FOR girls and boys alike, the greater part of the day was spent in the main building. As for the boys, their struggle in getting ready for a strenuous school day was not far different from that of the girls. Wood they had to fetch from the outside wood pile and carry up to their third floor rooms. Some more and some less, according to the amount of filching there was. Not even locked doors were effective against the marauders. Going out one window, they walked along the eaves troughs and in another window to carry sticks of wood back over that high narrow ledge. Some became quite adept at walking along those roof gutters. So much so that it became a common game to see who could run around on that third story level in the shortest time. The provoking thing about such a race was that they had to slow up at the corners where the trough was less than a foot wide.
For their morning ablutions the boys ran the three flights of stairs to the basement wash room, where they pumped cistern water into tin basins, taken down from pegs on the wall and placed in long, zinc-lined, wooden troughs. The luxury of a bath, too, was theirs, at the price of five cents — six for twenty-five cents — if due notice were given for the heating of the water. This was more than the girls in Ladies’ Hall could boast of in the earliest years. “It does not sound reasonable that the boys should have access to a bath tub when the girls had none” was said to one of those more fortunate male students recently. “Well, I know we had one,” he replied, “because I got the itch from bathing directly after a fellow who had it. The worst part of that plague was that I was shunned for days because of the odor of sulfur that emanated from my smeared body.” So perhaps the girls were mercifully spared something in their lack!
It may be of interest to know that the old container for bath tickets is still in existence. With its partition and front grille work, it served excellently as a mail box for Mrs. Ytterboe the years she lived at 1300 St. Olaf Ave. Since then it has been reposing in the attic of that house — evidently waiting for a St. Olaf museum.
Those forty tin basins put ideas into the boys’ heads. Taking them upstairs and tying them together loosely, they let them go tumbling down the full-length of the stairway. When the resounding din brought a professor, in quick, long strides, up to the dormitory, he was certain to find all the boys in bed, innocently quiet!
Right smart those boys were at times in outwitting Professor Ytterboe. When one time this ever vigilant proctor was going up one staircase on the trail of a certain mischief maker, the offender was on his way down the opposite stairway; and, when the professor reached his office he found the boy calmly sitting there waiting for him. Before the breathless professor could say “Jack Robinson,” Henry jumped up and handed him three dollars, saying, “Here is some money my father sent for the school.” “H — mm,” said the baffled professor, the while he was chewing the ends of his long sandy mustache, “Thank your father very much.”
Wood, stoves, lamps, and pranks were some of the chief words in the students’ vocabulary in early days at St. Olaf. One shudders today at the thought of the hazard present in the individual kerosene lamps throughout the building. One young man did have a momentary scare. As he lit his study lamp he carelessly flipped the used match, and it landed on the celluloid collar of an unsuspecting lad — occupying the couch near by. Zip! There was an instantaneous bright flash — the collar vanished, leaving a tell tale red ring around the victim’s neck.
Every room had its own stove, as well as its separate lamp. In the class rooms it was the duty of the boy nearest the stove to see that it was supplied and regulated. Many a boy owed his education to the opportunity of chopping and carrying wood for these many stoves in class rooms and for the large range in the kitchen. Ingenious fellows fabricated a kind of harness for carrying big loads of wood on their backs.
The wood burning stoves served other purposes besides heating rooms and cooking food. Although students were not permitted to smoke, some would. When these transgressors heard Professor Ytterboe’s unmistakable step on the stairs, they hurriedly opened stove doors till smoke escaped, dispelling, or at least mingling with, the fumes of the weed to such an extent that it took an expert detective to figure out just what was taking place. When it was discovered that stove gas made a certain teacher ill, perversive boys would on occasion — when unprepared or too sleepy to recite — contrive to have gas escape from the stove till the teacher was heard to say, “I — feel — sick. Class — is — dismissed.”
A stove in every class room necessitated a thermometer, which hung conspicuously on the wall. That, too, suggested ideas to students, especially in the tower room where the windows opened on the roof of the east porch. The chronic tardiness of a certain teacher gave time for the working out of plans. When they saw said teacher puffing his way up the Hill, they stuck the thermometer into the snow on the porch, and intently waited for the precise moment to replace it. When the professor saw all the boys hugging their coats up around their necks, he stepped over to the thermometer and exclaimed: “Much too cold for class today. You are dismissed.”
