My Years at St. Olaf's School
Mohn, principal of St. Olaf's School, met us on the depot platform.
A two-seated carriage was in waiting to take us up to the school
on Manitou Heights. There were at that time two dirt roads leading
westward, one along what now is Forest Avenue and the other up the
present Linden Street to a country road now known as St. Olaf Avenue.
We followed the latter road. It was lined on both sides most of
the way with a variety of underbrush --- sumac, wild plums, and
choke cherries. Not many homes had as yet been built in this part
of town and much of the land between Forest and St. Olaf Avenues
was pasture land. Practically no streets had been laid out except
the two already mentioned.
When we came to the intersection of the present Lincoln and St.
Olaf Avenues, Professor Mohn pointed out to us a home on the northwest
corner and said to Father: "That is the place I have recommended
that you buy." The purchase of this home had been arranged
by correspondence and Professor Mohn was very helpful when the transaction
was finally made. As we drove by, we noticed that the house was
surrounded by a white board fence; that there was a barn, a woodshed,
and a chicken-coop; also that part of the property was a pasture
and part a corn-field. This ten-acre plot extended the entire length
of St. Olaf Avenue from Lincoln to the foot of the Hill and is the
land on which are now located the residences of the college president
and of a number of the college faculty members. Perhaps it will
not be out-of-place to mention at this point that the original buildings
of our home on the comer were removed years ago --- all except the
barn in which I used to milk our cows. This was moved to a new location
and rebuilt by a subsequent owner and is still one of the substantial
residences of the West Side. The road we followed took us up around
the east side of Old Main. When we first saw the Hill it was practically
treeless; the fine evergreens that now may be seen on the north
and east slopes were planted several years later.
The home which father had bought was not ready for
immediate occupancy and therefore we lived for a short time in Old
Main. We soon learned that the only structures on the hill were
Old Main and a frame building just within the woods a short distance
to the west. This was the building in which all the school girls
were housed and in which also one of the professors with his family
resided. Besides these two buildings there was a well and a windmill
which supplied drinking water to the residents on the Hill. Other
interesting features we noticed were the big woods stretching out
westward and northwestward, with a few rather indistinct "Indian
trails" running through them, and a huge supply of cord wood
piled up in long rows in an open space just west of Old Main. Wood
was the only fuel used for cooking and heating and each room in
both buildings was equipped with a stove and a large wood-box.
the few days we lived in Old Main, we had occasion to explore the
building from tower to basement. The principal of the school, Professor
Th. N. Mohn, and his family lived in rooms on the southeast comer
of the first floor and basement. The third or top floor consisted
of small dormer rooms for the male section of the student body and
most of the rooms on the second floor were used as classrooms. The
one exception was the room in the southwest comer which was set
aside as the school auditorium. The first floor rooms were occupied
by teachers. In the north half of the basement were the kitchen
and the dining room and in the southwest quarter the boys' washroom.
These were some of the things I learned from my first contact with
the "School on the Hill."
When our household goods and furniture arrived from Madison and
the house had been thoroughly cleaned, we moved in and got acquainted
as quickly as possible with our new home and surroundings. Some
changes had to be made. The building of an addition to the dwelling
to serve as a study for Father was begun at once. The distance to
town was about one mile and the only way to get mail, groceries,
and supplies, or go to church, was to walk. We boys managed to find
some shortcuts through
the pastures but then we always had to be on the lookout for gentlemen
bovines. In order, therefore, to make the "going to town"
easier for the whole family, it was decided to buy a horse and a
buggy. When we learned that a fine saddle came with the horse, our
interest in the transaction was greatly increased. Many exploratory
trips on horseback along the trails in the big woods were undertaken
and we soon located patches of raspberries, blackberries, and plums,
and a cranberry bog a short distance northwest of the campus. We
were thus able to supply our household with all kinds of fruit for
canning and jelly making.
The milk problem was solved by the purchase of a Jersey cow and
fresh eggs were assured when some chickens were bought and put in
the coop. These activities gave us something to think about. It
was fun riding horseback out into various sections of the country;
it was nice to have fresh eggs and milk on hand in sufficient quantities;
but to get up early in the morning on a bitterly cold day to feed
the animals, pump and carry water to them, milk the cow, and clean
the stable all before going to school --- that was something else.
Late in August of our first summer in Northfield a damaging cyclone
struck the city. The windmill on the Hill was destroyed and parts
of the tin roof of Old Main and some of the cast-iron ornaments
from the turrets were scattered over the fields below the Hill.
