A commentary on Korean global business and popular culture.
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Sod-busters and Entrepreneurs - The American West and a Hidden Side of Entrepreneurialism
Changing venues, this week’s Vodcast is being recorded in the Black Hills near Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota.
So to begin…
Family trips West to South Dakota were part of my childhood. Although I grew up in my father’s hometown of Honesdale in rural Pennsylvania, my mother, a World War II “war bride,” was reared on a South Dakota family homestead.
Our mother’s stories from her childhood painted a rugged but authentic life on the open range. Several classic American 1950s and 1960s cross-county family road trips to visit our South Dakota family confirmed family lore with cattle roundups, calf branding and even rodeo events. Being from the East, I recall vividly my uncles and their children saddled high on their horses, dressed in the trail-weathered ten-gallon hats, leather chaps, boots and spurs.
This was indeed a contrast to my childhood daily life during an era of 1950s and 1960s Westerns—the genre of the Americana TV Wild West and movie storylines often centered on small frontier towns with gunslingers and saloons re-created in Hollywood’s back lots.
I have come to realize that an integral part of this picture was an entrepreneurial side of the family. Having authored a collection of articles and books on this topic from the American Colonial Era to global South Korea entrepreneurs, uncovering this familial lore has prompted sharing a snapshot of the American West at the turn of the 20th Century.
Noted economist Harvey Leibenstein points out that the dominant characteristic of entrepreneurs is their ability to perceive gaps in markets. They then develop new goods, services, or processes to fit those needs. Among settlers to America reaching back to the Colonial Era some farmers sought out opportunities to supplement their often-meager return on crops and livestock. Along with a common practice of land swapping and speculation, farmers branched into openly entrepreneurial ventures.
In 1874, my great grandfather Albert Larsen, a Norwegian immigrant, staked his homestead claim nine miles north of Humboldt, South Dakota on the eastern border of the state. With his wife Clara they reared ten children on the homestead. Seven of these children eventually traveled further west across the state and filed land claims under the Homestead Act on an area called 71 Table, near the town of Scenic, South Dakota.
This section of land was named 71 Table because many of the horses roaming these open plains carried a local rancher’s “71” brand. Furthermore, Table or Tablelands was common term of the era for a plateau.
The Larsen move West meant traveling overland following the established freight trails with teams of horses pulling buckboard wagons. Distinctively American the four wheel wagons were widely used in settled regions of the United States into the early 20th Century. Upon reaching the Missouri River, they ferried across and crossed the plains until they reached the Badlands, the name reflecting a semi-arid, wind-swept environment. Family accounts of the trip noted it was necessary to “rough lock” the wheels of the wagons to descend into the basin. Rough locking was a chain tied around the rim of a rear wheel of a wagon to slow the movement of the wagon downhill.
Arriving in this first wave of relatives were great uncles Roland and Adelbert. Along with making improvements on each individual’s claim of 640 acres, the two brothers soon began to freight lumber from Rapid City to the Scenic area for other homesteaders. Skilled as a carpenter Adelbert built many of the early settlers’ claim shacks. Ever the entrepreneur Uncle Roland, with a team of his horses and a breaking plow, soon shifted to the next opportunity and began to turn the sod for many of his neighbors, a requirement for “proving up” a homestead.
Lawrence H. Larsen, my grandfather, came to 71 Table to visit his siblings almost 100 years ago in 1919. Before returning home he, too, decided to homestead and filed on a section of land in Sage Creek Basin. To add to the land holdings, he also bought a section of land previously settled. As required by the Homestead Act my grandfather quickly set about improving the land. He moved his wife Helen, a son Lowell and a daughter Daphna to the ranch in 1921. With the family settled on their homestead with a panoramic view of the Badland bluffs, my mother and two brothers, Lawrence Jr. and Kieth, completed the family.
Along with homesteading, my grandfather, following his brothers’ examples, looked for other opportunities to supplement the family income. Seeing the need for grain crops to be harvested, he began to take on work in addition to his own farming. With a grain reaper-binder and four horses, he traveled around the community cutting grain. He also had a corn binder with which he did custom work.
In addition to cutting the grain crop the reaper-binder also tied the stems into small bundles, or sheaves. These sheaves were then “shocked” into conical “stooks” to allow the grain to dry for several days before being threshed. Gas or steam powered the threshing machines, separating the grain from chaff. Finally, the grain was hauled to the local granary silos in Scenic and then transported by railcar to a mill for further processing into flour.
It comes as no surprise that by the late 1920s Roland and Adelbert would acquire a threshing machine. They threshed grain crops year after year making the circuit through the region and the surrounding Tables during the harvest season.
Over time and to further supplement his income, my grandfather purchased a Ford Model TT (the truck version of the Model T costing around $325.00) and began providing local trucking. For $3.00 he would haul a load of hogs from 71 Table to Wall, South Dakota, a thirty-mile run to a local stopping point on the Chicago and North Western Railroad line.
Ford Model TT 1924 Photo Courtesy of Texas Transportation Museum
As drought conditions worsened in the region, my grandfather and Roland again adapted by going into the sheep business. Our mother often commented on how sheep had the advantage of being a 2 money product…wool and mutton.
As the Great Depression reached deep into the heartland of America, hardships to ranching and farming, such as severe drought combined with waves of grasshoppers, proved too much for most of the Table settlers. The Larsens would weather the difficult times—government relief programs stepping in to save their ranches.
America’s recovery in the 1940s came with the need for larger land holdings to support ranching and farming. Ever the risk takers my grandfather and Roland continued to acquire and lease more property. Passing away in 1946 my grandfather had grown the family homestead substantially and Roland’s holdings would grow to over 3000 acres. Over the years and by necessity our Larsen family has spread throughout the country (and at times other countries) but our roots and culture are tied to these homesteaders.
Larsen Homestead c. 1947
Amid the attention given today to high tech related entrepreneurialism from companies, such as Uber, Tesla and Space X (where in fact my nephew is a rocket engineer), what has remained a constant in our country’s culture is the seeking of new opportunities, taking risks and adapting to ever changing situations I am honored and proud to have uncovered this entrepreneurial spirit in my family’s history.
Sources: Eastern Pennington County Memories, Scenic, Part 1 and 2. Published by The American Legion Auxiliary, Carrol McDonald Unit, Wall, South Dakota. Roland Larsen by Mrs. Roland Larsen; Adelbert Baker Larsen by Marian Aune; and The Larsen Family by Lawrence Larsen.
 Harvey Leibenstein, The Collected Essays of Harvey Leibenstein, vol. 2, Kenneth Button, ed. (Aldershot, England: Edward Elgar Publishing, 1989). Pp. 254-256.
About the Author
Don Southerton has held a life-long interest in history. He has authored publications with topics centering on culture, new urbanism, entrepreneurialism, and early U.S.-Korean business ventures. He is a frequent contributor to the media (Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Forbes, CNN Fortune, Bloomberg, Automotive News, Korea Herald, Korea Time, and FSR magazine).
He heads Bridging Culture Worldwide, based in Golden, Colorado, which provides strategy, consulting and training to global companies.