In warm weather these class-room stoves were evidently looked upon as unnecessary furniture. During one class period the stove was taken apart, sent piecemeal down the row, and deposited in a heap in an opposite corner. If those students had emulated the concentration of their teacher, the stove would have remained intact.
Classes, naturally, filled the greater part of the day, with five minute intermissions, chapel in the middle of the forenoon, and a generous period out at noon. Welcome, indeed, was the chapel period, when all teachers and students — without a thought of skipping — met for a period of relaxation, reflection, and inspiration, with a salutary amount of admonition judiciously added.
The chapel room, No. 7, differed from the other rooms on second floor in that it was larger and had a very considerably raised platform in the north end. This made it serve excellently for programs of all kinds. Before a piano was placed there, the best singers were specially requested to lead the hymns. It happened one day that two boys sitting together up front were asked to start a song. When the melody was finished, there were, surprisingly, two lines of a stanza left! President Mohn calmly said: “You had better start again, boys.” Many an old-timer recalls clearly the earnest, impressive talks given by President Mohn in this modest chapel room. The oft repeated reading of the 12th chapter of Ecclesiastics by Professor Ytterboe, year after year, made such a lasting impression on his hearers that when Hoyme Chapel was built, the words “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth” were inscribed in a memorial window. In the age of ponies it was very evident what appeal a professor in Greek wished to make when he read repeatedly the passage from Psalm 33:17, “A horse is a vain thing for safety.”
Perhaps the most exciting event of the day in the Main was the calling off of the mail each day directly after the noon meal. While one of the most welcome activities was going on in the dining room, the student postman walked down to the city post office to fetch the mail. One certain, slender, long-geared fellow had the reputation of making that one mile trip down and back in fifteen minutes. Always there was an expectant crowd around him as he called off the names of the lucky recipients of the contents of his pouch.
Believe it or not, there was a library room provided in that most elastic Old Main. As early as 1885 there was a beginning of a library, with Professor Kalheim having the distinction of being the first librarian. A list of the periodicals provided for the reading room in 1887 may be of interest in noting the importance of Norwegian: Norden, Decorah Posten, Skandinaven, Amerika, Nordvesten, Folkebladet, Illustreret Ugeblad, For Gammel og Ung, Lutherske Vidnesbyrd, The Voice, Youth’s Companion, The Daily Tribune. In 1891 there were seven hundred volumes on the shelves of the one small library room. When Pastor Muus left for Norway, in 1899, he presented to the college his entire library of eight hundred bound volumes and five hundred pamphlets. The catalogue for 1899-1900 had these items: Circulating library — “Open every Saturday during school session from one to two-thirty p.m.” Reference library — “Open for consultation at all times.” “A fee of one dollar per year admits students to the use of both libraries and reading room.” The catalogue for 1887-88 had this information: “A branch reading room for the exclusive use of female students has been opened in Ladies’ Hall.” By the early 90’s the notice was amended thus: “The students at Ladies’ Hall are separately provided with various journals but have access to the library once a week.”
The steadily enlarging library finally was provided ample quarters in the new Steensland Library, in 1902. The spaciousness of the new building was amazing. And when a student walked quietly and carefully in on the highly varnished floor and beheld a roomy, red plush upholstered couch, in the center of the room, he knew that a truly new day had arrived. Nothing could be more welcome to students accustomed to plain hard chairs. What would be more natural than to make a bee line for that soft seat? Wunderbar! Great amusement was in store for those already initiated when they observed the transgressor’s expression of luxurious joy change in a twinkling to one of consternation and abashment when the librarian gently tapped him on the shoulder and whispered that he was sitting on a museum piece — no less than a couch from the House of Representatives, Washington, D. C!
