St. Olaf Magazine | Spring/Summer 2022

STOries: Ole G. Felland’s Invaluable Photographs

St. Olaf Professor Ole G. Felland took this photo of the interior of Steensland Hall on February 19, 1907.

Since Steensland Hall was built in 1902, the two decorative white owls perched on its portico have witnessed countless people come and go. The most familiar person to them in their early years was likely none other than the venerable St. Olaf Professor Ole G. Felland, who joined the faculty in 1881, primarily teaching ancient languages. A decade later he assumed extra duties as the head college librarian, a position he maintained until retirement in 1926 at the age of 73. 

A devoted amateur photographer since the mid-1880s, Felland was ever ready with his camera. His goddaughter, Edel Ytterboe Ayers, recalled in her book The Old Main (1969) that at nearly all special college occasions, “he would be there with his big camera atop a high tripod. To me he seemed always to be hiding behind a piece of black cloth.” 

Over a period of 40-plus years, Felland took more than 1,600 photographs, documenting the campus and its development. The unique collection portrays student and faculty life, significant events, facilities, landscapes, and the surrounding Northfield area. Ayers added, “At that time, we didn’t have sense enough to realize that he was making a complete history of St. Olaf College in pictures. Those photographs now are invaluable.”

One interesting picture taken by Felland on February 19, 1907, provides a few storylines regarding Steensland’s interior at that time.

Sitting at the front desk reading a book is Professor Agnes Mellby, St. Olaf’s first woman graduate, Class of 1893. A faculty member upon matriculating, Mellby taught history and German and served as the “Preceptress” or Dean of Women until 1909. Sadly, she passed away in 1918 after a brief illness. Recognized for her unwavering support of the college during her lifetime, a women’s dormitory was named after her in 1938.

Prominently displayed on the front desk is a handsome portrait bust of Henrik Johan Ibsen, the famous Norwegian playwright of the late 19th century. Sculpted by Jacob Fjelde in 1885, Ibsen patiently sat for the young artist who created several renditions, one of which was presented to the college in Ålesund, Norway, on July 13, 1906.

At that time, the 48-member St. Olaf Band had undertaken an incredibly ambitious tour of Norway — 26 concerts during the month of July performing to an estimated total of 62,000 people. Concert attendees included the Norwegian royal family and Prime Minister Christian Michelsen. The excursion holds the distinction as the first American college instrumental musical organization to conduct a concert tour abroad.

At the Ålesund evening concert, an at-capacity house of 1,400 festively dressed men and women greeted the St. Olaf Band with great enthusiasm. During intermission the Ibsen bust was accepted by St. Olaf President John N. Kildahl. According to the tour manager, Harry Randall, Kildahl remarked, “I wish, on behalf of the students, to thank you for this beautiful gift. We shall take it home with us and find the best place of honor for it at our school.”

In the middle of the library sits a plaster-cast of the Apollo Belvedere on a pedestal. Presented by the senior members of the Class of 1902, the sculpture was located under the central rose-colored stained-glass dome. The donors hoped that it would appear as a “radiant apparition” for all to behold. The tradition of the annual senior class gift continues to the present day. 

The white birch bookshelves are nearly full. When Felland was appointed librarian in 1891, the college catalog consisted of 600 volumes, with a scant seven cents in the treasury. By 1907, when he snapped the Steensland Library interior photograph, the catalog had expanded to 6,000 titles, occupying 85 percent of shelf space. The situation worsened in the immediate years to come as thousands of more volumes were added. 

The excess books were relegated to Steenland’s basement or stored in various locations on campus, including the president’s office in Old Main. In 1916, Felland fully recognized that the beautiful library had “become much too small, and additional room is a crying need.” His words were heard, but campus misfortunes in the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s stalled construction of Rolvaag Memorial Library until 1942. Felland did not live to see it built, having passed away in 1938. In 1966, a library wing was named after him.  

The Felland glass negatives collection, housed in the College Archives in Rolvaag Library, recently has been professionally restored, digitized, and made available online. Learn more about the work to conserve the Felland negatives, including the role that St. Olaf students have had in the process, in this St. Olaf News story.