THERE NEVER WAS a time within my memory when my life was not in some way linked with St. Olaf. My uncle Halvor Ytterboe, my mother's brother, and my father were classmates at Luther College. A couple of years after graduation both were teaching at embryo educational institutions, my father at Willmar Seminary, Uncle Halvor at St. Olaf's School.
My grandparents Ytterboe lived not far from Decorah, Iowa, and every summer Mother and we children would spend a couple of months on the farm, while Father was occupied teaching at summer schools and institutes. On our way home we would stop at Northfield to visit Uncle Halvor, Aunt Elise, and the cousins.
Old Main and Ladies Hall, the latter now long since torn down, were the only buildings on the campus during our earlier visits. The Mohns and Ytterboes lived in Old Main, the Fellands in Ladies Hall.
The Ytterboe quarters, a living room, bedroom, and kitchen, were on first floor facing east and north. In later years the partitions were removed and the Ytterboe quarters became a biology classroom. I recall how impressed I was by the high ceilings and tall windows with their elegant red velvet draperies. In the northeast comer of the living room was a window seat that intrigued me, a Christmas gift from Mr. Ytterboe to his wife. But what was most fun was to run up and down the long stairs to third floor. Since our visits were in the summer, we had the range of the entire building. Of course we also visited the Fellands in Ladies Hall, beyond which lay the woods, dark and mysterious, ready for exploration. Picking butternuts and wild flowers was a favorite pastime for us youngsters. One of the most interesting features of these summer visits was riding from the Milwaukee depot in a hack and being called for by the high-perched driver with his gleaming team of horses when our visit was over.
During its early years the school had a most precarious existence. At times there was no assurance in the spring that the school could even re-open in the fall. At no time during its first twenty-five years did its student body number more than one hundred eighty-four. Much of the time the enrollment was in the upper eighties and nineties and lower one hundreds. But St. Olaf's School had a president with a vision and an excellent and dedicated faculty which carried on no matter what the odds. President Thorbjörn N. Mohn, Mr. Halvor T. Ytterboe, and Mr. O. G. Felland constituted the core of the administrative and teaching staff during most of these years.
St. Olaf's School was founded in 1874 by the congregations of only two parishes, those of the redoubtable Bernt Julius Muus and the equally church-school-interested Pastor Christian Quammen. It became evident as time went on that the institution needed a broader base of support. So when in 1890 the United Lutheran Church was organized, efforts were made to have the now St. Olaf College (college work was begun in 1886) accepted by this newly-organized church body as its college. This was done, but the move proved pre-mature and after a few years St. Olaf was again on its own. The years following were crucial for its future. For they were also the years of the hard times from 1893 to 1896. For six years Mr. Ytterboe, who was the treasurer of the school, spent his time going from farmhouse to farmhouse and from village to village soliciting funds and students to keep the institution going. Belts were tightened at the college. A faculty member who left was not replaced; the rest closed ranks to carry on his work until times were better. Mrs. Ytterboe undertook the management of the kitchen and dining facilities so that no one would have to be hired for that service. The students' rooms were heated by wood-burning stoves and many of the large trees on the college property were cut to save buying fire wood. The little group had faith that once the emergency was tided over and the constituency of the newly-formed United Lutheran Church convinced of the importance of having a liberal arts college of its own, a brighter day for St. Olaf was ahead. Meanwhile it was a matter of grimly hanging on.
I remember these days well; for though only a small girl at the time, I used to hear my parents talk about the situation and Uncle's work. One summer when we were at Grandpa's farm, in the midst of our evening devotions there was a knock at the door and a voice inquiring about the possibility of a room for the night for a tramp. 'Nei, Halvor, du," exclaimed Grandmother, who was unaware that Uncle was soliciting in their area. Much of the time on these trips he trudged from farmhouse to farmhouse. Other time he got rides. Needless to say Grandfather drove him around the next day.
Mr. Ytterboe was blessed with a keen sense of humor and many were the tales he could relate of his experiences during those years. Once when he had explained his errand to the lady of the house, she answered, as occurred often, that he would have to see her husband, who was mowing hay down by the slough. So, Mr. Ytterboe set out to find the man of the house and finally located him. The farmer evidently knowing Ytterboe's mission kept on mowing, going farther and farther into the slough. Mr. Ytterboe followed him and finally established communication. He got $10 (no small sum in those days). But the farmer chuckled gleefully that it was something to see a professor get his feet wet before he got his money.