Classes always have been the main occupation in Old Main, as is to be expected. But, when a person looks back upon his college days, there are other experiences he thinks of and talks about more, perhaps. Who were his schoolmates? Who were his favorite teachers? What fun did he have? How much did it cost him? The plain subject of classes just isn’t news, important as it is. Still, this statement is made with modification after finding in the Northfield News for January 14, 1899, the following: “The juniors have begun Herodotus in Greek, and the Seniors are studying the Bacchae of Euripides.” This in a little column of “St. Olaf News” on an inside page, together with the “Faribault Facts,” “Farmington Fragments,” “Dennison Dashes,” “Dundas Doings,” “Castle Rock Cults,” “Stanton Sayings,” and “Forest Flashes.”
How much did schooling cost? Let us turn to a catalogue for 1885-86 for information:
For fall term
For tuition, board and room, to be paid in advance, $20.00
For tuition, board and room, $35 to be paid in advance,
and the balance, $35, to be paid Jan. 15, ———————- $70.00
For fuel in bedrooms this term ————————————- $ 2.50
For tuition, board and room, to be paid in advance ———– $30.00
For instrumental music per term ———————————- $10.00
For use of instrument per term ———————————— $ 3.00
The school furnishes board, room, bedstead, stoves, and wood. The students furnish clothing for their beds, furniture, and light for their rooms, books, writing materials, etc., and it is the duty of every student to keep his room in order.
Also in same catalogue:
“The following habits are strictly forbidden:
The use of ardent spirits.
The use of tobacco in any form.
Visiting saloons or billiard rooms.
The use of profane or obscene language.
Willfully marring or destroying school property.
Reading books and papers disapproved.”
Of interest in connection with these rules are two items from the Messenger 1887: “The youth whose constitution required tobacco for the health of body and mind has grown beautifully scarce. The young man whose chief social graces consisted in skillful manipulation of the cigar is here no more.”
Rules were rules, and strictly enforced. The regulations regarding the companionship of boys and girls were unwritten but none the less definite and strict. Only with individual permission could couples have “dates” — and the understanding was directly to, and straight back from, the lecture or play. When two boys and two girls were seen in a restaurant between 9:30 and 10:30, after a down town lecture, they were “called in,” with the result that one boy was suspended for one month and the other expelled for the rest of the year. The main charge was: “Didn’t you realize that you were compromising the girls?”
That a certain aloofness was maintained even among the students is evidenced by the common use of titles “Mr.” and “Miss” — except in very intimate acquaintanceship. In spite of that situation — or perhaps as an antidote to it — the use of nicknames was very general, usually with a clear reason evoking them. “Billy Bones” was a tall, thin fellow; “Cuff on the neck” constantly wore a very high, stiff collar; “Sloppy Weather” had the habit of spilling gravy on his vest; “Pabst” was a fatty; “Pullman” one who slept much; “Sox” — you could always smell him; “Wahoo,” either because he declaimed “Hiawatha” or because he told “tall” Indian stories. “Soft Soap,” “Palley,” “Color,” “Oleo,” “Duffy” are all monikers that call up definite individuals in the minds of their contemporaries.
Neither were the girls spared. Nor the professors. “Long Island” was a tall, lanky girl. A chum she acquired was called “Coney Island.” A bashful, little academy girl with bright red hair, who came to school in a blue and white dress, was promptly honored with the appellation “Star Spangled Banner.” The title “Little Halvor” was used to distinguish the janitor from the teacher “Store Halvor.” “Store Halvor” also acquired the designation “Kickapoo.” Wherefore? Because, in the line of duty, he had entered the tent of the Kickapoo Indian medicine shows to usher out students who were where they should not be. A teacher of Hebrew was known as “Jerusalem.” A note of affection was traceable in this naming of superiors, especially when students spoke, among themselves, of “Han Halvor” and “Hun Agnes.” This giving of names went so far as to suggest names for new babies in the faculty! “Isaac Newton Gassicus” was considered most appropriate for the first son of a physics teacher!