The damage done was of much concern to the school authorities as
funds for repairs were not easily obtainable.
The fall term of school in 1886 opened on September 15 and I enrolled
on that day in what was called "sub-class" to become the
528th boy and the 705th student to enter St. Olaf since its founding.
The total enrollment that year was 68 boys and 18 girls. Of this
number, 19 boys and 7 girls were former students; all the rest were
new enrollments. Tuition, board, and room for the fall term was
$20.00, for the winter $70.00, and for the spring $30.00. An additional
charge of $2.50 was made for the winter term to pay for "fuel
According to announcement in the school catalog, the following
are some of the "habits that are forbidden":
The use of ardent spirits.
The use of tobacco in any form.
At entrance, each student was questioned by one of the school officials
regarding some of these habits and a number of interesting stories
have been told as a result. One happy boy was questioned as follows:
"What is your name?"
"Where did you come from?"
"Where is your home?"
"In Berlin." (A little town in Wisconsin)
"Do you use tobacco?"
"Sure. I've got a new plug. Do you want a chew?"
The matter of "Ardent Spirits" also gave occasional trouble
as there were a number of saloons in Northfield at that time. It
is said that on one occasion a boy, son of a prominent school supporter,
was seen entering a saloon and was called in by the school official
who said to him: "Ole, why did you go into that place?"
The boy answered: "That place? Why that's the place where you
get the biggest glass of beer for a nickel."
When school opened in September, Old Main was taxed to its utmost
to take care of all the classes for which room had to be provided.
The so-called auditorium was turned over to the theological department
and the two professors in this department alternated in its use.
The other seven rooms on second floor were used by the academy and
freshman classes; yes, freshman, as for the first time in the history
of the school on Manitou Heights, a number of college students were
enrolled that fall and these were known as freshmen, a new and high-sounding
name to most of the academy boys and girls. Before the end of the
school year, this first freshman class could boast of a total membership
of three students.
In the academy, there were two courses of study, a classical and
a literary, and in each course the classes were known as 1st, 2nd,
3rd, 4th, and Sub-class. I was enrolled in the sub-preparatory of
the classical course where the prescribed studies were penmanship,
reading, arithmetic, political geography, and Norwegian. Some of
my first teachers at St. Olaf and the subjects they taught were:
I. F. Grose, arithmetic; Per Strömme, geography; O. G. Felland,
penmanship and botany; H. T. Ytterboe, physiology; and Th. N. Mohn,
Most of my classmates were considerably older than are present-day
high school students. Some of them had had little schooling before
coming to St. Olaf's School, and often when answering examination
questions, they depended on intuition rather than on what they had
learned from their textbooks. I well remember an examination in
elementary physics. One of the questions was: "How fast does
light travel and how is it determined?" This was the answer
given: "Light travels very fast; it is determined by observation."
The amusing part of this incident was that the student seemed very
much surprised when the teacher gave him a low mark for an answer
which the student thought eminently satisfactory and correct. This,
by the way, was not the student who was in the habit of going to
sleep in his classes and who on that account was nicknamed "Pullman."
On June 13th, 1891, a class of fifteen, twelve boys and three girls,
graduated from the academy and every one had a part in the commencement
program. I believe this program is of sufficient interest to insert
|2. "Yderst mod Norden"
|3. Have a Purpose in Life
Edward B. Wold
|4. Importance of Punctuality
Nils A. Biorn
|5. Home Influences
|6. Nödvendigheden of at bruge tiden ret
|8. "Djupt i havet"
Olaf P. Berg
Gilbert M. Digen
|11. Livets Seilads
|12. What is a true education
Carl K. Solberg
|14. "Suomis Sang"
|15. "Don't Give up the Ship"
|16. German Declamation: "Columbus"
Paul G. Schmidt
|17. Kind and Bitter Words
|18. An Age of Progress
J. A. E. Naess
|19. Class History
|20. Granting of Certificates
A few of these 1891 academy graduates continued their studies at
St. Olaf College and became St. Olaf College alumni, but not all
of them. I was one of those who could not; for in 1891 the theological
department was transferred from St. Olaf to Minneapolis and of course
our family went with the transfer. My parents thought best to keep
me at home and have me continue my schooling in Minneapolis. I therefore
attended the Minneapolis Academy for a time and then entered the
During the years that I was a member of the St. Olaf Academy family,
student life was quite different from what it is in college today.
