In the summer of 1999, when St. Olaf College was preparing for its 125th anniversary, a small nondescript 3 1⁄2 x 6 1⁄2-inch red-lined notebook surfaced by chance in the library’s attic. This note-book contains 220 or so timeless, albeit somewhat antiquated, rules composed by Prof. H.T. Ytterboe for students in the late 1880s. With the assistance of several reviewers, the rules in Section I were pared down to the 101 most interesting, humorous and applicable for today’s audience. But did Ytterboe’s students obey his rules? The anecdotes in Section II suggest he had his work cut out for him! Together, the rules and transgressions provide an unusual glimpse into student culture at the turn of the 20th century.
It is important to understand that during that era, the dozen or fewer faculty and staff members who served under Pres. Thorbjørn N. Mohn considered themselves “moral guardians” to their students. In their view, as Prof. Joseph M. Shaw, Professor Emeritus of Religion, suggests, teaching students proper manners and conduct was necessary to prepare them to enter society beyond their rural Norwegian-American roots— essentially taking the roughness off the farm kids.
Hired in 1882, Prof. Ytterboe took his role as “moral guardian” seriously. In fact, in February 1889, the faculty minutes noted, “Ytterboe appointed master of etiquette.” In addition, one of his responsibilities was to oversee the preparation of the college catalog. The 1888-89 catalog noted under “Discipline”:
The discipline of the school is founded on Christian principles, and calculated to imbue the students with a Christian spirit and manly self-respect, and while full confidence is placed in them, their habits and conduct receive careful attention.
Students were indeed under scrutiny during this era. Prof. Ytterboe, who served as Pres. Mohn’s right hand, was placed as principal of the preparatory department for several years in the early 1890s. Younger, more impressionable students may have feared to pay a visit to the “Disciplinarian,” as some would tag Prof. Ytterboe, but most felt he dispensed fair treatment. Former students such as Georgina Dieson Hegland (class of 1904) recalled Prof. Ytterboe as, “a tall, erect person, with a red pompadour and a matching mustache, and a voice so gruff that it sent my heart down into my high buttoned shoes.” Harold Kildahl (class of 1895), described him as, “a man with a kind smile who won my immediate respect.”
From 1879 until 1900 the campus on Manitou Heights consisted of two buildings: the Main and Ladies’ Hall. Imagine serving as a faculty member, living with your family on the first floor of the Main, with 30 or more boys residing on the third floor. There were no Junior Councilors at that time, only the stern words “Be quiet!” uttered by Prof. Ytterboe or Pres. Mohn. In fact, when Prof. Ytterboe suspected something was irregular, he would mount the steps in stocking feet, three at a time, in an attempt to catch the culprit.
Beginning in 1900 and over the next several years, funding provided by the United Norwegian Lutheran Church (United Church) expanded Manitou Heights with several new buildings. The Men’s Dormitory (later renamed Ytterboe Hall in honor of Prof. Ytterboe) opened in the spring of 1901. Prof. Ytterboe, his wife Elise and the couple’s children moved to the new dormitory where he served as Resident Head. The Main lost its residents and was refashioned for classroom use. Ladies’ Hall continued to serve as a women’s residence into the next decade.
The 20th century welcomed many changes to the hill; most notably a sig- nificant increase in student enrollment—306 students by 1905—as well as the introduction of heat and electricity. As the new era unfolded, its early days were marred by the deaths of Pres. Mohn in the fall of 1899, and of Rev. B.J. Muus, founder of St. Olaf College, the following spring. The once intimate campus and tight community of fellowship was lost with the burgeoning student population and larger faculty and staff.
Those who knew Prof. Ytterboe held him in high regard. He is considered to have saved the College twice. His untiring efforts in the 1890s helped stave off financial disaster when the United Church severed its relationship with St. Olaf College for several years, withdrawing its financial support. Later in 1903 his unwavering dedication helped contain an epidemic of scarlatina in the Men’s Dormitory.
No students fatally succumbed to the contagion but Prof. Ytterboe was diagnosed with Myasthenia Gravis due to his continued exposure to liquid formaldehyde, which he used to fumigate dorm rooms as well as the base- ment bathroom. He passed away on Feb. 26, 1904, in the Men’s Dormitory.
Jeff M. Sauve