Chapter IX: The Woods Recede

AT NO TIME was Ladies’ Hall really adequate as dormitory space for the girls at St. Olaf. Still, it served as the only girls’ Hall for more than thirty years. Always there were more outside than in, who had to hunt out rooms in the sparsely settled part of town west of the river. Sometimes several members of a family would rent a house and take in a few extra and together try to “keep house.”

One of the largest rooming houses was on the corner of Forest Avenue and Madison Street. One year in the early nineties there happened to be four Marys and two Marthas living there. Even the woman who presided over the house had the name Martha! The only female in the building not a Mary or a Martha was Julia. Naturally enough she received the appellation “Lazarus”! Natural, too, that the house became known as “Bethany,” a name that clung to it long after the Marys and Marthas had left. Always there were some houses singled out for naming. But it has been left to modern times to emblazon the names on the outside of the buildings. When the student body was small, everyone knew where “Prince Albert Court” was located. Also, they knew that the name was changed to “Sleepy Hollow” when “Pulman” roomed there. That was a boys’ abode, of course. When the house on the south slope of the Hill became the President’s residence, Mrs. Mohn named it “Maplehurst.”

A news item from 1891 reads: “Two large houses below the Hill have been rented and are occupied by ladies.” An item from 1892: “Present enrollment is about one hundred eighty, including some fifty lady students.”

As one reads between the lines, the girls were treated more or less as hangers-on. It was not unusual for speakers to address audiences as “gentlemen,” utterly ignoring the women. Therefore, the only girl in a Greek class felt quite a “lift” when the teacher came in every morning saying: “Good morning, lady and gentlemen.” The boys were the first to get a new dormitory. But, the girls did not complain — they heaped coals of fire upon their heads by helping to furnish the parlors in Ytterboe Hall.

The boys were favored. No doubt about it. Voices continued to be raised against coeducation in the annual church meetings and in the press. Always, it seems, those connected with the school were in favor of coeducation. About 1893 Professor Felland wrote the following: “Coeducation is one of the features of the college. This is so common in our American schools, at least in the west, that it might seem strange to call attention to it. But, in our Norwegian schools it is not so common, although it is gaining ground year by year. St. Olaf claims the honor of being the first Norwegian advanced school to introduce coeducation. It has been tried here for seventeen years, and has had encouraging results. If discipline has not been easier to maintain, it has yielded more satisfactory results. In regard to capacity for learning, the girls compare favorably with the boys.” As late as 1905, after thirty years of coeducation at St. Olaf, the Viking had an article entitled: “Shall St. Olaf Remain a Coeducational Institution?”, concluding with the words: “Since coeducation in general, and at St. Olaf in particular, has been a success, since it is the duty of the United Lutheran Church to give its young women a higher education under its own supervision, and since there is an economical advantage in educating them at St. Olaf, let coeducation at St. Olaf be permanent.” But, that permanence could not be assured before a new girls’ dormitory became a reality on the Hill.

When the Felland family moved into their new home at 1212 St. Olaf Avenue, in the fall of 1901, more dormitory space became available. But, be it here remarked, with a great loss of the long-time charm of the place. The Hall was still far from supplying the need for rooms. It began to be looked upon as a relic of the school’s beginnings. Partly in scorn and partly out of respect, the practice developed of calling it the “old Ladies’ Hall.” Too often with an implied capitalized “Old” and emphasis on “Ladies!” One Viking had this comment: “Modest to a fault is the Ladies’ Hall . . . It is an amusing pastime for new students to guess its age, but it is whispered that it is older than it looks.”

