Calling All Oles

Jeff Sauvé
Assoc. College Archivist

According to the campus telecommunications office, St. Olaf currently has: 3,800 phone lines; an estimated 1,000+ cell phones used by students; 300,000 feet of optical fiber; and over 1,000,000 minutes per month of phone usage. In my five-plus years of working at St. Olaf, one of the most visible changes on campus is the use of the cell phone. Students can be found in nooks, driving and waiting in line conversing on these devices. A first happened the other day when a cell phone rang in the archives.

And by the numbers, let’s roll back 100-plus years to 1895 when there was one and only one phone line on campus. Other significant changes took place that year: the old windmill was removed and a water system was installed in Old Main; and the student body decided on old gold and black as the school colors.

According to receipts held in the college archives, the single phone was leased to the college for $1 a month. Mrs. Ytterboe noted there was a call for the janitor. She went to get him, but he protested using it. Finally persuaded to listen, the janitor suddenly dropped the receiver and stared at her, saying, “It is Lina (his daughter). You talk to her, I can’t!” He finally succeeded in talking. Later she saw him walking down the hall shaking and laughing-this was too modern for him.

While student phone use is commonplace now, this wasn’t the case in the late 1890s. Mrs. Ytterboe wrote, “It (the phone) was not generally used by the students. No visiting was permitted. It was looked upon as an instrument to be used in an emergency.”

A few years later on March 27, 1897, the Northfield News reported that on the previous Monday evening the new Northfield telephone company gave its patrons quite a musical treat: “St. Olaf College Band was stationed in the central office and the switch was thrown open so that the forty phones now in operation could be used to carry the sweet notes to all parts of the Turner’s drug store a large receiver was placed.and a large party assembled there to hear the concert by wire. The new telephone system works to erfection.” –Webcasting–19th century style.

By the way, the Telecommunications office has a wonderful display of telephone-related antiques collected by Craig Dunton, Director of Telecommunications. Take the time to stop in and visit with the friendly staff and look over the many objects, including switchboards, vintage phones, and advertisements.