The First Batch of Students on the Hill
For Northfield photographer Ira E. Sumner, the idiom “the third time’s the charm” likely crossed his mind in the spring of 1879 as he prepared the camera yet again after two failed attempts to photograph the St. Olaf student body. These 64 students, who came from hardscrabble Norwegian immigrant families with surnames like Grose, Grue, Haaland, Hoverstad, Langemo, and Larson, had assembled on the west porch of the recently constructed Main Building.
A moment of solemnity was needed for this special photographic occasion, which marked “the First Batch of Students on the Hill.” Nearly all of the students, faculty, and staff lived under the Main’s roof that first year on the Hill. In all, 51 boys and 13 girls matriculated at an annual cost of $110 for tuition, room, and board.
Almost 140 years have passed since Sumner captured the moment depicting the earliest days of St. Olaf … In time, the 64 students entered professions as politicians, teachers, clergy, lawyers, or farmers.
In the days of early photography, when the exposure time could take up to five minutes per image, some Oles could not maintain their composure for photographer Sumner. One classmate present for the 1879 photography session recalled nearly 30 years later, “when the time necessary for the exposure of the plate was only about half over, one of the boys would get the titters.” His infectious giggles soon spread to others, and nearly all the group were “writhing in convulsions of laughter, and the negative would be one big blur. This happened twice.”
On the third photograph attempt, the young man with the case of the giggles was at last able to restrain himself. To the relief of Sumner, who had gained national attention only two years earlier for his candid shots of the two dead — and silent — members of the infamous James-Younger Gang that attempted to rob Northfield’s First National Bank on September 7, 1876, a picture of merit was finally taken of the St. Olaf students.
A closer inspection of the image shows a boy in the front row with eyes downcast — perhaps an admonished giggler — while a few others suppressed their laughter with slight grins. Also noticeable are several poorly clad chaps in ill-fitted waistcoats and well-worn shoes, but each of the male pupils, from the fresh-faced 14-year-old boys to the mustachioed men in their mid-20s, wore Civil War-era military-style blue caps to signify their participation in one of the earliest known St. Olaf student organizations of record, the St. Olaf Guards.
Formally organized on November 7, 1878, this student-led military company provided the young men with much-needed exercise on a campus that lacked both a gymnasium and formal physical exercise, save for chopping wood for dormitory room stoves. The company, which performed routine drills with wooden rifles, was later led by faculty members and remained a part of the campus scene for more than two decades. The company was disbanded in 1901 after the men’s dormitory (later named Ytterboe Hall) offered a well-equipped gymnasium.
Almost 140 years have passed since Sumner captured the moment depicting the earliest days of St. Olaf. When viewed closely, the few prints that remain in the College Archives still evoke a sense of togetherness. In time, the 64 students entered professions as politicians, teachers, clergy, lawyers, or farmers. They fondly recalled their schoolmates as a “cheerful lot” who “had all the work they could do and were willing to do it.” Professor Ingebrikt F. Grose, reflecting on his own student days, added, “We really felt as if we were a family.” Indeed, it was a St. Olaf family — the first to call the Hill “home” for many generations to follow.