St. Olaf Magazine | Winter 2020

STOries: Ole Tyme Trivia

Who knew that January 4 is National Trivia Day? Surprisingly, myriad unofficial U.S. national holidays mark the calendar year, including National Milk Day (January 11), Toothache Day (February 9), No Socks Day (May 8), and Count Your Buttons Day (October 21).

Where trivia is concerned, St. Olaf College is steeped in quirky facts from its 145-year history. For instance, do you know which St. Olaf student (1875–76) was closely linked to the 1919 National Prohibition Act? (U.S. House Judiciary Chair Andrew Volstead, one of the men behind the law, which was informally known as the Volstead Act) Or can you say which fictitious town Betty White’s character Rose Nylund hailed from in the popular TV series The Golden Girls (1985–92)? (St. Olaf, Minnesota)

Old Main, ca. 1890

Perhaps one of the tougher Ole trivia questions might be this one: What was the original name of “Pop Hill” behind Thorson Hall? The answer traces its roots to 1878, when the fledgling St. Olaf’s School (later renamed St. Olaf College) moved from the corner at Union and Third streets to the top of Manitou Heights.

At the time, a German brewer named Adolph Grafmueller lived a few cow pastures away from the school. He sold his suds outside the city’s limits (what today would be Greenvale Avenue near the Rolf Mellby soccer field), at the base of the bluff below Ellingson and Thorson Halls on the St. Olaf campus. In the coming years, the college administration came to view this nearby “groggery” as the “Devil on your doorstep.”

Unfazed by the college’s disapproval, Grafmueller expanded his enterprise in the mid-1800s by enlarging a natural sandstone cave beneath the bluff. He carved out two rooms for beer manufacturing and storage and created what St. Olaf students nicknamed “Brewery Hill.” That answers the trivia question, but the story doesn’t end there.

By 1890, Grafmueller had also added an enticing beer garden, complete with imitation palm trees. The place was described as “very wild, rough, and rowdy” and featured lively entertainment. Like moths to a flame, St. Olaf’s young men simply could not stay away and occasionally “inspected” the establishment on the sly.

In fact, the Ole men even raided cases of beer by shimmying down ropes placed in the cave’s air ventilation duct. It would all come to a head sooner or later, especially after Grafmueller sold his brewery in 1897 to the unscrupulous Herman Wenner and his wife, who illegally sold liquor on Sundays and to minors.

Because the college wanted the liquor traffic out of Northfield, Professor Paul M. Glasoe pretended to be a customer in an effort to secure samples. He later attended a court hearing with Professor Carl Mellby, in June 1904, after Wenner had been charged with peddling beer without a license.

In a 1961 student interview, Professor Mellby, then age 92, recalled the hearing in which Wenner and his wife defended the brewery by saying that they made and sold a valuable health drug. According to Mellby, the exchange between Northfield Judge John C. Couper and Mrs. Herman Wenner was more than trivial:

“Do you sell that to college boys?” demanded Judge Couper.

“Yes,” she said.


“It makes them strong, healthy.”

At the close of the case, several statements were made by Professor Glasoe, causing Mrs. Wenner, age 70, to become quite heated. When Judge Couper pronounced a sentence of $20, she rushed toward the professor and began chasing him all over the room. Glasoe was afraid to leave for fear that she might catch up with him, and managed to dodge her by going around and around until she became exhausted.

A couple days later, Mrs. Wenner called on College President John N. Kildahl. Once again, Professor Mellby was present and recalled the terse conversation:

“Mr. President, that was a grand injustice!”

“No, you broke the law.”

At this point, the indignant Mrs. Wenner pleaded, “But your boys have money and can pay for it. It’s good drink. It’ll make them better Christians!” Kildahl was unconvinced. The Wenners finally sold their brewery business in 1920.

The name Brewery Hill remained until Prohibition. In 1923, the Northfield Bottling Corporation took possession of the property and established a soft drink works in the cave, after which the name changed to Pop Hill. The college purchased the old brewery property in the mid-1950s, and by the mid-1980s, the cave had been permanently demolished for safety reasons. To this day, St. Olaf remains a dry campus. And local craft breweries are thriving in downtown Northfield.