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Sod-busters

and Entrepreneurs
The American West and a Hidden Side of Entrepreneurialism
By Don Southerton

Family trips West to South Dakota were part of my childhood. Although I grew up in
my fathers hometown of Honesdale in rural Pennsylvania, my mother, a World War
II war bride, was reared on a South Dakota family homestead

Our mothers 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 tengallon hats, leather chaps, boots and spurs.

This was indeed a contrast to my childhood daily life during an era of 1950s and
1960s Westernsthe genre of the Americana TV Wild West and movie storylines
often centered on small frontier towns with gunslingers and saloons re-created in
Hollywoods 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. 1 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 ranchers 71 brand. Furthermore, Table or Tablelands
was common term of the era for a plateau.

1 Harvey Leibenstein, The Collected Essays of Harvey Leibenstein, vol. 2, Kenneth
Button, ed. (Aldershot, England: Edward Elgar Publishing, 1989). Pp. 254-256.


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 individuals 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.


Grain Reaper-Binder

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 productwool 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 timesgovernment relief programs stepping in to save their
ranches.

Americas 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 Rolands 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 countrys 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 familys
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.

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.

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