Chapter II: On the Banks of the Cannon

ONE of the communities carved out of the Big Woods became known as Northfield. Its founding has been credited to judge John Wesley North.
It was as early as 1849 — the year Minnesota was declared a territory — that Mr. North, a lawyer and anti-slavery lecturer, brought his bride, Ann Loomis, from New York State, to the newly founded St. Anthony Falls, in Minnesota.
Impelled by a pioneering spirit, judge North gave up his law practice, after six years, and decided to trek southward. On New Year’s Day, 1856, in forty-four degrees below zero weather, he had ready a long lumber bobsled, with prairie schooner top, drawn by four horses. Into this he placed a stove, a feather bed, a rocking-chair, supplies of fuel, food, and clothing, together with his wife and three children, aged four months to four years. On January third the equipage arrived at its destination, the site which was soon to be named for the adventurous judge North. Adventurous, yes, but also precautionary and provident. Two weeks beforehand he had butchered and sent ahead twelve dressed turkeys and thirty dressed chickens for the family larder. A home, also, he had in readiness. For, this was not Mr. North’s first trip south of St. Anthony Falls.
Already in 1854 he had traveled along the Cannon River, been impressed with its water power resources, and supervised the building of a sawmill on its banks — where the Malt o’ Meal plant now stands. He had been associated with Alexander Faribault in the founding of the city which bears that gentleman’s name. Furthermore, Mr. North had already acquired 320 acres of land fifteen miles north of Faribault, surveyed, and platted them. This land he had purchased from three preemptors; among whom was David Kirkendahl, recognized as the first settler in Northfield Township. He was a native of Germany, came from Pennsylvania, and had a claim in the northeast part of the present Northfield, where he first put up a tent and later a log-cabin. Temperance promoter that he was, Mr. North had a clause in every deed of land in his new settlement stipulating that no liquor was to be sold on the premises.
There was as yet no railroad in 1856, of course. That did not come till 1865. The Big Woods reached down to where the railroad tracks now are. Goods were shipped by boat to Hastings and hauled overland. For their mail the first settlers had to go to Waterford — until their own post office was secured, in May 1856. The stagecoach passed along Division Street, north along the Stanton Road, and crossed the Cannon River at the Waterford dam.
Sioux Indians by the hundreds were a common sight. It is recorded that as late as 1857 they had a scalp dance on the level land which is now the Carleton campus, in celebration of a victory over the Chippewas near Hastings. In 1867 the thirty-eight Sioux remaining in Faribault were removed to a reservation in Nebraska.
Mr. North was an expeditious worker. Intent on making the new settlement as independent as possible, already the first month he imported a wheelwright to build the first gristmill. A daughter of Mr. North tells that when the mill was taken into use, in the spring of that year, her “busy Mother had to sew sacks by hand for the meal, the first load of which was taken to Faribault and sold for three and one-half cents a pound.” This gristmill was placed on the east side of the river, directly across from the sawmill. But the Norths did not allow themselves to be wholly engrossed in material affairs, urgent as these were in a primitive settlement. As a member of the legislature of the Territory of Minnesota, Mr. North had introduced the bill founding the University of Minnesota (established on paper 1851, but not actually functioning till eighteen years later); so it was not strange that within the first month of his residence in the new village he began to stimulate interest for a schoolhouse — “which was to be used also for religious and other meetings.” It was soon erected, on the site of the present Congregational Church. This structure, the first schoolhouse in Rice County, was dedicated on November 7, 1856. Impressive the services must have been, lasting throughout the afternoon and evening. In a letter to her parents, in far away New York, Mrs. North described this significant occasion: “I assure you we had a good time. Dr. Jewett and Mr. Mott of Faribault, our Methodist minister, Mr. McKinley, Elder Cressey, and Mr. Hamilton, editor of the Cannon Falls Gazette, were here and spoke. Mr. Olin, our teacher, and Mr. North spoke too. Messrs. Pease, Gesner, and George Loomis, and the Misses Stowell and myself sang three anthems: ‘Give Ear, O Shepherd,’ ‘How Beautiful Upon the Mountain,’ ‘Make a Joyful Noise,’ and also three pieces of secular music: ‘The Pilgrim Fathers,’ ‘The Happiest Time is Now,’ and ‘Farewell Glee.’ I played the melodeon.” The school was called to order by Rollins Olin. There were twenty-five pupils.