It was in 1906 that the United Norwegian Lutheran Church came to the decision that a girls’ dormitory must be built at St. Olaf. A committee was elected for the collecting of funds. The following year this committee resigned, with only $5,000 raised. Several years passed. Seeing how imperative was the need for a girls’ dormitory, President Kildahl went before the convention of the Church, with the result that the church body adopted the following resolution: “Be it resolved that a powerful effort be made that the Ladies’ Hall may be erected and paid for this year — June 1, 1910 to June 1, 1911.” Professor R. Bogstad (President of the Board of Trustees) and Professor Holland (of St. Olaf) were asked to assist in the in-gathering of money for the project. The men went to work immediately, with a will and a plan. That was in March 1911. The April 11th edition of the Messenger was devoted to the new Hall project. A photograph of the old Hall with the school girls filling to overflowing the verandahs on both floors was used for propaganda purposes. All women in the St. Olaf family were vitally interested. The Women’s League (women of the faculty) became active in writing letters to ladies’ aids, requesting contributions. May 17, Norway’s day of independence and a holiday at the college, was given the added significance of Tag Day. Enthusiasm ran high. The day began with a May morning breakfast served by the YWCA group. The kitchen faculty had gladly complied with the request to dispense with the regular dining-hall breakfast. With a menu of coffee, egg-and-peanut-butter sandwiches, doughnuts, and bananas, the sum of $25 was cleared. No one escaped a tag. Even the Luther College baseball players were conspicuously wearing the yellow square tags as they boarded the bus after a sensational defeat at the hands of the Oles that day. And in Decorah “the Young Ladies’ Society of the church issued an invitation to all similar and sympathizing societies to join with them in collecting funds for the building of our much needed ladies’ hall .” — ( Messenger March 1916.) About twenty towns in the northwest observed Tag Day and added their bit to the $170 raised from tags on the Hill that day.


A faithful friend of the school, who had earlier financed the moving of Ladies’ Hall to the Hill, Mr. Harald Thorson, came forward with the grand sum of $10,000. Now the agitators against coeducation at St. Olaf would be silenced forever!



Now that a new Ladies’ Hall is assured us,
Now that our dreams are about to come true,
Thoughts of the conflicts anent its adoption,
Rise like grim spectres and chill us anew.

Here comes the voice of a pastor sarcastic;
“Surely this plan was adopted by graft!
Coeducation spells co-ruination;
What could be worse? (Except voting for Taft).”

Up speaks a spook from the windy Dakotas:
“College bred girls only know how to shirk.
Hating to work they will bang the piano
I know a girl widely sought as a clerk!”

“Ditto” “Exactly” “What Rot” “Ipse Dixi”
“Gentlemen, here our discussion must close”;
But from the revel of spectres uncanny,
Higher and higher the clamor arose.

Fierce their attack and most cruel their onslaught,
But ‘gainst their thrusts we a weapon have found,
At the proud slogan: “Behold our alumnae,”
Baffled and nerveless they sink to the ground.

Proudly we point to St. Olaf alumnae
Helpful at home and in church work besides,
Womanly, gracious, as teachers successful,
Clever as hostesses, charming as brides.
Viking ’10, ’11, ’12

On the day before contractors began operations, school was dismissed after chapel for an hour. Everyone went to the site of the Hall-to-be. After a short talk by President Kildahl, “the first bunch of terra firma was forcibly removed by Miss Dieson.” Professor Felland, continuing faithful in his photographic history of the college, took pictures of the epoch-making event. Then there was a chance for any who wished to take a shovel of dirt. The cornerstone was laid by Dr. Dahl, president of the synod, at Commencement 1911. On February 12, 1912, Mohn Hall was formally opened for occupancy.

The new Hall was named for the first president of the school. Not all students realized this, and so, when one of the first deans who lived in it was courted by one of President Mohn’s sons, it was remarked that the Hall must be named for him!

When it was boasted that the new dormitory was fireproof, Miss Mellby, with her characteristically quick wit, replied: “So was the old Ladies’ Hall!”

The old relic was to have another chapter added to its history. Abandoned as a dormitory, it became the first Music Hall at St. Olaf, and served in that capacity for twelve years. Fireproof to the end! Even the old cistern pump outside the Hall continued to serve. The Mohn Hall girls did enjoy using soft water for shampoos. It became an un written law that the freshmen boys were to carry the pails of water from the pump to Mohn Hall. Chore or privilege? The new Hall accommodated 108 girls, but even so was not sufficient for the needs of the day. With the establishment of a music course leading to a degree, a literary course on a par with the classical and scientific courses, the introduction of home economics, and with coeducation a settled fact, women were drawn to the institution more and more. Already in 1912 there were two hundred girls rooming outside Mohn Hall. In 1914 the college hospital was requisitioned as extra dormitory space as it had been also in 1911. From 1906 to 1914 the list of graduates included eighty-five women. The Pandoras’ dream was fast becoming a reality!

During its use as Music Hall the “wooden box” was dubbed “Agony Hall.” There was no attempt made at improving or beautifying it, as it was considered very temporary quarters for the fast growing music department which was soon to have a worthy stone structure “built with song.”

