CHAPTER 3: The Reverend Bernt Muus

WHEN I was a little girl growing up at St. Olaf College, I rarely heard either the Mohn or the Ytterboe families mention the name of Muus. Certainly Mother rarely, if ever, did nor did Tante Mohn. They may have discussed it in private; this I do not know. But we children knew the name and we knew that there had been some domestic trouble in the Muus family. Children usually sense these things. The same silence continued through my college years. In 1920 I graduated from college and left Northfield to live in Alabama. It was not until a number of years after I was married that some historian injected the name of the Reverend Bernt Muus as founder of St. Olaf College, which he actually was. It was his idea to start a school.

He did start a little school in Goodhue County, but that school failed. When St. Olaf School was founded he had the enthusiastic support of the enterprising citizens of Northfield and of her great benefactor, Harold Thorson, and of Bishop Whipple of the Episcopal Church. But I am sure all this history has been written.

Mrs. Muus had been brought up in a gentle family in Norway, and her coming to America as the wife of the Reverend Bernt Muus meant living out in a country parsonage in Goodhue County. She did church work and had a number of children. But she must have been lonely, as she had few people of her own background with whom she could communicate. Domestic trouble followed. She was dismissed from her home and separated from her children. She had nowhere to go. She could not return to Norway, so she came down to Alabama to a drab little village called Fruithurst, forty miles from Anniston where I live. In Fruithurst there was a small community of Norwegians. Many years ago when Lars Boe, President of St. Olaf, visited me in Anniston, he asked me to find out all I could about Mrs. Muss — her life, her surroundings, and her grave.

Soon after President Boe’s visit, my sister Evelyn and her husband, the Reverend Joseph Tetlie, came to visit me in Alabama. We made the forty-mile trip to Fruithurst. There we inquired about the Norwegians in that village. We were directed up a little country road to a farm house. A rather unprepossessing Norwegian woman came to the door and invited us in. Nailed on the parlor wall we saw a postal card picture of the Old Main of St. Olaf. We were thrilled to see it in such a far-off place. The woman told us that they had sent their son to the St. Olaf Academy for a year many years ago.

We asked about Mrs. Muus, but she didn’t seem to know anything about her. She called her husband in from the fields. He was a wonderful Scandinavian type: tall and slender and looked like the son of a Viking. He knew something about Mrs. Muus, but he said it was all so long ago and he was then only a lad. He knew that Mrs. Muus had lived and died there. He took us to the cemetery and showed us her grave. We inquired whether anybody else could give us information, but he said all the early settlers had died and their descendants had moved away.

We drove home with sadness in our hearts.

Not long after that I was back in Northfield on a visit. We were at a supper party at the Jörgen Thompson home. The guests were mostly of the old St. Olaf families. Naturally I wanted to tell them something of my visit to Fruithurst and something about Mrs. Muus. Dr. Boe had asked me to try to find out all I could about her, and I had done just that. I suspect I am the only one closely connected with St. Olaf College who lives so near to where Mrs. Muus had lived and died; and my findings should have historical interest, sad though they are.

I started to say something about Mrs. Muus. As soon as I mentioned her name out loud, I was met by a dead and forceful silence. Friends looked at me as though I had said something unspeakably vulgar and out of place. I realized that the subject was fresh in the minds of the “Old Guard” and that it was still an unmentionable subject in their minds and hearts. I kept silent and didn’t say another word, but it almost made me angry. Here I was, probably the only one from the college who knew of the life and death of the wife of the founder of St. Olaf, and nobody wanted to hear about her.

Therefore, I have my reservations when I see pictures of representatives from St. Olaf College reverently laying wreaths on the grave of the Reverend Bernt Muus, who is buried in the renowned cemetery of Trondheim Cathedral in Norway. My thoughts turn with compassion to Mrs. Muus, who lived the greater part of her life so far away from her children, her family and friends.

The Old Main

Chapters:

Foreword
Mohn and Ytterboe Family Connections
The Old Synod
The Reverend Bernt Muus
Young Professor Ytterboe
The First Bathtub at St. Olaf College
1898-1899
1899
A New Day and A New President
Chapel Prayers by H. T. Ytterboe
1903-1904
Aftermath
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