figured we made 20 miles a day with the horses, you know," says Carl. "You make 20 miles a day walking behind a harrow in a loose field, you're kind of played out," adds Bill.

The Larson brothers each spent four years fighting in World War II. Bill went ashore at Normandy and was in the Battle of the Bulge. Carl was a medic in the South Pacific, and remembers treating wounded soldiers for days without sleep.

After the war they returned to the farm. The business was changing, horses were being replaced by machines. Bill says they bought the first diesel tractor in the county. Diesel fuel cost nine cents a gallon, and gasoline was about 14 cents a gallon.

The Larson's modernized, but they also held onto the past. They raised purebred draft horses for 55 years.

The Larson's woodpile
The Larson brothers still heat their farmhouse with wood. They cut and split 10 cords, or about 20 pickup truck loads, each year.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

The horses brought thousands of visitors from across the country and around the world to their northern Minnesota farm. Bill says they averaged 500 to 600 visitors a year. Of course, no one left without having coffee.

Bill and Carl Larson love the land they helped their father change from a swamp to a productive farm. Carl says they have no plans to leave, and they certainly won't be moving to town.

"We feel the town is the poorest place you can be in. That's about the same as these nursing homes. If you live in town you just sit and look out the window. But here we can go out and do something you know," says Carl.

But Carl admits there are some consolations for age.

"We don't get up at 5 o'clock now, but we get up at 6 o'clock and we go to bed at 9. We take it kind of easy," he confesses.

In addition to cutting all their own wood, the Larson brothers work several hours a day in a huge garden. They give away most of the produce, hundreds of fresh tomatoes and gallons of strawberries to neighbors.

"When some of the neighbors come around they say, 'Have you taken the mulching off the strawberries yet? Are they going to be good this year?' In other words, they're looking for strawberries. Well you can't blame 'em. Nothing wrong with that," says Bill with a chuckle. "But whenever we need help, all we have to do is go to the telephone and there they are." Bill says that's one thing that hasn't changed in 150 years. In rural Minnesota, neighbors still look out for each other.