Before the town was two years old it had two hotels, two blacksmith shops, a schoolhouse, a public reading room, and three organized churches. And two carriages!
The first hotel had a makeshift roof, consisting of a single thickness of cotton cloth. One night when twenty-five men were occupying the upper story there was a terrific thunder shower which thoroughly drenched them. History says that the very next morning the proprietor “posted off to Hastings for shingles.” The second hotel, dignified by the name “Mansion House,” was built on the school section, on the west side of the river. Being outside Mr. North’s jurisdiction, the owner dared to operate a bar for several weeks — until three men with axes “demolished barrels and bottles.” The “American House” was built by Mr. North in 1858, on the corner of Fourth and Division streets.
The village was incorporated in 1871. The city government charter was granted in 1875. The president of the first village council was Solomon P. Stewart. Of special interest it is to St. Olafites that Mr. Stewart lived in a mansion which was later divided into the two large houses now occupied by the Kelseys and the Spohns. This original Stewart home, in its commanding position, was an imposing layout, with its tall, many room house set in a spacious lawn with expansive flower gardens and generous croquet grounds. To the west were a big barn, a large vegetable garden, and many fruit trees. A trestle-like walk, with picket fence siding, led from the hill into the town.
As to the life story of the founder of Northfield there is considerable information available. He was a versatile, influential, forward looking person, continually moving westward. He was called the “Father of the Republican Party in Minnesota.” In 1857 he was a member of the Constitutional Convention that framed the constitution of the new state of Minnesota. In 1860 he was sent as a delegate to the Chicago Convention which nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency of the United States. He was one of the committee that went to Springfield to notify Mr. Lincoln of his nomination. In 1861 he was appointed by President Lincoln surveyor general of the new Territory of Nevada. He died in Fresno, California in 1890. So, Mr. North did not live out his life in Northfield. But, the school building he so eagerly and quickly procured for the town has had a long and useful existence.
This schoolhouse became a place for gatherings of various kinds, in addition to its primary use as a place for educating the youth of the community. Religious meetings were held in it until churches could be built. In it, that very first fall, was organized the Northfield Lyceum, which played an important role in the early history of Northfield. Debates were a favorite form of entertainment. The first question to be debated by the first debating club was “female suffrage.” “Thus early did this great question agitate the minds and hearts of this community.” “It was difficult to find anyone to take the negative.”
In 1861 a second and larger school building was erected, the envy of neighboring districts for a wide range.” It was close by the first one, and both were needed to take care of the increased enrollment.
Although the first settlers in Northfield were mostly New Englanders, there was a slow trickle of Scandinavians. Very prominent among the latter was Merchant Harald Thorson, who came in 1865. By 1869 a small, but serious and devout group, organized St. John’s Congregation, which also held its meetings in the larger schoolhouse.
These Norwegian Lutherans, together with scattered groups in the middle west, began early to plan for the higher education of their children, under the influence of the Church. At the Holden parsonage, in Goodhue County, about twenty miles from Northfield, the Reverend Bernt Julius Muus tried to conduct an academy. He engaged as teacher Mr. Thorsten Jesme. Sessions began January 7, 1870 and continued for three months, with a tuition fee of ten dollars. There were only three students the first term, and the same number the second term. The project had to be abandoned. But, not Mr. Muus’s idea of an academy for Lutheran youth. At a meeting of the Norwegian Synod held in his own parish, in 1874, he presented a plan and received encouragement. An offer of a tract of land and the sum of $10,000 for a Normal School at Red Wing was received. Mr. Harald Thorson of Northfield offered fifteen acres of land and $2,000 if the Church would establish and maintain an academy in Northfield. The church body thought well of Mr. Thorson’s proposal and thanked him for the munificent offer — the largest till then tendered by an individual for education among Norwegian Lutherans of America — but, assumed no responsibility in the matter.
