My Years at St. Olaf’s School

Professor Mohn, principal of St. Olaf’s School, met us on the depot platform. A two-seated carriage was in waiting to take us up to the school on Manitou Heights. There were at that time two dirt roads leading westward, one along what now is Forest Avenue and the other up the present Linden Street to a country road now known as St. Olaf Avenue. We followed the latter road. It was lined on both sides most of the way with a variety of underbrush — sumac, wild plums, and choke cherries. Not many homes had as yet been built in this part of town and much of the land between Forest and St. Olaf Avenues was pasture land. Practically no streets had been laid out except the two already mentioned.

When we came to the intersection of the present Lincoln and St. Olaf Avenues, Professor Mohn pointed out to us a home on the northwest corner and said to Father: “That is the place I have recommended that you buy.” The purchase of this home had been arranged by correspondence and Professor Mohn was very helpful when the transaction was finally made. As we drove by, we noticed that the house was surrounded by a white board fence; that there was a barn, a woodshed, and a chicken-coop; also that part of the property was a pasture and part a corn-field. This ten-acre plot extended the entire length of St. Olaf Avenue from Lincoln to the foot of the Hill and is the land on which are now located the residences of the college president and of a number of the college faculty members. Perhaps it will not be out-of-place to mention at this point that the original buildings of our home on the comer were removed years ago — all except the barn in which I used to milk our cows. This was moved to a new location and rebuilt by a subsequent owner and is still one of the substantial residences of the West Side. The road we followed took us up around the east side of Old Main. When we first saw the Hill it was practically treeless; the fine evergreens that now may be seen on the north and east slopes were planted several years later.

The home which father had bought was not ready for immediate occupancy and therefore we lived for a short time in Old Main. We soon learned that the only structures on the hill were Old Main and a frame building just within the woods a short distance to the west. This was the building in which all the school girls were housed and in which also one of the professors with his family resided. Besides these two buildings there was a well and a windmill which supplied drinking water to the residents on the Hill. Other interesting features we noticed were the big woods stretching out westward and northwestward, with a few rather indistinct “Indian trails” running through them, and a huge supply of cord wood piled up in long rows in an open space just west of Old Main. Wood was the only fuel used for cooking and heating and each room in both buildings was equipped with a stove and a large wood-box.

During the few days we lived in Old Main, we had occasion to explore the building from tower to basement. The principal of the school, Professor Th. N. Mohn, and his family lived in rooms on the southeast comer of the first floor and basement. The third or top floor consisted of small dormer rooms for the male section of the student body and most of the rooms on the second floor were used as classrooms. The one exception was the room in the southwest comer which was set aside as the school auditorium. The first floor rooms were occupied by teachers. In the north half of the basement were the kitchen and the dining room and in the southwest quarter the boys’ washroom. These were some of the things I learned from my first contact with the “School on the Hill.”

When our household goods and furniture arrived from Madison and the house had been thoroughly cleaned, we moved in and got acquainted as quickly as possible with our new home and surroundings. Some changes had to be made. The building of an addition to the dwelling to serve as a study for Father was begun at once. The distance to town was about one mile and the only way to get mail, groceries, and supplies, or go to church, was to walk. We boys managed to find some shortcutsthrough the pastures but then we always had to be on the lookout for gentlemen bovines. In order, therefore, to make the “going to town” easier for the whole family, it was decided to buy a horse and a buggy. When we learned that a fine saddle came with the horse, our interest in the transaction was greatly increased. Many exploratory trips on horseback along the trails in the big woods were undertaken and we soon located patches of raspberries, blackberries, and plums, and a cranberry bog a short distance northwest of the campus. We were thus able to supply our household with all kinds of fruit for canning and jelly making.

The milk problem was solved by the purchase of a Jersey cow and fresh eggs were assured when some chickens were bought and put in the coop. These activities gave us something to think about. It was fun riding horseback out into various sections of the country; it was nice to have fresh eggs and milk on hand in sufficient quantities; but to get up early in the morning on a bitterly cold day to feed the animals, pump and carry water to them, milk the cow, and clean the stable all before going to school — that was something else.

Late in August of our first summer in Northfield a damaging cyclone struck the city. The windmill on the Hill was destroyed and parts of the tin roof of Old Main and some of the cast-iron ornaments from the turrets were scattered over the fields below the Hill. The damage done was of much concern to the school authorities as funds for repairs were not easily obtainable.