There was no central heating plant and each student was obliged
to go out to the wood-pile and carry wood from there up to his dormitory
room to "keep the home fires burning." That was quite
a hardship for the boys whose rooms were on the top floor of Old
Main and the temptation was always strong to sneak into some other
student's room when he was not in and carry away whatever pieces
of wood could be found. This was a source of considerable worry
and trouble to the authorities, especially during the coldest winter
Electric lights were unknown and each student had to provide a
lamp and kerosene for his study table. Nor was there any ringing
of electric bells at the beginning and end of classes, so one of
the boys who happened to own a watch --- and there were a few of
these --- would get an appointment as bell-ringer. A hand-bell was
left just outside of the room in which the boy had class and when
the hour was up he would leave the class and ring the bell in the
hall. This same bell would be rung for meals too. It sounded something
Ding, a ling; ding, a ling,
Ding, a ling.
And then the boys would chime in and sing with the bells:
Come and eat, come and eat;
And half-cooked meat.
Some fads of those early school days were autograph albums, rubber
name-stamps, and celluloid collars. Almost every student had an
autograph album which he passed around to his teachers and friends
for a comment of some kind and a signature. Of course many of the
entries were supposed to be original and funny, and it was considered
quite an accomplishment if one could compose a couplet something
Remember me when far, far off
Where the wood-chucks die of whooping-cough.
Celluloid collars, which could easily be washed and kept clean,
were worn by some of the elite; and rubber personal name-stamps
were the possession only of the "big shots."
In the fall, football was played in the small open space just west
of Old Main where now is the circular driveway. This was the only
open space on the Hill. The boys chose sides and played old-time
rugby. During winter months, tobogganing and skiing were very much
in order. Almost the entire student body could be seen at times
on either the east or north slopes of the Hill. Baseball was played
at the foot of the Hill on the southeast side, where a so-called
baseball diamond had been located. There was no backstop and the
catcher had neither mask nor chest-protector. He therefore stood
some distance back of the batter and tried to stop the pitched balls
on first bounce. A rather disturbing feature of this baseball diamond
was a wooden sidewalk that ran from the foot of the Hill southeastward
toward the corner of Lincoln and Forest Avenues. The left fielder
usually had to take his position on the far side of this sidewalk;
and as the walk was rather high above the ground, batted balls would
sometimes roll under it and this would delay the game. Nevertheless,
some "great" games were played there. I remember one in
particular that drew a very large 17th of May crowd. It was a game
with the "Silver Stars" from Cannon Falls!
Gymnastics was introduced by one of the students who came to St.
Olaf in 1887 and later in 1890 was a member of the first graduating
class of the college department. He was not only an expert gymnast
but also something of an acrobat, for he could stand on the sidewalk,
leap into the air, and turn a complete somersault before landing
on his feet. This student was able to interest other students and
friends in contributing toward some gymnastic apparatus which was
put up in the open space where Steensland Hall is now located. The
apparatus consisted of two upright beams about eight inches square
and a crossbeam of similar dimension to which were fastened one
heavy rope for climbing and two ropes and rings for gymnastic swinging
and jumping. A turning pole was also put up. This, I suppose, may
be regarded as the first gymnasium at St. Olaf.
Music instruction was given by a piano teacher and the only vocal
music organizations were voluntary quartets or octets. The band
was the first major music organization to appear at the school and
its first public program was given in the Northfield City Park on
Saturday evening, June 17th, 1893, as part of that year's commencement
festivities. The director was Adolph Larson, one of that year's
graduates, and the following program was played:
||"Down on the Farm"
||"The Old Church Organ"
||"Sobre las Olas"
||"New Version." Mocking Bird with cornet variations.
"Annie Laurie" (bass solo)
||"Recollections of the War" Grand medley of war songs
drum call and various bugle calls.
8. ANDANTE AND MAZURKA.
"Where the Honeysuckles Grow"
|10. GRAND MARCH.
PLEASE DO NOT LEAVE THIS PROGRAM IN THE PARK
Those were pre-Coca Cola days. The usual treats were candy and
ice cream. A more elaborate one was an oyster stew. Entertainments
at the school followed a familiar pattern --- a piano solo, a reading
or a declamation, a speech, some more readings, and then refreshments.
Two events of more than ordinary personal interest may be told
in this story of my St. Olaf's School days. One is my confirmation
in St. John's Church and the other a two-week's visit in the winter
of 1889 to the home of Pastor B. J. Muus, the acknowledged founder
of St. Olaf's s School.
