Olsen Farm came from the same family- and community-centric roots that sustain it today.
The Birth of Olsen Farm
With text and photos from an article written for ‘The Boston Sunday Post’ May 12, 1940
In 1923 the Olsen family immigrated from Norway to New York City, seeking a new life in a new country. City life was expensive and noisy, and jobs were hard to find. This did not suit great grandpa Thomas Olsen, who had a dream of working the land, raising animals and growing his own food.
“It’s no way for a man to live,” Thomas Olsen told his wife.
“Every time I save up a few hundred dollars, along comes a lay-off, a strike, a depression- and there goes the money!” Randi Olsen nodded her head. Her husband had talked like that many, many times. She knew he wasn’t happy in the city, but after all why talk about happiness. So very few people really were happy…
“Some day I’ll get back to the land,” her husband continued. “Then I’ll feel safe. A man ought to raise what he needs to eat. He ought to have a roof of his own over his head. That is, if he wants security and happiness.”
One afternoon when the family still lived in Manhattan, Thomas Olsen was feeling about ready to burst for longing of nature. He drove around for hours and found himself at the First National Bank, browsing farm listings for sale in the country. Not soon after he boarded a train for the country and went in search of his dream- a farm house built in the 1700’s by an Officer who fought in The Battle of Bennington and acres of magnificent land in the beautiful Berkshires.
“I had never been to New England before,” he said. “But the description of this place excited me. So I got on a train and came up here. Almost when I got out of the station at Pittsfield, I knew that what I was doing was right. And when I came to this farm, I didn’t look at it at first.
“I looked at the hills and the mountains. I saw the spring go rushing by. I looked at the clouds. Then, at last, I looked at this house, right in the bottom of the bowl of the valley.”
“And, of a sudden, I was terribly homesick. I ran across the field and up the hill. And I felt warm and glad. And I knew I was home – home as if I were a boy again in Norway.”
Thus Olsen Farm was born.
Farm Living: Not Easy Living
“You’ve Got to Be Two-Fisted to Live on a Bay State Farm,” reads the headline of ‘The Boston Sunday Post’ article interviewing the Olsens about their new farm life.
Thomas Olsen bought 95 acres of land, along with the old farm house, for just $1200 in 1938. The house was in disrepair, but the land was rich and the space felt right. This was his dream. He and his wife, Randi, and their children, Alf and Margarethe, made the big move to the country. Now the real work would begin.
“When he told me he had bought a farm,” said Mrs. Olsen, “I didn’t know what to think. I began to wonder whether he’d really like it. And about the children. The country would be good for them, but would they be happy there?”
Great grandpa Olsen, Thomas, had grown up on a farm in Norway and was blissfully nostalgic about his childhood experiences, longing for his own children to grow up living off the land as well. But he had a lot to re-learn, and new farming techniques to master and in turn pass on to his children and grand children. While he understood farming was not easy work, he knew it was rewarding.
“Thomas Olsen had been away from the farm since 1917- for 21 years. You can forget a lot about farming in that time. And the city can make you soft and tenderhearted. Think, then, of the problem of killing a chicken, of dressing it, and preparing it for dinner. To nearly any farmer, this operation is routine, but to a city dweller it is a soul-wracking deed.”
This farm was Thomas Olsen’s dream – but was it the dream of his family as well? Would his wife and children be as enthusiastic about leaving their comfortable city life and starting anew, without electricity and running water, in the Berkshires?
“I’ll never forget the day she [his wife] came here,” Mr. Olsen said. “I was never so frightened in my life.”
“And I won’t forget, either,” Randi Olsen replied. “How I cried. It was awful.”
Great grandma Olsen, Randi, was not so keen on their new farm life. She enjoyed living in the city, having nice furniture and a tidy home. But she also possessed a motherly strength that was unbounded and was devoted to her family in ways that forced her to take on the country life.
“Greatest hardships befell Mrs. Olsen. She was never a country girl. She had no farm background. The conveniences of the city appealed to her greatly. The Olsens, for example, brought two radio sets with them. Since the house had no electricity, the instruments became a tantalizing, sardonic joke.”
Everyone pitched in to keep the farm going. Fishing, chopping wood, collecting water, planting and harvesting crops and caring for the animals- cows, pigs, goats, and chickens- kept the whole family busy all year round. Their plow horse, Joey, helped with the heavy lifting.
“The Olsens are, as has been said, rugged folk. They are also very thrifty. Mr. Olsen’s greatest income is derived from the sale of eggs. Three times a week he walked to Pittsfield, peddled his hatchery nuggets and returned home. On each round trip to the city, he covered 21 miles. That meant a 63-mile walk weekly. How would you like that?”
Farm life is not for the faint hearted. It is WORK. Every day is a series of tasks that will either make or break the survival of you and your family. Thomas and Randi Olsen were no strangers to hard work, and their legacy lives on in the family land.
“The floor was creaky. Gales swept through the house from the nether regions. Three vast, broken fireplaces let the blasts sweep down from above. Windows were missing. The kitchen was darkened by dirty, hardly translucent glass. The ceiling was a mess. The house itself was unbelievable.
“No running water. No heating system. No ‘conveniences’ of the last century. No electric lights.”
But farm life, for those so inclined, has a way of winning over even the harshest of critics- like our own great grandma Olsen.
“If I had had one look at it before we moved, “[Mrs. Olsen] said without the slightest trace of bitterness in her voice, “I would never have come.
“Mr. Olsen looked helpless and futile, the way a man always does under such circumstances.”
“But we are so happy now,” she continued. “Nothing could make me move.”
Olsen Farm: Today
The old farm house still stands in our front yard – today it is inhabited mainly by bats and the occasional neighborhood cat. Even with the years of weather wear it remains a treasure with its hand-hewn beams and trunnels.
Today we are working to reclaim some of the lands of Olsen Farm that have become overgrown and revive the hands-on agriculture that once thrived here. We raise chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl naturally, allowing them to forage the yard. We keep bees, both for honey and pollination, and we grow fruit trees and vegetables without pesticides. While we strive to hold on to the skills and values from our great grandparents, we now have sustainability in mind in modern ways like solar power and biodynamic gardening. It is easy to see how great grandpa Olsen felt like he had come home the first time he visited this land, it is truly something special.
Please keep in touch for updates on the farm as we continue to reclaim the family lands.