The student weekly of St. Olaf College
Manitou Messenger: Film retells canine tale

Film retells canine tale

By Cody Venzke
Executive Editor
Friday, May 9, 2008

For something that plays a role in our lives every day, history is certainly not something many of us think about on a daily basis. This isn't to say of course that history doesn't have a few fanatics roving about campus, but we don't generally consider history as something that has a direct bearing on our daily life. After all, when the history majors talk about their latest paper, it tends to involve the Romans, Otto von Bismarck or the expansion of Japanese culture during the 1990s. Sure, these topics are interesting, but what do they have to do with us?

Any history buff who has read this far is probably consumed with indignation by now. And rightly so. "History isn't just about the then and there," they might shout. "It's about the here and now too!" Jessica Steinbach '08 and Stephanie Tanner '10 sought to prove just that this spring with a documentary about a legendary St. Olaf icon, Ytterboe the dog, that premiered May 1 in Viking Theater.

Although the legend of Ytterboe the dog has become an integral part of St. Olaf lore, his story isn't universally known. For those of you new to the dog and the legend, Ytterboe was a stray adopted by the residents of the old Ytterboe Hall (which formerly stood where Buntrock Commons now stands) at some point during the late 1950s after he had supposedly been hit by a car.

Naturally, the black, shaggy dog received plenty of attention from both Northfield residents and St. Olaf students as he became a recognized symbol of the community's life. Carleton students even had their own affinity for Ytterboe, going as far to peroxide a giant white "C" in his coat. However, the Ytterboe story did not end happily. Residents had long complained of the nuisance posed by the stray, and as several interviews in the documentary put it, Ytterboe was the top prize of the dog catcher's list. Tensions exloded when tragedy struck on May 22, 1957. When it was suspected that Ytterboe bit police officer Bill Carol's son, Carol and two other police officers chased Ytterboe back to the Hill.

As the dog made his way toward Rolvaag Memorial Library, officer Percy Morris pulled out a sawed-off shotgun (yes, it does seem a bit excessive) and proceeded to shoot Ytterboe twice. The officers then loaded the dog's body into their cruiser and left campus.

The student body reacted violently. A protest including both Carleton and St. Olaf students broke out in front of the police station and students went as far as to burn a straw effigy of Morris.

Two days later, tensions had died down some, but the mourning spirit still ran strong as students from both colleges gathered outside of Rolvaag to bury Ytterboe. The ceremony involved a casket, flowers and speeches by student leaders.

Naturally, such a story has a strong message about community, and it is this theme that Steinbach and Tanner develop in their documentary "The Shooting of Ytterboe the Dog: A Community Story." The documentary, which Tanner and Steinbach produced as a part of their internship with the Northfield Historical Society this spring, draws on interviews, newspapers and photographs to get to the heart of Ytterboe's story.

The documentary focuses heavily on the community spirit that emerged around the tragedy. Steinbach points out that in telling Ytterboe's story, one must be careful because the story is not an isolated aspect of history, but an event that both reflects and influences the identity of St. Olaf. "We were hit by the responsibility we had taken on," Steinbach said.

Tanner agreed the documentary isn't only about the community in 1957, but our connection with it as well. "Learning what it was like to be in the 1950s was a valuable experience," she said.

However, both Steinbach and Tanner realize history cannot be presented as facts alone, but as a narrative with a certain message. In order to remain fair, Steinbach and Tanner strove to present the documentary from a number of viewpoints. In particular, they strove to avoid vilifying Morris, the police officer who shot Ytterboe. At one point, Morris's story drew sympathy from the crowd as the documentary discussed the harassment he and his family faced after the incident.

A balanced presentation, however, is difficult. Tanner described that in order to craft the final scenes of the documentary in an impartial manner, she and Steinbach had to rewrite the final 20 minutes three or four times. "You have to walk a tight rope," Steinbach said, commenting on the difficulty of favoring neither one group nor another.

The documentary also deals with a number of difficult issues at the center of the story, including why the students reacted as they did. For answers, Steinbach and Tanner turned to local residents, college officials and Associate Archivist of the College Jeff Sauve. From each individual, the students received a different answer, ranging from the prevailing social conditions of the 1950s to the weather conditions that day.

Ultimately, "The Shooting of Ytterboe the Dog" reminds us of the importance our history can have in shaping who we are. "These projects are gold," said Hayes Scriven, executive director of the Northfield Historic Society. "A town without its history has no identity."

Steinbach agreed, "At St. Olaf, we have history and progress in the same place, and that's why we don't let go of our ghosts," she said. Indeed, this documentary reminds us our history shapes who we are not only as individuals, but as a community as well.

Copies of "The Shooting of Ytterboe the Dog: A Community Story" will be available online soon from Google Video or by contacting Steinbach at or Tanner at

The Manitou Messenger is a student publication of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minn. It is published weekly during the academic year except during vacations, exam periods and interim. The cost for one year's subscription is $45.00. Postage is paid in Northfield, Minnesota. Manitou Messenger
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