The above array of picturesque names may suggest that there were many “characters” in the early student body. And so there were — before they began being formed more or less in the same mold. One such came to school wearing a coon skin coat and carrying a carpetbag. Sensing someone “green from the west,” the boys advised him to rap at the north door. There he patiently stood at the girls’ entrance until Professor Ytterboe, informed of the situation, opened the door and heartily invited him in. This fellow never fitted any general pattern. His diary was written on alternate days in English, Norwegian, and German, and in as many colors of ink. His imaginative discourses on the seven planets drew crowds from down town, who delighted in his flights of fancy and found amusement in hearing him tell about meeting his father’s dead horse on a distant sphere. When it was announced that Mr. Muus was coming to lecture, our friend walked to Dundas to ride back on the train with the honored gentleman, so as to be the first to shake his hand and visit with him. Sad to say, this odd person was not granted a degree at St. Olaf, for the reason that his spelling was hopeless. He graduated from the University of Minnesota.
Quite a different type of individual was the taxidermist. As a pastime he wandered in the woods shooting birds, squirrels, and the like, in order to practice his hobby of taxidermy. The smell of the compound he used drove people from his room, and he blissfully was left to enjoy a room all to himself, with space sufficient for the specimens.
There was, in addition, the fellow who was never known to play a musical instrument himself, but when he was to have a “picture taken” of his room, went up and down the hall borrowing all the band instruments he could get. Then he sat himself down in the midst of them and proudly had his picture taken.
Amateur photography was in its infancy and many were the experiments. Standing in the center of one’s room and moving the camera a full circle was calculated to give a picture of the entire room. One novice tried to take a picture of himself. Holding his kodak at arm’s length, he got a very good picture — of one coat button!
Hypnotism was another field. Poor Knut was such an easy medium that he wilted at the sight of his masters. They forced him to write their essays!
Without a doubt, some of the most pleasant hours in the Main were those spent in the dining room. Board was simple fare, and cheap — $1.25 to $1.75 a week up to the beginning of the present century — and not adequate according to later knowledge of vitamins and calories. But, light hearts, good natured banter, and much laughter covered up food deficiencies — temporarily, at least. Students were wont to say that they lived on the fun they had, not on the food they ate.
Breakfasts were hurried affairs, as a rule, with drowsy youths almost breaking their necks in attempting to get to the table by 7:00 a.m. All were expected to be on hand for the morning devotion preceding the meal. This should have been comparatively easy for the boys living in the building. The girls led the real Viking life, having often to wade in snow up to their knees in the long walk from the Hall to the Main. If they chanced to be tardy, they dared not enter the dining room before they had been to Professor Ytterboe’s office and asked, “Please, may I have something to eat?” The only alternative was to go hungry till noon. There was no book-store to run to for a candy bar or an apple. Nor an “Ole Store.”
There was some hope of a generous margin in the days when four young sons of the president were among those who were expected to be at the table on schedule. The compassionate bell-ringer would slow up his ringing, perceptibly, when he saw the first little boy come sliding down the banister — holding up three fingers; would drag out the ringing a little more when the second lad came — holding up two fingers; more slowly still when the third followed holding up one finger; and, when the fourth finally appeared, he would silence the big bell completely. One can easily understand that this humane behavior toward the youngsters was heartily approved by all fellow boarders. But, when the delay became as much as fifteen minutes, the papa became suspicious and put a stop to all leniency.
Although students could appreciate and sanction compassion, they did not always practice the virtue. After faculty families had moved out of the Main, it became the custom to have a senior, destined for the theological seminary, say grace at meals. One such, serious, devout, and unsuspecting person lived at Wayside Inn, with freshman pranksters. One dark, cold mid-winter morning his alarm clock went off at 5 a.m. Without looking at his timepiece, the sleepy victim got up, dressed, and rushed up to the dining hall — to find no one there!
At noon the even rhythm of the steward’s bell was a most welcome call. There was a rush and a scramble for the tables as the boarders sang their improvised jingles in decided measures and unflattering words.