After this, Pastor Muus took matters into his own hands. He favored Northfield and the plan for an academy, rather than for a normal school. He had staunch supporters in Mr. Thorson and the Reverend N. A. Quammen, of Christiania Congregation, in Dakota County, ten miles from Northfield. Mr. Thorson called a civic meeting in Lockwood Hall, October 1, 1874. Mr. A. O. Whipple was elected chairman and Mr. Thorson secretary. Others in attendance were Mr. O. S. Mead, Mr. E. Hobbs, Mr. C. A. Wheaton, Mr. G. M. Phillips, and Mr. A. M. Bjoraker. The following resolution was adopted: “We extend to our Norse brethren a cordial invitation to locate their college at Northfield, and we pledge them our hearty sympathy and support.”
By October fifteenth the committee reported $4,500 raised in Northfield, with the promise of more later. Thus encouraged, Pastor Muus decided to form a corporation. On November sixth, 1874, in Lawyer O. F. Perkins’ office, the articles of incorporation for St. Olaf’s School were signed by the Reverend B. J. Muus, Mr. H. Thorson, Mr. O. K. Finseth, Mr. K. P. Hougen, and Mr. Osmund Osmundson — one clergyman, one business man, and three farmers.
The naming of the new school is ascribed to Pastor Muus. With the name St. Olaf it was natural that King Olaf’s battle cry — “Fram, Fram, Cristmenn, Crossmenn” — became the motto of the school.
The gentleman chosen as head of the new institution was the Reverend Thorbjorn Nelson Mohn, a graduate of Luther College, Decorah, Iowa, and of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri, with the experience of pastorates in Chicago and St. Paul. He was thirty years of age, tall, handsome, dignified, cultured, and devout. Time proved that he was a very wise choice, not only to lay the foundation for the Lutheran Norwegian American institution, but to carry it onward — through twenty-five years. His salary was $650 a year.
By the time the Norwegians were ready to open their school, a third public school building had been erected in Northfield, replacing the two earlier ones and located across the street to the east. So it happened that the newly formed corporation was able to buy the two supplanted frame buildings, including four lots. The transaction took place on December 17, 1874, and the price was $2,500. One of these structures was the size of an ordinary country schoolhouse. The other of same form — with ridge roof — but considerably larger. They were painted white.
The buildings were dedicated to their new purpose on January 8, 1875. In spite of blustery weather, many were present for the all day program. At 10 a.m., Pastor Muus, the promoter, gave the opening address, in Norwegian, emphasizing the need for higher education, and especially for a Christian education. He said, in part: “Remember that the crown of victory is higher than this earth. Let not the honor or the emoluments of this world be your main concern, but seek to please the God who has created you, redeemed you, sanctified you, and called you to be His children and the heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven. You teachers, see to it that you impress upon yourselves and your fellow teachers that you do not work to please men, but to serve God. Show that you make every effort to educate the students in the fear of the Lord. Let knowledge be thorough, so that those who are here being instructed may be of use to themselves and to their fellow beings. Shun all humbug and all that which is only empty show. Believe me, it is of the devil, for it is opposed to the truth.”
At noon the women of St. John’s Congregation served a meal to all attending the exercises. In the afternoon the principal-elect gave his inaugural address, in English, on “The Importance of Good Citizenship.” At a divine service in the evening the Reverend H. G. Stub, of Minneapolis, spoke on the text “Christ the Only Foundation,” I Con 3:11. Among speakers who expressed good wishes for the new venture was Mr. A. A. Veblen, a student of Norse descent who was attending Carleton College, which had opened in September, 1867.
Thus, by 1875 there were three educational institutions in Northfield, all near the corner of what is now Third and Union Streets. St. Olaf’s School faced north on Third Street. To the east across Union Street was the public school. Ladies’ Hall of Carleton College faced south on Third Street.
