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ISSUE 116 VOL 18 PUBLISHED 5/2/2003

Old campus caves a source of mystery, danger

By Bethany Jacobson
Staff Writer

Friday, May 2, 2003

Caves have always attracted mystery and romance; if you throw a little alcohol in, too, they’re well nigh irresistible. St. Olaf’s own caves, which used to be on Thorson Hill before the college filled them in and shut them up, were no exception.

Thorson Hill has been called many things over the years, but it started life as Brewery Hill. In 1885 Adolf Grafmuller bought the hill and dug caves into the side. Here he set up a brewery and stored the beer inside the caves to keep it cold. The brewery was off campus at the time, and students weren’t allowed to visit. They managed anyway, lowering themselves down by ropes through the air vents in the caves.

After the granary burned down, the land was leased as a warehouse to businessmen for a few years. Then in 1923 Fred Beyer bought the caves and the land around them. He set up a soft drink factory on the hill. This was probably a very good business decision for him, and the hill was renamed “Pop Hill.” When he moved the business to downtown Northfield in 1932, the college bought the caves and used them to store fruits and vegetables. Students visited the caves for fun and games; the theater classes would put on plays and students could go spelunking inside the manmade structures for gym class. The cool, dark spaces must have been very welcome during the warmer months of the school year.

Of course, many legends about the scurrilous history of the caves began to circulate: they had been used as a prison by the French during the French and Indian War; slaves escaping to Canada before the Civil War had hidden there, singing spirituals to themselves in the dark; in 1863, four Little Crow Native Americans had used the caves as a hideout while stealing horses from Northfield; Jesse James and his gang had spent some time in the caves between gunfights. The Pop Hill caves were places for adventure and ghost stories. In the words of Solveig Reinhartsen, a St. Olaf student during the 1950s, the caves were “dark, spooky and filled with bats and crickets. When walking through, you feel like a Tom Sawyer,” she said.

In 1961 the college closed the caves, installing a metal door with a sign that said “Keep Out” on the main entrance. Later, in 1978, the college collapsed the main entrance entirely, filling the caverns with rubble. The administration said the move was due to safety concerns. Authorities at the college then proceeded to forget about the caves, but the students did not. They continued to visit, letting themselves down through the vents Grafmuller had dug out almost 100 years earlier to creep around in the dark and pretend there were no papers to write. This sort of cautious exploration went on secretly for almost 10 years until tragic circumstances once again brought the caves to the attention of the administration.

One evening on or near Halloween in 1986, five male students decided to go exploring in the caves. It had been raining heavily and the ground around the cave vents was very soft. Thomas E. Johnson, a 20-year-old English Education major and member of the school hockey team, led his friends down into the dark, rubble-filled cave. The ceiling was unsteady and as Thomas started to push rubble out of his way, it grew even more so. Underneath a sealed airshaft, Thomas dug some more, further undermining the ceiling until it collapsed. He died, buried under a weight of wet dirt and rubble. The entire campus grieved. To avoid further tragedy, the college authorities took dynamite and collapsed the caves entirely.

The story of the Pop Hill caves was ended. Students found new places to enjoy, and new stories to tell. But if you ever find an arrowhead out behind Ellingson, you’ll know it was them horse-thievin’ Little Crows, way back in 1863.

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