With fixed places at tables, groups became well acquainted. Little did it matter that the tables were spread with oil-cloth and set with steel knives and forks. By the girls’ table, in the center of the room, were chairs, but at the boys’ tables stood long, backless benches. As the number of girl students increased, a weighty problem faced the management — according to an article by “Wahoo.” Should they place some girls at a boys’ table? If so, should they buy enough chairs for the entire table, or only enough for the girls? If the latter course were followed, should they have girls on one side of the table and boys on the other, or place chairs on both sides of one half of the table for the girls, and saw one bench in two and use one half on each side of the table for the boys? This problem made a deep impression on “Wahoo,” because, in spite of his patched trousers and short coat sleeves, he was selected as one of the boys to sit at that divided table!
There must have been a falling back to separate tables later, according to a Messenger editorial in 1892: “During the present term there has been a great improvement in the management of the dining hall. Hitherto, the ladies and gentlemen have occupied separate tables, perhaps from a false sense of propriety, or, it may be, to relieve the embarrassment of some of the students who are unaccustomed to the society of the other sex. It is gratifying to see a small change has been brought about, in that several of the ladies have their regular seats at the gentlemen’s tables, and we hope that before long there will be no such distinction as the ladies’ and gentlemen’s part of the dining hall.”
Bread, as the main article of diet, was in very truth “the staff of life.” A substantial, homemade variety, it was baked at the school, from flour milled in the famous Archibald Mill at Dundas, the first roller process mill in America, and at the Ames Mill in Northfield, which took the first prize at the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876. “Wahoo” was mean enough to say that the only difference between the white and the dark bread was that Tarje kneaded the dark first. Meat and potatoes, few vegetables, much oatmeal, prunes, some coffee, and a plenteous amount of syrup, made up the monotonous menu.
The metal-topped, glass syrup jug was the students’ joy and delight. It was set on the table only at breakfast and supper. Frequent were the trips it made to the kitchen for refilling! So necessary did it become in the diet of occupants of one certain table that they maneuvered to have it refilled toward the end of the morning meal and then secreted underneath the table on a long nail which had mysteriously been provided there for that specific purpose. Thus it was on hand to furnish the craved-for-sweet in form of a dessert of bread and syrup at noon.
The syrup pitcher was the stay and comfort of many generations of St. Olaf boarders.
As late as 1909 the following poem appeared in the Viking:
“How dear to our hearts is the boarding club syrup.
Too oft it alone doth appear to our view.
For sausage or red-hots, for corned beef or cabbage,
For short-cake or rare-bits we care not a sou.
Give us dry bread with that syrup upon it.
We’ll ask nothing more, we can live then so swell.
Water may do with brown sugar soaked in it,
Yet give us the syrup we all love so well.
The boarding club syrup,
The college-bred syrup,
The foaming sour syrup,
That’s served here so well.
“The boarding club syrup, we hail it a treasure.
For it noon and night that same craving we feel.
We find it a source of an exquisite pleasure
To relish the nectar that nature doth yield.
Impatient we wait for our turn to get at it,
With heroic endeavors our rage to dispel.
The bread quickly buttered, we pour on the syrup.
Then for a sweet time until Prof. taps the bell.
The boarding club syrup,
The honey-drip syrup,
The sweetest of syrups,
We think it just swell!”
That the school was for many years much like a big family may be attested to by the fact that individuals off and on sent contributions of food to the boarding establishment. In 1894 theMessenger states that “Mr. O. K. Finseth of Kenyon presented the boarding department with a dressed beef,” and “Mrs. Peter Hanson of Mount Valley, Iowa, sent a jar of butter.” In March 1895 the Messenger reported: “Mrs. George Olson, of Taylor, Wisconsin, presented us with a turkey dinner.”
Although relaxed and mirthful during meals, the Oles must be given credit for some seriousness mingled with their pleasure. When mission boxes were much in vogue, they were often seen on tables in the dining room. One scheme for filling them was to enforce the rule of speaking French at one end of a table and Norwegian at the other, with a fine of one cent for every English sentence spoken. Another method: If a person came out with a witticism and was able to awaken the risibilities of four or more, he was safe. But if he got less than four to laugh, he had to deposit a penny in the mission box, and, so did those few who had laughed.
After the third meal of the day every one went to his own domicile, and the active Main folded up for evening study hours, strictly enforced, to be broken at 9:30 for a period of devotion. Lights out at 10 o’clock.
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