Carleton College had had beginnings quite similar to those of St. Olaf College. Founded by a church group — the Congregationalists — and given initial grant by Northfielders, it opened its doors in September, 1867, with one instructor and twenty-three students, and was known as Northfield College, though only an academy as yet. Its first home was the three story hotel, “The American House,” built by judge North, now moved from Fourth to Third Street. The survival of the school was doubtful until 1871, when it was saved by a gift of $50,000 from William Carleton, of Charleston, Mass. It was at that time renamed Carleton in honor of its benefactor. The second building was on the site of Willis Hall, where boys were housed on the third floor. These boys took care of their own wood-burning stoves. In 1879 a fire was caused by one of these stoves, and the building destroyed. (Later rebuilt). A former store building, just back of the present city library, was given to the college to supply rooms for young men who wished to economize by boarding themselves. It was dubbed “Pancake Hall,” and is thought of as Carleton’s third building.
Carleton was also coeducational from the start, though generally maintaining a better balance in this respect than the sister college. The college department was opened in 1870. The first class to graduate, in 1874, comprised one man and one woman. These two were married on the day after commencement!
Dedication day for St. Olaf’s School, crowded as it was with programs, was officially the opening day of school, and there was a registration of thirty-six. The total enrollment the first year was fifty, and of these twelve were girls. It was rather significant that so many girls enrolled, because coeducation was a debated question all over the country at the time. Of the other three Norwegian Lutheran schools in the land, namely, Augustana College and Seminary, founded 1860, Luther College, 1861, Augsburg Seminary, 1869, only the first mentioned admitted women. Prophetically significant it was that the first person on the register was Marie Aaker, beginning the alphabetical list with a double “a,” as if to emphasize coeducation from the very start. Marie Aaker also has the distinction of being one of the two in the first graduating class from the academy, in 1877.


       To begin with, St. Olaf’s School had only grammar and high school courses with additional instruction in Norwegian and religion. The first year English, geography, penmanship, mathematics, and music were taught, with English as medium, while religion, Norwegian, and history were taught in Norwegian. The second year Latin and German and Algebra were added. Principal Mohn was the only teacher the first few days, but he soon obtained an assistant in the person of Mr. L. S. Reque, a graduate of Luther College and of the University of Iowa Law School. Both looked very dignified, with sideburns. Miss Ella Fiske, of New Richmond, Wisconsin, was the first music teacher and preceptress for the girls.

MISS ELLA FISKE First Preceptress

       Principal Mohn’s educational policy is to some extent revealed in the following excerpt from one of his early talks: “We must consider English as the leading subject of the school. A Norwegian born and educated in America may be excused if he is unable to express himself as fluently in the Norwegian language as would be expected of him in Norway; but no American will excuse him because he has not acquired the use of English to the same degree as the American has learned it.
“Inevitable as it is that we teach students the proficient use of the English language, the importance of keeping the door open for the study of the mother tongue is evident. Neither blind prejudice nor fanatical hate of things Norwegian should deny students this chance.
“The subject which we must place next to language in importance is history, since it is a study absolutely essential in opening the eyes of people and widening their outlook.
“Our school is not what is called a ‘school of religion,” yet it is for the sake of religion that this school was founded . . . Of what use to a man if he can explain everything from the growth of a flower to the course of the stars in the heavens if he does not know Him who set it all in motion? All sciences unite in God, and he alone who knows Him and His will can put himself in the proper relation to the fields of knowledge and use them rightly.”
The modest buildings in which the new school was housed served well enough as a beginning. In the larger one were two good sized class rooms on the first floor and in addition two smaller rooms used as office and music room. On the second floor were lodgings for a limited number of boys. Since the principal, as yet unmarried, wished to live in the building, a little square room under the stairs was fitted up for him. The secondary building was for a time used as a boarding house, but later taken over for a store-room.
