CHAPTER 16: Agnes Margaret Kittelsby

FATHER and Mother lost their first child. It was a girl named Agnes. She was three years old when she died. Soon after this sorrow, Mother’s mother (my grandmother) died. She left two younger children: Agnes Margaret, who was seven, and a younger girl named Anne. Mother and Father decided to take Agnes Margaret to live with them, so at the age of seven Agnes Kittelsby came to live in the “Main” with the Ytterboe family. She was more like a real daughter than a sister to Mother, and she helped take the place of the little daughter Agnes they had lost.

Agnes attended both the academy and the college at St. Olaf, graduating in 1900, and therefore knew the difficult years 1893 to 1899 when the very existence of St. Olaf was threatened. She also experienced the triumph of its survival when it was taken into the church. And she shared the sorrow of her Uncle Mohn’s loss of position and his subsequent death. Since she graduated in 1900, she had one year under the new regime and the new president. Full of the joy of life she took part in all the college activities of that day. She often spoke of the plays that were performed in the college auditorium on the second floor of the Main — such innocent plays, for example, as “Rip Van Winkle” and others of its kind.

Her best friends were Sophie and Nellie Boe, sisters of L. W. Boe, and Gini Finseth, daughter of one of the trustees, and Agnes Mellby. After graduation, she taught at St. Ansgar and Waldorf Academies. She also took the place of preceptress when Agnes Mellby had her one and only sabbatical year. When we moved into our new house on St. Olaf Avenue, Tante Agnes came back to teach at St. Olaf and to live with us. She gave to our household a beautiful spirit of youth, and helped Mother not only financially, but gave her the love and sympathy that only a warm-hearted person like Tante Agnes could give. In my eyes she was perfect. I owe much to her, because she inspired me with the love of the beautiful in all things — poetry, literature and music.

Our house became a center for gatherings and entertainments. There were many parties for the young faculty members and for students at our house. Afterwards there would be singing with Tante Agnes playing the piano and everybody singing. The songs were the old ones such as “Tenting Tonight,” “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes,” “I Was Seeing Nellie Home,” “Juanita,” “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” “Auralie,” “Stars of the Summer Night,” “Gaudeamus Igitur,” “Auld Lang Syne” and many of Stephen Foster’s songs. I remember so well that a popular song came out at that time, the words of which went something like this: “Daisies won’t tell, Dear, come tell me true.” We all scorned that song because we thought it was silly and very poor music at that. The violinist, Professor Adolph Olsen, was usually present there. And we urged him to play Svendsen’s “Romance,” which we loved to hear. Our cousins, the Mohn boys, were always a part of the group as was their sister, Anne, whom we all called “Bea.”

It was always fun to be at the Mohn house. The Mohn boys were all musical and had a regular orchestra of their own. Edward played the piano, George the trumpet, John the violin, Ted the oboe, and Ray the drums, cymbals and whatever crash instrument he could find. Those were lively, happy days, and I, as a child, seemed always to be present and enjoyed every moment to the fullest.

I remember that every fall of the year we would all gather at the Mohns as Tante Mohn got ready to take her annual walk up the hill. She was quite frail and this was a real pilgrimage. She would put on her hat, her gloves and shawl, and we all trooped up the hill and gathered in front of the Main where Tante Mohn could look over the countryside and view the golden wheat fields from that high vantage point. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I am sure that many nostalgic thoughts of her happy days with her husband and young family filled her mind as she stood and silently viewed the surrounding countryside gleaming with its golden wheat fields.

I will never forget the arrival in Northfield of the two bachelors, Professor Erving E. Noakes and Professor George Weida Spohn. They came from the East, the distant East which seemed a long, long way from Northfield, and were the first ones to join the faculty who were not Norwegians. One evening at a party at our house Cousin George Mohn, who was full of fun said to them, “Now here you are with all of us Norwegians. We should give you a Norwegian name. I’ll tell you what we will call you, Noakes : we’ll call you ‘Lute-Noakesenfisk.'” Lutefisk was a Norwegian fish which the Ytterboe and Mohn families didn’t appreciate, but it was a tradition to serve it on Christmas Eve, so we were very familiar with it. When it came to giving Dr. Spohn a name, George gave him the name “Spohnsentvedt.” We all thought it great fun and we really used to call them by those names when we felt in a gay mood.

Tante Agnes was always a part of these family doings. Not long ago some younger member of our family asked me to describe Tante Agnes. For the life of me, I simply couldn’t do it, for she had been so close to us and such a part of our lives that I never even dreamed of taking her various characteristics and analyzing them.

She was not beautiful, I know, and she used to say about herself, “The only beautiful thing about me is my hands.” And they were beautiful. She had the most shapely hands I have ever seen. She had dignity. She was full of fun, talented in many ways. I never heard her make a mean remark about anybody. In her presence one felt warm and good, and after leaving her presence one felt a glow of personal happiness. I suppose she had that rare quality which so few people have. It is called charm.