On another occasion he stated his errand to the woman who answered his knock on the door saying, "My name is Halvor Ytterboe. I'm soliciting money for St. Olaf College." This statement was met by a blank stare. Thinking the woman might be hard of hearing he repeated the statement in a louder voice. The reaction was the same. Finally in a very loud voice he again gave his name and mission. Her reply will be appreciated in all its juiciness only by those who understand Norwegian. "Ja-ja, jöses du, det er all right da, du faar vel ha et navn du og." (Good Lord, man! that's all right, I suppose you too will have to have a name.")
People to whom he spoke the cause of St. Olaf were kind and generously extended hospitality of bed and board to their visitor. Their over-zealousness to give the professor the very best they had at times caused him difficulty. He happened to be allergic to salmon. Many a housewife regarded canned salmon as one of the choicest foods she could place before a guest. Mr. Ytterboe was in quite a dilemma. Here he was soliciting money and students for St. Olaf College, and if he did not eat everything urged upon him he might give the impression of disdaining the food. Usually he managed to explain his situation. But it did happen that at times he let himself get sick rather than seem to insult his hostess. Allergies hadn't been heard of in those days.
On June 27, 1899, St. Olaf College was accepted as the college of the United Norwegian Lutheran Church. President Mohn had guided the fledgling institution well during its first twenty-five years and had laid its foundations deep and strong. He had fought hard for its acceptance by the new church body and for the retention of co-education. But his health had suffered greatly. The presidency of the college was turned over to an able young preacher from Chicago, the Reverend Johan Nathan Kildahl, while Mr. Mohn retained a teaching position on the faculty. He died that same fall mourned by the entire Northfield community as well as by the college constituency. But he had set St. Olaf College on its course and that is his monument.
A dormitory for men and a home for the president on the campus were the first evidences of the enlarged base of support that came to St. Olaf when it became the college of the Church. The Ytterboes, who now had been living in a house downtown for a year, moved into the Men's Dormitory on its completion in February 1901 and were its first house parents. It was exciting for us to visit our cousins in this new building reputed to be the finest men's college dormitory in Minnesota at the time. There was office space for Mr. Ytterboe, a lovely living room, two bedrooms and a bath. The family ate in the college dining room which occupied one-half of the ground floor. The remainder of the ground floor space was given over to the kitchen, laundry, student washrooms, and the gymnasium.
Summers when we came to visit seemed so leisurely and lovely on this beautiful campus. I have recollections of the men playing croquet in the afternoons while the women visited and all had supper either in the dining room or on the lawn in front of the dormitory. In the evenings the adult members of the Kildahl, Ytterboe, and Felland families as well as guests and other friends would gather in the attractive parlors in the dormitory for conversation and very often for listening to the reading aloud of some new book. I remember Agnes Kittelsby, who then was a teacher at St. Olaf, reading Collins' "The Woman in White" to the group. I got in a corner to listen. It seemed so exciting. But I was gently but firmly told to go out and play with the other children, that this book was for grownups only.
Mr. Ytterboe regarded his position of "being in charge of the boys" as among his most significant work at the college. Whenever he led in chapel he used for his text the words from Ecclesiastics, "Remember now thy creator in the days of thy youth." Mr. Ytterboe died very young; he was only forty-five. He literally gave his life for the students. A severe epidemic of scarlatina broke out in the men's dormitory. Men in different parts of the building who apparently had had no contact with each other kept coming down with the illness. Finally it was decided that the source of contagion was the men's washroom located on the ground floor and which all the residents used.
According to the medical practices of the day it was ordered that this room was to be fumigated with formaldehyde. Every evening after ten o'clock when all the students were to be in their rooms, for ten weeks Mr. Ytterboe filled all crevices in windows and doors with cotton and lit the formaldehyde lamp to burn during the night. Around five o'clock in the morning he opened doors and windows to air out before the students came to use the room. As a result of this long exposure to the fumes, he developed formaldehyde poisoning which brought on a creeping paralysis from which he died after two years.
Some years later the men's dormitory was named Ytterboe Hall. In subsequent years many generations of students have happy memories of this building which served not only as a men's dormitory but also for some years as the center of college life.