The fall term of school in 1886 opened on September 15 and I enrolled on that day in what was called “sub-class” to become the 528th boy and the 705th student to enter St. Olaf since its founding. The total enrollment that year was 68 boys and 18 girls. Of this number, 19 boys and 7 girls were former students; all the rest were new enrollments. Tuition, board, and room for the fall term was $20.00, for the winter $70.00, and for the spring $30.00. An additional charge of $2.50 was made for the winter term to pay for “fuel in bedrooms.”

According to announcement in the school catalog, the following are some of the “habits that are forbidden”:

The use of ardent spirits.
The use of tobacco in any form.
Playing cards.

At entrance, each student was questioned by one of the school officials regarding some of these habits and a number of interesting stories have been told as a result. One happy boy was questioned as follows:

“What is your name?”
“Where did you come from?”
“From home.”
“Where is your home?”
“In Berlin.” (A little town in Wisconsin)
“Do you use tobacco?”
“Sure. I’ve got a new plug. Do you want a chew?”

The matter of “Ardent Spirits” also gave occasional trouble as there were a number of saloons in Northfield at that time. It is said that on one occasion a boy, son of a prominent school supporter, was seen entering a saloon and was called in by the school official who said to him: “Ole, why did you go into that place?” The boy answered: “That place? Why that’s the place where you get the biggest glass of beer for a nickel.”

When school opened in September, Old Main was taxed to its utmost to take care of all the classes for which room had to be provided. The so-called auditorium was turned over to the theological department and the two professors in this department alternated in its use. The other seven rooms on second floor were used by the academy and freshman classes; yes, freshman, as for the first time in the history of the school on Manitou Heights, a number of college students were enrolled that fall and these were known as freshmen, a new and high-sounding name to most of the academy boys and girls. Before the end of the school year, this first freshman class could boast of a total membership of three students.

In the academy, there were two courses of study, a classical and a literary, and in each course the classes were known as 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and Sub-class. I was enrolled in the sub-preparatory of the classical course where the prescribed studies were penmanship, reading, arithmetic, political geography, and Norwegian. Some of my first teachers at St. Olaf and the subjects they taught were: I. F. Grose, arithmetic; Per Strömme, geography; O. G. Felland, penmanship and botany; H. T. Ytterboe, physiology; and Th. N. Mohn, religion.

Most of my classmates were considerably older than are present-day high school students. Some of them had had little schooling before coming to St. Olaf’s School, and often when answering examination questions, they depended on intuition rather than on what they had learned from their textbooks. I well remember an examination in elementary physics. One of the questions was: “How fast does light travel and how is it determined?” This was the answer given: “Light travels very fast; it is determined by observation.” The amusing part of this incident was that the student seemed very much surprised when the teacher gave him a low mark for an answer which the student thought eminently satisfactory and correct. This, by the way, was not the student who was in the habit of going to sleep in his classes and who on that account was nicknamed “Pullman.”

On June 13th, 1891, a class of fifteen, twelve boys and three girls, graduated from the academy and every one had a part in the commencement program. I believe this program is of sufficient interest to insert it here.


1. Prayer
2. “Yderst mod Norden”
3. Have a Purpose in Life
Edward B. Wold
4. Importance of Punctuality
Nils A. Biorn
5. Home Influences
Martha Nesheim
6. Nödvendigheden of at bruge tiden ret
A. Lavik
7. Character
O. Glesne
8. “Djupt i havet”
9. Heroes
Olaf P. Berg
10. Curiosity
Gilbert M. Digen
11. Livets Seilads
Thorsten Birkenes
12. What is a true education
Carl K. Solberg
13. Flowers
Marie Krohn
14. “Suomis Sang”
15. “Don’t Give up the Ship”
Albert Haugen
16. German Declamation: “Columbus”
Paul G. Schmidt
17. Kind and Bitter Words
Ida Gilbert
18. An Age of Progress
J. A. E. Naess
19. Class History
Ivan Ringstad
20. Granting of Certificates
21. Benediction

A few of these 1891 academy graduates continued their studies at St. Olaf College and became St. Olaf College alumni, but not all of them. I was one of those who could not; for in 1891 the theological department was transferred from St. Olaf to Minneapolis and of course our family went with the transfer. My parents thought best to keep me at home and have me continue my schooling in Minneapolis. I therefore attended the Minneapolis Academy for a time and then entered the University.

