CHAPTER 18: Agnes Mellby
HERE was an individual! I can see her now standing in our hall just about to leave our house, a woolen shawl over her shoulder, a tam-o-shanter cocked on the side of her curly wind-blown hair, and saying "adieu" with a slight bow and a wave of her hand. She was Preceptress. We never called her Dean of Women. That title wouldn't have seemed natural for her. She was a nonconformist. She was a strict disciplinarian as everyone was in those days. Lights out at ten o'clock; a chaperone for all the student parties; no girl allowed out of Ladies' Hall on week days. In fact, she stood for no foolishness. She had a brusque manner, which hid a very kind heart. There is a story about the preceptress at Carleton College which illustrates the spirit of puritanism in those days. She was speaking to the Carleton girls and said to them: "Now, girls, it is perfectly proper to have pictures of young gentlemen in your rooms, but when you retire at night, please turn their faces to the wall."
I remember seeing the Carleton College girls taking a walk from Gridley Hall up to the St. Olaf elm on Forest Avenue. They marched two by two with a chaperone marching ahead and another chaperone following behind. Those were strict days indeed, but no one seemed to object, and those in authority had full control of the situation.
Miss Mellby started a French Club. I know that Tante Mohn, Mrs. Felland, and Mother belonged to it, but I doubt very much that they learned a great deal of that language. She also started a Browning Club which was quite the fashion in those days. She had a bright mind, as did her scholarly brother, Dr. Carl Mellby, and she was a student of no ordinary ability. She has gone down in St. Olaf history as the first woman graduate of the college.
I was twelve years old when she invited me to spend a month with her in the summer of 1910 at the Mellby family parsonage out in the country near the town of New Richland. She and I traveled by train, and we were met at the depot by the Mellby's hired man. He drove a small cart. Miss Mellby sat on the seat beside the hired man, and I sat on Miss Mellby's trunk at the rear with my suitcase beside me. It seemed to me that we drove a long distance on those dirt roads before we reached the parsonage. The seat on the trunk became very, very hard even for young girl of my age, and it seemed to me we would never reach our destination.
The Mellby parsonage was a large house with spacious rooms. At the front of the house was a long avenue of poplars, and I loved to run down that avenue to get the mail. The mail box was just across a pretty little brook over which stretched a little bridge. It seemed to me that Miss Mellby's father, the Reverend Mellby, was a very very old gentleman. The only thing I really do remember about him is that at supper time he had only a bowl of milk with flat brod crumpled in it.
Miss Mellby decided to send me to a parochial school to learn my ABC's in Norwegian. The schoolhouse was about a mile from the parsonage, and I used to trudge along those country roads to get there. I remember feeling that I had learned a great deal of Norwegian when I got as far as the first poem in the reading book. Just for the fun of it, I'll quote this poem, or rather jingle, in order to see whether someone of the older generation reading this can remember that far back.
First, there was a picture of three puppies. They were looking at a turtle and under the picture was the poem. I shall not translate it, but write it down as I remember it.
"Hvad er det for en?
"Har I set hans ben?
"Har I set hans ryg?
"Ugh-hvor er styg?"
I believe the book was purchased in Norway and was certainly more Danish than the new Norse we hear about today. It was rather strange, too, because the "f's" were so like the "s's" that we could scarcely tell the difference between the two letters. One day I started off to school, but I had not gone a long way when I developed a terrible pain in my side. I felt I couldn't go on, so I returned to the parsonage and told Miss Mellby I had a terrible pain in my side. She said, "Now Edel, you lie right down on the sofa for a while, and I'll tell you what we'll do. We will make some fudge!" I lay down for a moment, and, miraculously, the pain was gone.
Miss Mellby, wise in her dealings with young people, realized that what was the matter with me was that I was homesick and that I might be lonely with only her and her aged father. She had a kind and understanding heart.
Another time the Reverend Mellby was to officiate at a country wedding. I was sent with the hired man to the bride's home on an errand. A girl met me at the door with her hair all done up in kid curlers. Later on at the wedding, I was astonished to see this same girl all radiant in her wedding dress. It seemed strange to me that anyone could make such a transformation. People I knew never let themselves be seen with their hair done up in kid curlers. That was only for the privacy of their own bedrooms.
After the wedding ceremony, a long table was set out on the lawn for the wedding supper. I, who was a guest of the minister's family, was seated between the bride and the groom --- a seat of honor I have never experienced before or since. While I was visiting with Miss Mellby, she received word that her sister, Marie, was to be married later that summer. I can see her still: Miss Mellby started to paper some of the unused bedrooms, the walls and the ceilings, and worked feverishly to get them ready. Later on, Mother, Tante Agnes and I arrived for the wedding. Tante Agnes was one of the bridesmaids. Everything looked lovely. The rooms were fresh and clean, and it was indeed a fine and gala wedding party; a regular house party. Miss Mellby must have worked very hard to get things in proper shape for such an affair, and there was room in the large house for everybody.
When Miss Mellby died, the Mellbys didn't have a lot in Oak Lawn Cemetery in Northfield. Mother asked that she be buried in the Ytterboe lot near her old St. Olaf friends where she rightly belonged. Agnes Mellby Hall was named in the memory.