I remember an amusing incident of an afternoon at our house. I was about twelve years old, and Mother was trying to make a lady out of me. Prior to that time, I had been a veritable tomboy, skiing, skating, playing tennis, swimming, and climbing trees. Mother decided I must come home from school every day and learn to sew and join the little sewing group at our house. We were all gathered — Mother, Evelyn, Tulla Kildahl, Bea Mohn, Elsa Felland, Tante Agnes and a few others whom I cannot remember. We were chatting away when, all of a sudden, Tante Agnes in a loud voice said, “Gosh!” There was a dead silence. We stared at Tante Agnes, our eyes standing out like pins. We couldn’t believe what we had heard — Tante Agnes swearing! Soon she began to laugh. When she was able to control her laughter, she said, “Oh, what I really meant to say was ‘Oh, girls, that’s all bosh.'” But it came out “gosh.”

Well, we were certainly relieved and had a good laugh over it ourselves, but to this day I can’t forget our shock. We always looked up to Tante Agnes as the very personification of gentility.

Another time Tante Agnes did something I thought was very clever. We were all gathered at our house — the Mohns, Fellands and Ytterboes, young and old. We used to play all sorts of games. That time we were playing a game called “telegrams.” The game went like this: a name would be chosen and everybody had to concoct a “telegram” from the letters of the name selected. I suppose I remember this one especially well, because my name – E D E L – was chosen. Tante Agnes’ telegram took the cake. It read: “Every Ding-busted Egg Leaks!”

Always after the annual meetings of the church in Minneapolis, we children were very curious about who had been elected Permanent Professor. Very early in her career at St. Olaf, the year 1907, Tante Agnes was elected Permanent Professor. This meant that she could teach at St. Olaf College as long as she lived. It was considered a high honor. In 1914, however, the church in annual convention elected Tante Agnes to go to China to start a preparatory school for missionaries’ children.

This was a hard blow for us in the family, but Tante Agnes, with her deep sense of duty, accepted the responsibility. I remember the sadness of farewell when she left. But we didn’t think that China was so far away, since Elsa Felland was already there, and we knew she would be a comfort to Tante Agnes. We also knew it would be seven long years before she would be given her sabbatical year and return to us.

So off she went with clothes she hoped would last her the seven years. I remember her going-away hat. It had a high feather decoration, and later she wrote us that when she got to China, the Chinese people would bow deeply to her, for they thought that the feather was a mark of great distinction. She came home seven years later, and I arrived from Alabama a few days after her arrival with the announcement that I was going to marry a man from Alabama. Great consternation! As far as our family was concerned, Alabama was farther away than China. My fiancé arrived a few days later, and he and Tante Agnes got along beautifully, for he had lived in China. His father was a medical missionary and had been there for many years, having gone there at the turn of the century. The Ayers family were “old China hands.”

Mother was a nervous wreck over my announcement, and President Lars Boe came to her rescue. He had known Father well and he was going to help Mother all he could during this surprising occasion. In fact, he took the place of a father to me. Well do I remember when Cousin Ray Mohn and I sat outside President Boe’s house while President Boe interrogated my fiancé, Harry Ayers. It seemed to us the two gentlemen talked a long, long time. It was actually past midnight when Harry Ayers came out of the President’s House. The next day President Boe sent a number of telegrams to Alabama trying to find out something about this stranger. Many years later, when Dr. Boe visited us here in Alabama, he admitted that he had been very strict with my husband, but, as he said, he would have done anything to help Mrs. Ytterboe. Tante Agnes’ approval of my husband was a great joy to me. Later, when she went back to China, she visited some of the Ayers family and relatives there. She thought that the Ayers were fine people, which fact made my mother very happy.

Tante Agnes built a fine preparatory school in China. It was called the American School, and students even from other denominations attended it. It was at Kikungshan near the Peking-Hankow Railway, yet up in the mountains away from it, so it provided a quiet and peaceful atmosphere. The mountains and valleys gave it a beautiful setting during the round of seasons. The hillsides were ablaze with azaleas and bamboo groves. Her poetic soul was deeply moved by such beauty.

She was head of the school for many years until her health gave way and Dr. Clemens Granskou took her place. During the Christmas season of 1925 she died at Hankow at the age of forty-five. Her two great loyalties were to her own school and to St. Olaf College. Dr. Granskou, who became her successor at the school, said in tribute: “Many persons fret and worry themselves into a nameless grave, but here and there some great soul forgets itself into immortality.”

When Mellby Hall was completed in 1938, the south entrance was named Kittelsby Entrance. This was done when Dr. Boe, a lifelong friend of hers, was President.

Later during the tenure of Dr. Granskou, who had worked with her and knew her well, a girls dormitory was named Kittelsby Hall in her memory.

The Old Main


Mohn and Ytterboe Family Connections
The Old Synod
The Reverend Bernt Muus
Young Professor Ytterboe
The First Bathtub at St. Olaf College
A New Day and A New President
Chapel Prayers by H. T. Ytterboe
Erik Hetle and Ole Rölvaag
Hoyme Chapel
Old Buildings at St. Olaf College
1300 St. Olaf Avenue
Agnes Margaret Kittelsby
Professor O. G. Felland
Agnes Mellby
Town and Gown
Music at St. Olaf
St. Olaf’s First Rhodes Scholar
My Mother, Mrs. H. T. Ytterboe