During the years that I was a member of the St. Olaf Academy family, student life was quite different from what it is in college today. There was no central heating plant and each student was obliged to go out to the wood-pile and carry wood from there up to his dormitory room to “keep the home fires burning.” That was quite a hardship for the boys whose rooms were on the top floor of Old Main and the temptation was always strong to sneak into some other student’s room when he was not in and carry away whatever pieces of wood could be found. This was a source of considerable worry and trouble to the authorities, especially during the coldest winter months.

Electric lights were unknown and each student had to provide a lamp and kerosene for his study table. Nor was there any ringing of electric bells at the beginning and end of classes, so one of the boys who happened to own a watch — and there were a few of these — would get an appointment as bell-ringer. A hand-bell was left just outside of the room in which the boy had class and when the hour was up he would leave the class and ring the bell in the hall. This same bell would be rung for meals too. It sounded something like this:

Ding, a ling; ding, a ling,
Ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling;
Ding, a ling.

And then the boys would chime in and sing with the bells:

Come and eat, come and eat;
Frozen potatoes
And half-cooked meat.

Some fads of those early school days were autograph albums, rubber name-stamps, and celluloid collars. Almost every student had an autograph album which he passed around to his teachers and friends for a comment of some kind and a signature. Of course many of the entries were supposed to be original and funny, and it was considered quite an accomplishment if one could compose a couplet something like this:

Remember me when far, far off
Where the wood-chucks die of whooping-cough.

Celluloid collars, which could easily be washed and kept clean, were worn by some of the elite; and rubber personal name-stamps were the possession only of the “big shots.”

In the fall, football was played in the small open space just west of Old Main where now is the circular driveway. This was the only open space on the Hill. The boys chose sides and played old-time rugby. During winter months, tobogganing and skiing were very much in order. Almost the entire student body could be seen at times on either the east or north slopes of the Hill. Baseball was played at the foot of the Hill on the southeast side, where a so-called baseball diamond had been located. There was no backstop and the catcher had neither mask nor chest-protector. He therefore stood some distance back of the batter and tried to stop the pitched balls on first bounce. A rather disturbing feature of this baseball diamond was a wooden sidewalk that ran from the foot of the Hill southeastward toward the corner of Lincoln and Forest Avenues. The left fielder usually had to take his position on the far side of this sidewalk; and as the walk was rather high above the ground, batted balls would sometimes roll under it and this would delay the game. Nevertheless, some “great” games were played there. I remember one in particular that drew a very large 17th of May crowd. It was a game with the “Silver Stars” from Cannon Falls!

Gymnastics was introduced by one of the students who came to St. Olaf in 1887 and later in 1890 was a member of the first graduating class of the college department. He was not only an expert gymnast but also something of an acrobat, for he could stand on the sidewalk, leap into the air, and turn a complete somersault before landing on his feet. This student was able to interest other students and friends in contributing toward some gymnastic apparatus which was put up in the open space where Steensland Hall is now located. The apparatus consisted of two upright beams about eight inches square and a crossbeam of similar dimension to which were fastened one heavy rope for climbing and two ropes and rings for gymnastic swinging and jumping. A turning pole was also put up. This, I suppose, may be regarded as the first gymnasium at St. Olaf.

Music instruction was given by a piano teacher and the only vocal music organizations were voluntary quartets or octets. The band was the first major music organization to appear at the school and its first public program was given in the Northfield City Park on Saturday evening, June 17th, 1893, as part of that year’s commencement festivities. The director was Adolph Larson, one of that year’s graduates, and the following program was played:

1. QUICKSTEP. “Bon Ton”
2. WALTZ. “Down on the Farm”
3. GALOP. “Rest Easy”
4. SERENADE “The Old Church Organ”
5. WALTZ. “Sobre las Olas”
6.QUICKSTEP. “New Version.” Mocking Bird with cornet variations.
“Annie Laurie” (bass solo)
7. MEDLEY. “Recollections of the War” Grand medley of war songs including
drum call and various bugle calls.
9. SCHOTTISCHE. “Where the Honeysuckles Grow” Josselyn
10. GRAND MARCH. “Westwood” Southwell


Those were pre-Coca Cola days. The usual treats were candy and ice cream. A more elaborate one was an oyster stew. Entertainments at the school followed a familiar pattern — a piano solo, a reading or a declamation, a speech, some more readings, and then refreshments.