Professor Mohn was not only the principal of the academy but also
pastor of the local congregation. The church at that time was located
on the east side of town across the street from the present Grand
Theatre. Norwegian was the only language then used and when I joined
the confirmation class in the fall of 1890 I was obliged to learn
the catechism, explanation, and hymns in Norwegian and that was
not an easy task. My mother had given me and the other children
in our family a very careful home training; I had learned Luther's
catechism and explanation in German, as well as many German prayers
and hymns, and now to memorize all this in another language sometimes
became difficult and perplexing. Professor Mohn, however, was very
considerate and helpful, with the result that I was confirmed by
him in 1891 on the Sunday before my graduation from St. Olaf's School.
Soon after our coming to Northfield in 1888 Pastor Muus called
on my parents and in the course of his visit told my mother that
he planned to send two of his boys to the academy, but he was very
anxious that they should live with us in our home, as he felt they
very much needed a mother's care. Of course my mother consented
and the two boys, Peter and Harald, lived with us as members of
the family as long as they were students in the academy. Peter was
very anxious I should go home with him for the Christmas vacation
in 1889, and my parents gave their consent. We left our home in
the morning in an open box sleigh, in which had been put some heavy
blankets and a supply of straw. Although it was a bitterly cold
day, we came to Holden, the home of Pastor Muus, towards evening
with no greater discomfort than that we were very, very cold. This
was a drive over country roads of about twenty-five miles. We were
warmly welcomed by Pastor Muus and by some of the other members
of the household, but it was not until the next day, at the noonday
meal, that I met and became acquainted with all the folks. I well
remember that first dinner in the parsonage. Around a long table
in a spacious dining room were seated ten or eleven members of the
household --- Pastor Muus at the head and next to him the bachelor
school teacher; four Muus boys and myself; several women servants;
a hired man who looked after the farm and took care of the horses,
cows, pigs, and chickens; and a woodchopper whose business it was
to haul dead-and-down trees out of the woods, saw them up, and split
wood for the parsonage and the church. It was a rather quiet and
sober group as all of them had great respect for the head of the
On a number of evenings Pastor Muus came downstairs from his study
and spent the evening with us. I had the privilege of playing chess
with him on a number of occasions, for I had learned the moves from
my father and had often played games with him. One day Pastor Muus
took all of us younger folks in his sleigh to the country store,
where many of the Christmas gifts were purchased. Of course, this
was not a store like the modern shops in the large cities; but there
was, nevertheless, quite a variety of trinkets, handkerchiefs, towels,
soap, etc., so that on Christmas Eve at the parsonage there was
an appropriate gift for everyone. Mine was a yellow silk handkerchief
from Pastor Muus.
The service in church on Christmas Day was the main event of the
entire Christmas season. Every member of the household took great
pains to appear at his very best. Apparently the same had been done
in many other households throughout the community, for the church
was crowded with worshippers in their best attire. The service was
several hours long and consisted of the singing of many hymns by
the congregation, a very long sermon by the pastor, and a large
number of baptisms. I particularly remember the heroic work of the
"klokker" or deacon who stood solemnly up in front and
had to be constantly on the alert during the rituals to get in the
"Amen" at the right time. The pastor's chanting also is
deserving of some comment, for Pastor Muus was not a vocalist; he
grunted more than he intoned. At the parsonage, after services,
a bountiful Christmas dinner was served, consisting of a great variety
of hot dishes, immediately after which, in an adjacent room, coffee
was served with lefse, flatbread, rull, cakes, and cookies of all
kinds. During the following week many parties were given in different
homes where games were played, many of which, I believe, had been
taught the young folks by the school teacher from Norway.
When the students returned to school after vacation, a number became
ill, some with the more common troubles such as scarlet fever and
mumps, but several with the more serious ailment known at that time
as "lung fever" but now as pneumonia. The unfortunate
boys who became ill had to be attended in their rooms on the top
floor of Old Main as there were no hospital facilities in town or
at the school. It is no wonder that two died that winter.
The temptation is strong, of course, to continue to reminisce about
people and events of my days at "St. Olaf's School," but
perhaps what has been recorded so far in this chapter is sufficient
to give a picture of what life was like here on Manitou Heights
in the early days. In the next chapter I would like to tell something
about my experiences and contacts during my stay at the university
which I believe had a bearing on my subsequent work at St. Olaf