Most of the students had to hunt out rooms in the town, and some “boarded themselves.” This matter of board was one of the students’ major concerns. When staples could be supplied from farm homes, it meant a substantial cutting in cash outlay. The housekeeping was of secondary concern, however. Washing dishes with the dishpan on top of a stack of books on the only table in the room was common procedure. Not all were as fortunate as two boys who for the sum of twenty-five cents a week had the privilege of helping themselves to the landlady’s clean dishes in the cupboard and leaving them soiled in the sink. As “gratuity” she presented her boys with plates of pie and doughnuts!
This question of board became a subject of concern also to Pastor Muus, the ever zealous father of the young academy. He prevailed upon the Kildahl family in Urland Congregation, Goodhue County, to move to Northfield, rent a suitable house and conduct a rooming and boarding house for students. By the opening of the second school year Mr. and Mrs. Johan Kildahl — the parents of J. N. and H. B. Kildahl of later fame had moved into a commodious house on the south side of Fifth Street, between Division and Washington streets, and were ready to be of service. This building was torn down in 1947, to make place for a business building.
At the beginning of the second year Mr. A. K. Teisberg took the place of Mr. Reque as assistant teacher. His family lived over a store on the west side of Division Street, between Fourth and Fifth streets, and some of the school girls had rooms in a part of the same building. The principal, who had married Anna Elizabeth Ringstad, in 1875, lived over one of the stores for a while, but later moved into a house on the east side of Washington Street, between Third and Fourth streets — the house still standing next to the lot on which the first St. John’s Lutheran Church was built, in 1881.
Time and change! Already the second year tuition was raised from thirty to forty dollars. Enrollment fell from fifty to forty-four. For the third year the fee was reduced back to thirty dollars. The attendance rose to sixty-two! Attendance the fourth year was ninety-nine. In the matter of the principal’s salary, however, there was no change for many years.
Money was a serious concern in pioneer days. Even students expected their money’s worth. “In February 1878 Principal Mohn was absent a couple of days in attendance at a circuit meeting. In his absence the members of Third Class addressed a petition to the Assistant Principal demanding that they be given a competent teacher in Professor Mohn’s absence. They had paid for their schooling, and that schooling they wanted to receive.” A far cry from present day attitudes!
Serious and earnest though those early students were, it was not all study and no play for them. For exercise the boys had pole-vaulting, horseshoe throwing, jumping, and wrestling. In time there was a baseball diamond provided on the outskirts of town. Croquet was one of the few games in which the girls were permitted to partake. In long, full skirts, they moved gracefully in and out among the arches, and with gentle taps sent the wooden balls through the curved wires, at times exposing the tip of the toe by pressing the foot on a ball in “double croquet.”
In winter the chief sport among the boys was snowballing with the pupils of the public school across the street, each side keeping to its own territory. Many a hard battle was fought — with the girls on the side lines standing prim and ladylike, hands in muffs, giving what moral support they could. When snow gave out, small stones were substituted! Neither did the Oles altogether ignore the students to the north. They enjoyed standing on their heads to entertain the Carleton girls.
Decidedly practical exercise there was on occasion. In case of a fire in town the students formed an efficient part of the fire brigade. Together with the citizens they formed a double line to the river, buckets going empty down one line and coming back the other filled, and handed quickly from man to man.
The main festivities of the year were Christmas (for those who stayed) and the 17th of May, Norway’s Day of Independence. Mrs. Mohn tells in her reminiscences that a Christmas tree was provided for the students the second year. But, the third year they were too poor to buy a tree, so erected a stand on a table and lighted it with candles. However, this miserable substitute was very disappointing and was never offered again.
One 17th of May Mr. H. Thorson came to the school and told the students they were privileged to go up to the woods on the hill west of town and enjoy their holiday. They marched in a body up to what we now know as Manitou Heights, cleared away brush to prepare a playground and enjoyed themselves with games of various kinds. Later in the day Mr. Thorson drove up and invited them to his maple syrup cookery deep in the woods. That was fun.