But two years before such a building took form, another, the first of the stone edifices in the Norman-Gothic style, crowded out the little Hall. The burning of the Hoyme Chapel in 1923 hastened the construction of the Administration Building. In May, 1924, nine hundred persons assembled on the slope at the east side of Agony Hall to dedicate the ground on which was to appear “the materialization of St. Olaf hopes of the recent decade.” Business Manager Holland, most fittingly, took the first spade of soil for the Administration Building. (Later named Holland Hall). On September 4, 1924, Professor Felland, the oldest teacher on the Hill, laid the corner stone. The massive, impressive stone building, so reminiscent of Mont San Michel, completely overshadowed the plain, little old Hall. The time had come for the antiquated structure to give place to grander and larger buildings of a new day, that were coming closely upon each other.

Sharing the fate of the Old Hall was its faithful companion the Hollow Elm, or Ladies’ Hall Elm as it was more generally called. Just before it was to be dynamited, Professor Felland was on hand with his camera to take a last picture. For him it was the occasion of losing an old friend, and he feelingly spoke out: “Who would take down that tree should be put in jail.” The thoughtful John Berntsen lovingly put aside several big chunks suitable for making Norse kubbe stoler . Maybe some day such a stol (chair) will be made and kept as a reminder of the dear old elm.

The last decade before the removing of Ladies’ Hall, 1914-24, saw important achievements at the College. An endowment fund was raised to meet the stipulations of a gift of $50,000 from James J. Hill. A gymnasium and a hospital were built. The academy department was discontinued (1917). A campus plan was designed. A modern group system in curriculum was presented. Enrollment reached the 900 mark.

In the face of progress, the old was not entirely forgotten. So much sentiment had been woven around the faithful old building during its lifetime of fifty years, that many were reluctant to see it simply torn down like any blot on the landscape. Some wondered: “Couldn’t the old stairway with its saucer-worn steps be preserved intact as a remnant of the first building of St. Olaf College, significantly symbolic?” One alumnus proposed that the lumber be cut up into small pieces and sold as souvenirs at one dollar a piece. Said others: “At least the huge old iron key to the front double door, which had safely shut in at 10 p.m. the studious, obedient ones and unlocked at unmentionable hours — like 11 or 12 p.m. — non-conforming, trembling ones, might have been preserved as a relic in a college museum.” But there were not enough ears to listen to sentiments of the past. The look was decidedly ahead. Not even a modest marker was provided to indicate where the historic building had stood. Nor a depression left to mark the spot where the well had been! The flower bed off the northwest corner of Holland Hall comes close to marking the location. Apparent obliteration though there be, the end of the old Hall is not yet. As the spiritual ground work of St. Olaf was sound and genuine, so the materials in the first building were well seasoned and strong and in much too good a condition to be thrown summarily on a junk heap. It may be of some little comfort to the many who have lived in the first Ladies’ Hall to know that it is today serving modestly in the physical set-up of the greater St. Olaf. The pine lumber has found various uses in several buildings. The window frames and doors were kept as repair material. The laths were stored in Ytterboe Hall attic for future use. The siding encloses a building on a near-by St. Olaf farm. Some wide boards became forms for concrete. The square nails, alone, were declared useless and left buried on the site. A few doors are still intact and might present ideas to souvenir hunters. Thus, the old Hall continues to serve, piecemeal and obscurely though it be, the institution of which it has been an integral and vital part from its very beginning.

The Manitou Messenger for September 14, 1926, chants this requiem: “Agony Hall, a very type of life-long service, yet the embodiment of decreptitude, lives today only in a haze of memories ‘as a tale that is told.’ Once the butt of taunts, it has become an object of respect. It has a tender nook in the heart of every music student, for, in spite of its creaking floors, its thin walls, and the confused mass of sound which issued from its windows, it served as a pleasant rendezvous — a purpose which the new music hall, in spite of its conveniences, can never serve.

“Should very old ‘grads’ return and find the venerable building gone, they would mourn it not as the center of St. Olaf’s musical life, but as the sacred precinct of the college women. For surprising as the fact may be to present students, Agony Hall was once a girls’ dormitory!”

That was the note sounded a quarter century ago. Since then generations of students have come and gone, many of whom have had little knowledge of the first building that housed St. Olaf’s School and of the life around it. In our steady march of progress may we not be justified in halting occasionally to give a thought to St. Olaf as it was in the beginning?

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