STOries: The Roots of Tradition
In the May 1890 issue of the college newspaper, Manitou Messenger, a sentence read, “Two Freshmen carried an evergreen six miles last year for Arbor Day.” The names of the two young men and the challenges they endured to secure and carry the tree six miles to campus are long forgotten, but one possibility is that they were replacing one of the pine trees lost in a grass fire that occurred at the bottom of Old Main Hill in April 1889.
At the time, the original St. Olaf baseball field was located at the bottom of the hill. In preparing the site for the upcoming spring season, the ballplayers intended a simple burn, but the fire quickly burned out of control. The young men frantically raced to extinguish the blaze before it reached Old Main, a building that not only served as a dormitory for male students and a residence for some faculty and staff but also provided the college’s only classroom space. Fortunately, the only damage sustained was to the trees recently planted along the roadside.
Those tree plantings had been part of a series of improvements made to the fledgling college’s grounds, starting immediately after the dedication of Old Main in 1878. In those first years, the woods were cleared of superfluous trees and undergrowth, and room was made for systematic tree plantings carried out annually. By 1890, the college had purchased two tracts of land adjacent to the campus. The previous owner had cut down the maples, leaving numerous unsightly stumps behind in what would later be known as Norway Valley. St. Olaf groundskeepers set to planting 1,000 evergreen seedlings, ensuring their survival by constantly watering them throughout the summer months. The sight of the boughs of these still towering sentinels elicit awe today.
Arbor Day, first commemorated in Nebraska in 1872, was such a significant event at St. Olaf that students were given a holiday to participate in tree planting activities, no matter what the weather was like. In 1893, nearly 1,000 more trees were planted. As a reward for their efforts, an evening gathering featuring coffee and cake was hosted by the women faculty. The Arbor Day tradition continued. In 1897, a release from classes was granted on the condition that every student plant at least one tree. Freshly made donuts were served afterward.
It was also in 1897 that the college’s commitment to environmental stewardship extended beyond the campus’s boundaries. The St. Olaf president at the time, Thorbjørn N. Mohn, served on the executive committee of the Northfield Improvement Association. He joined other community leaders in advocating for the preservation of a stately elm tree at the west end of Third Street. The city council granted the request in early June, saving the tree from the ax and officially naming it the “St. Olaf Elm.”
Before heading home that same summer, St. Olaf baseball players petitioned the college to let them play one extra game with hometown rival Carleton College as a fundraiser for the St. Olaf Elm. The request was granted, so long as the proceeds be used to build a fence around the elm. On Monday, June 14, despite searing temperatures, listless play, and a combined 19 fielding errors, a very large crowd enjoyed the match, where Carleton prevailed by 11 to 8.
The following October, six seniors of the Class of 1898, including Lars W. Boe, future president of St. Olaf (1918–1942), erected an iron fence that enclosed the beautiful elm. It was reported in the Messenger that the work was very satisfactory, the “whole thing being done without a single accident, excepting an unpleasant experience with a kettle of boiling tar.”
The small triangle of land with its solitary inhabitant, the St. Olaf Elm, thus became the smallest city park in the country, a distinction held until the landmark elm was removed in January 1921 due to severe deterioration.
The Arbor Day celebrations evolved into Earth Day celebrations in 1970, and thousands of seedlings have been planted by students on the St. Olaf Natural Lands. The college’s deeply rooted commitment to tree restoration, now approaching 150 years, may best be expressed by a heartwarming anecdote by author Nils N. Ronning (1870–1962) about former St. Olaf President Lars Boe. Ronning, who once enjoyed a walk with Boe along the campus’s winding, wooded paths, wrote, “We came down to the quiet, secluded, cathedral-like Norway Valley. He went over to the stateliest tree, put his hand on its huge trunk, and said, ‘The trees are my friends.’ ”