On another 17th of May an invitation came to celebrate at Holden, in Pastor Muus’s congregation. Going so far — twenty miles — they were given permission to leave on the 16th and return on the 18th. The farmers came with two and three seated rigs to fetch the students, and also brought them back again.
An excitement out of the ordinary disturbed the school, as well as the entire town, at the beginning of the third school year. It was September 7, 1876, that the daring James-Younger raid gave Northfield notoriety throughout the land. Some of the boys went to the principal and asked if they might be permitted to join in the chase and capture of the robber gang, but “he didn’t seem to think it necessary.” Mrs. Ytterboe, who as Elise Kittlesby was a student at the time, recalled that the girls “were haunted by dire threats of the robbers’ return to destroy the town, and many of them agreed that if they ever reached home alive, they would never again clamor for a higher education.”
The word “notoriety” should, in all honesty, be changed to “fame” from the standpoint of Northfielders, for it was by them that the outlawed gang was stopped. In September 1926, on the fiftieth anniversary of the fray, the Northfield News had this paragraph: “The real explanation why the robbery remains a vivid chapter in the story of the state is because it wasn’t a robbery at all but a repulse and defeat of the most daring and feared gang of robbers that terrorized a dozen states half a century ago. It was the Waterloo of the James and Younger Brothers, and to the little group of Northfield citizens who challenged the outlaws and routed them belongs much of the credit for ending the career of the famous outlaws.”
It was the year of the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Mr. John C. Nutting, President of the bank, and Mr. G. M. Phillips, Cashier, were away celebrating that occasion at the time the robbers came. The acting cashier, Mr. J. L. Heywood, refused to open the vault, and was killed. Firearms of all types were pressed into service by the citizens, with the result that two of the gang and one horse lay dead on the street. One of the Ole students who worked part time in a shoe-store happened to walk past and was surprised to recognize on one of the dead desperadoes a boot he had patched a few days before!
Seven minutes after the fray all the bells in town were set ringing, and Mayor Stewart had a posse down the Dundas Road after the six men on five horses. After two weeks the story read: Three killed, three captured, and two escaped.
Rifles, pistols, and shotguns were ready at hand in pioneer territory. The surrounding woods, filled with deer, turkeys, grouse, and other wild animals, were a hunter’s paradise. In fact, they were a magnet drawing men even from the Deep South. A reminder of those days is the “Wayside Inn,” a favorite rooming house for St. Olaf students for several decades. It was built by a Southerner as a hunting lodge, in the then deep woods, and can to this day be recognized as a substantial piece of southern architecture.
Let us not forget the main hero of September 7, 1876, for such a one Mr. Heywood was and remains. The banks of the United States and of Canada contributed a $12,000 fund for his family; the Grand Army Post in Northfield was named for him; Carleton College, of which he was treasurer, established a Heywood Library Fund; and the Congregational Church honored him with a memorial window. To Northfield youth he has been held up as a man faithful to duty.
It could not have been always easy to concentrate on “book learning” in the days of real, live sport! But — St. Olaf’s School plodded along, steadily advancing. Naturally, there were no graduates for several years and therefore no commencement festivities to properly wind up the school year. Some means had to be found for celebrating the last days of school. One year, at least, the student body was given a trip to Minnehaha Falls to see that wonder of nature, already well known throughout the land because of Longfellow’s poem.
The first graduation took place in 1877. Only two graduates, and both girls: Marie Aaker and Esther Thompson. In 1878 there was only one graduate, a girl, Berit Hoverstad. Those records make the school look like a ladies’ seminary! In 1880, however, there were one boy and one girl who finished the course. That began to look like coeducation. But — that date takes us away from the banks of the Cannon.

As It Was In The Beginning


To Be Read First, Please
The Big Woods
On the Banks of the Cannon
Up to Manitou Heights
The Hall in the Woods
From Dawn to Dusk
A New Tree Grows on Manitou
In and Out Among the Trees
Boughs and Branches
The Woods Recede