Two events of more than ordinary personal interest may be told in this story of my St. Olaf’s School days. One is my confirmation in St. John’s Church and the other a two-week’s visit in the winter of 1889 to the home of Pastor B. J. Muus, the acknowledged founder of St. Olaf’s s School.

Professor Mohn was not only the principal of the academy but also pastor of the local congregation. The church at that time was located on the east side of town across the street from the present Grand Theatre. Norwegian was the only language then used and when I joined the confirmation class in the fall of 1890 I was obliged to learn the catechism, explanation, and hymns in Norwegian and that was not an easy task. My mother had given me and the other children in our family a very careful home training; I had learned Luther’s catechism and explanation in German, as well as many German prayers and hymns, and now to memorize all this in another language sometimes became difficult and perplexing. Professor Mohn, however, was very considerate and helpful, with the result that I was confirmed by him in 1891 on the Sunday before my graduation from St. Olaf’s School.

Soon after our coming to Northfield in 1888 Pastor Muus called on my parents and in the course of his visit told my mother that he planned to send two of his boys to the academy, but he was very anxious that they should live with us in our home, as he felt they very much needed a mother’s care. Of course my mother consented and the two boys, Peter and Harald, lived with us as members of the family as long as they were students in the academy. Peter was very anxious I should go home with him for the Christmas vacation in 1889, and my parents gave their consent. We left our home in the morning in an open box sleigh, in which had been put some heavy blankets and a supply of straw. Although it was a bitterly cold day, we came to Holden, the home of Pastor Muus, towards evening with no greater discomfort than that we were very, very cold. This was a drive over country roads of about twenty-five miles. We were warmly welcomed by Pastor Muus and by some of the other members of the household, but it was not until the next day, at the noonday meal, that I met and became acquainted with all the folks. I well remember that first dinner in the parsonage. Around a long table in a spacious dining room were seated ten or eleven members of the household — Pastor Muus at the head and next to him the bachelor school teacher; four Muus boys and myself; several women servants; a hired man who looked after the farm and took care of the horses, cows, pigs, and chickens; and a woodchopper whose business it was to haul dead-and-down trees out of the woods, saw them up, and split wood for the parsonage and the church. It was a rather quiet and sober group as all of them had great respect for the head of the household.

On a number of evenings Pastor Muus came downstairs from his study and spent the evening with us. I had the privilege of playing chess with him on a number of occasions, for I had learned the moves from my father and had often played games with him. One day Pastor Muus took all of us younger folks in his sleigh to the country store, where many of the Christmas gifts were purchased. Of course, this was not a store like the modern shops in the large cities; but there was, nevertheless, quite a variety of trinkets, handkerchiefs, towels, soap, etc., so that on Christmas Eve at the parsonage there was an appropriate gift for everyone. Mine was a yellow silk handkerchief from Pastor Muus.

The service in church on Christmas Day was the main event of the entire Christmas season. Every member of the household took great pains to appear at his very best. Apparently the same had been done in many other households throughout the community, for the church was crowded with worshippers in their best attire. The service was several hours long and consisted of the singing of many hymns by the congregation, a very long sermon by the pastor, and a large number of baptisms. I particularly remember the heroic work of the “klokker” or deacon who stood solemnly up in front and had to be constantly on the alert during the rituals to get in the “Amen” at the right time. The pastor’s chanting also is deserving of some comment, for Pastor Muus was not a vocalist; he grunted more than he intoned. At the parsonage, after services, a bountiful Christmas dinner was served, consisting of a great variety of hot dishes, immediately after which, in an adjacent room, coffee was served with lefse, flatbread, rull, cakes, and cookies of all kinds. During the following week many parties were given in different homes where games were played, many of which, I believe, had been taught the young folks by the school teacher from Norway.

When the students returned to school after vacation, a number became ill, some with the more common troubles such as scarlet fever and mumps, but several with the more serious ailment known at that time as “lung fever” but now as pneumonia. The unfortunate boys who became ill had to be attended in their rooms on the top floor of Old Main as there were no hospital facilities in town or at the school. It is no wonder that two died that winter.

The temptation is strong, of course, to continue to reminisce about people and events of my days at “St. Olaf’s School,” but perhaps what has been recorded so far in this chapter is sufficient to give a picture of what life was like here on Manitou Heights in the early days. In the next chapter I would like to tell something about my experiences and contacts during my stay at the university which I believe had a bearing on my subsequent work at St. Olaf College.