CHAPTER 6: 1893-1899

HOW shall I begin to write what our two families have told us about those difficult years? The year 1893 was the year of the national financial panic. The enrollment at St. Olaf’s school had dropped because farmers found it difficult to send their sons and daughters away to school. Heretofore the church had had some connection with the college, but it was the year 1893 at the annual meeting that the body of the church in convention decided to sever all connections with St. Olaf College.

Mother used to tell me that during Christmas of 1893 there was so little money they could not afford to buy even a Christmas tree. Some of the students remained during the Christmas holidays as they could not afford the expense of returning to their homes. Mother and Tante Mohn sent some of the boys out over the hill to chop down a slender cherry tree. This they decorated in the traditional Christmas tree style. Although there was so little money, a lovely and beautiful Christmas spirit prevailed in the small St. Olaf family. Mother and Tante Mohn created a festive Christmas for all who remained at college.

Norwegians have a way of creating festivity with few worldly goods, and so it was. They loved one another; they had a roof over their heads; they were young and healthy, and the lovely spirit of the birth of the Christ Child filled the hearts of all.

The year 1893 was the most critical year in the long and interesting history of St. Olaf College. There were many who thought that the college should be closed. Among the loyal faculty there were some who thought it was part of wisdom to close the college. Even among the loyal trustees of the college themselves some thought it was hopeless for the school to continue. The school was in debt and with the general feeling in the church itself, it was considered impossible for such a school to continue. A great crisis faced St. Olaf that year.

It has been said that an institution is only the lengthening shadow of men who work and dream for it. Historically, a nation or an institution which develops and prospers has men who rise up to meet such crises. It was so at St. Olaf, for there were two men — Uncle Mohn and Father.

A committee had been formed to collect money for St. Olaf School. This committee did nothing. They need not be named. Father volunteered to collect money to run the school, and Uncle Mohn stayed at home to administer the college while Father was away.

Father was only thirty-six years old; young, sound in body and mind. He had a persuasive and enthusiastic manner. He had a sense of humor and a great compassion and friendliness for all men. He and Uncle Mohn believed in St. Olaf College. In fact, it was almost part of their religion. They believed the college had a real and unique purpose in this young nation. And they had faith in the Norwegian people who came over to this young country to make their homes. They believed the sons and daughters of these immigrants should be educated in a Christian college. Many of the children of these immigrants spoke Norwegian in their homes and spoke English with a rich Norwegian accent, for which the Yankees often made fun of them. Therefore, the English language must be stressed at the college.

Father believed that no other nation had sent such a fine group of sturdy pioneers to build up the Northwest as had Norway. Many of these Norwegian immigrants were of good yeoman stock. They were sturdy, honest and hard working, and Father and Uncle Mohn could envision these same sons and daughters as the builders of the great Northwest Territory. Therefore, they must learn to speak the English language so that in the years to come they could take their places with dignity as citizens of this new world. This they believed and this they worked for, always keeping in mind that the college must not lose its fine Norwegian heritage. They believed that the best of Norwegian culture should be preserved and given to this new country, but that the English language also should be taught in all its grandeur and purity.

To say that their visions, hopes and dreams have been realized can now be demonstrated. For today the alumni of St. Olaf College have taken their places in all fields of that part of our country. Today some are ministers; some are farmers; they are lawyers; they are doctors; they are teachers; they are industrialists; they are scientists; they are journalists; some have reached high places among our military forces; and some have been elected to our governing body in Washington. One has been Governor of the State of Minnesota.

Prof. H. T. Ytterboe at the time he was collecting funds for St. Olaf College


And so in 1893, a young man with hopes and dreams, Father set forth alone with indomitable courage to meet the crisis to save St. Olaf College. He went from village to village, from farm to farm. He made friends with everybody whom he met. He knew these Norwegian farmers; he knew they didn’t have much money. He also knew that when they believed something was needed and good, they would be glad to help as they were able.

People have told me in later years that they considered it a great privilege and honor to entertain Father. He dressed like a professor and even in the hot weather of Minnesota summers he wore summer jackets which he had especially made of thin material, so he could appear with dignity among the people as a college representative. He always carried a cane, a rough, sturdy wooden one. Mother told me that he used this cane because of the fierce dogs at some of the farm houses. I have that cane now in my possession, and you can see the teeth marks of the dogs on the lower part of the cane. Later he was presented with a gold-headed cane by the citizens of Northfield.

My sister, Evelyn, and my brother, Norman, were wild with excitement when Father returned from one of his many trips, and you can imagine what a joy it was for Mother to have him home again.

For six whole years he traveled all over the Northwest and was able to support the college from year to year and even to pay back the debt which the college owed. It has been told that not only did he collect money to keep the college going for those years, but with his infectious enthusiasm, strong Christian character, and ever-good humor, he was able to build up a tremendous wellspring of good will and loyalty to the college.

When Father returned from his many trips throughout the Northwest, he would sit down and write letters of appreciation to all those who had donated money to the college. He would write these in English and in Norwegian, both of which he spoke fluently. He wrote as courteously to those who had given one, five or ten dollars as he did to the one and only one who had given a thousand.

He had no secretary. He wrote these letters in longhand. How he accomplished all he did I cannot understand, except that he was a man who felt he had a real mission in life. When a man feels this in his heart, he is given the strength of ten.

It might be interesting to the reader to know what sort of stationery he used. The envelopes of his early stationery bore on the left side a large picture of the “Main.” Underneath it said “St. Olaf School, H. T. Ytterboe, Northfield, Minnesota.” His later envelopes contained the same large picture of the “Main” and under it was printed “St. Olaf College, H. T. Ytterboe, Northfield, Minnesota.” This was interesting, because when the farmers and the people throughout that section of the country received their mail, they knew immediately that it came from St. Olaf College in whose cause they had given money, and they too felt a part of it. Because of all the thank-you letters my father wrote, I know that he must have had the feeling that gratitude was one of the pathways to heaven.

Two envelopes of Prof. Ytterboe’s stationery


Early in the days of his professorship, besides his load of teaching, Father had taken over the financial responsibilities of the school. For many, many years the presidents of St. Olaf College were in a fortunate position, for it was Father who first relieved the presidents of all financial duties and burdens. This for many years was carried on in a continued strong manner when P. O. Holland, a protegé of Father’s, became college treasurer. To this I must add the name of Arthur Lee who was himself a protegé of P. O. Holland’s.

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