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ISSUE 116 VOL 16 PUBLISHED 4/11/2003

Uncovered truths behind the myths: Students and professors lived together in Old Main in early days

By Bethany Jacobson
Staff Writer

Friday, April 11, 2003

St. Olaf College was inaugurated in 1877 with the construction of Old Main. High and isolated on its lonely hill, separated from the small town of Northfield by a steep and winding carriage road, the college was almost entirely self sufficient. During one hard year, the college was forced to cut down the surrounding trees for firewood because they couldn’t afford to buy any.

The college formed a tiny, one-building community, with professors, staff and students living side by side with the kitchens and classrooms. Since St. Olaf was a co-educational institution from its first years as a college, arrangements were further complicated by the need to separate the boys from the girls. In the end, things were arranged so that the boys were on the third floor, the second floor held the classrooms and the chapel, the first floor held the girls’ rooms and the professors’ suites and the kitchen and dining room were in the basement.

Along with keeping the first professors on campus, St. Olaf’s relative isolation made it practical to keep the professors’ families there as well. President Thorbjorn Nielsen Mohn, his wife and their five children lived in what are now the offices of the Norwegian department. Professor H.T. Ytterboe’s family (four children, three of them girls) occupied what are now the Russian and Chinese offices.

Because there was no nearby hospital, each professor’s children were born where their families lived, right in Old Main. Edward, John, George, Ray and Anna Mohn were all born at St. Olaf in a span of 15 years. Anna later attended St. Olaf. Of the four Ytterboe children, two died young: Agnes at the age of two, from the measles, and Norman at 16.

Of the other two, Evelyn and Edel, Edel later went on to record her memories of her early life at St. Olaf in a book called “The Main,” which is full of stories about early St. Olaf students and the mischief they caused. While the families had a separate kitchen and living area from the students, there was a large amount of contact between them. “I suspect [the professors’ families] often took their meals with the students,” said Joan Olson, a former college archivist. This was both to save money and to promote a feeling of unity among all the inhabitants of the college.

While fitting over 80 students, two families, a kitchen staff, classrooms and a dining room into Old Main might seem well-nigh impossible now, the arrangement was considered delightful by the students of the day. One student referred to Old Main in a poem as a “spacious castle.” It certainly beat the alternative. In 1879 the (long-defunct) structure called Old Ladies’ Hall was transported up the Hill from Northfield and installed as the girls’ dormitory, approximately between Holland Hall and the Science Center.

The building was not designed to be transplanted, nor had it been originally constructed to settle on the hilly terrain. A respectable distance away from Old Main, Old Ladies’ Hall was cold, drafty and decidedly sub-par in terms of living conditions. In later years, before sturdier buildings replaced it, Old Ladies’ Hall was repaired and built up so the wind no longer blew through chinks in the boards and threatened to knock the building over.

Professor O. G. Felland, who loved photography and raising flowers and helped to found the St. Olaf library, lived in Old Ladies’ Hall with his family after the young women there frightened away several preceptresses. There his wife acted as resident advisor, counselor and surrogate mother for the homesick students of St. Olaf. (Since she had married Felland the year she graduated from the college, she could empathize with their fears). There, she also gave birth to the couple’s six children: four girls, Thonny, Valborj, Elsa and Nordis, and the two boys, Hermo and Osmond. Thonny, Elsa and Nordis all went on to graduate from St. Olaf. Thonny became a music teacher and Elsa, who was the only Felland girl to marry, went to China as a missionary. Less is known about the two boys, but pictures of all six of the children playing in or around Old Ladies’ Hall and Old Main are common. Many include baby Osmond with the long golden curls that earned him the nickname “Toodles.”

Growing up at Olaf in the early 20th century must have been a challenge for the 15 professors’ children, not to mention for their parents. However, the closeness of the St. Olaf community made the experience a rich and positive one. Among the families who lived on the Hill, Edel Ytterboe, O. G. Felland, and many others have written about their lives and the people they knew at St. Olaf. In their memoirs is reflected a college very similar in spirit to our own present-day St. Olaf -– if with a little more emphasis on firewood.

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