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The Beginnings of St. Olaf College
By I. F. Grose (Volume V: Page 110)

St. Olaf's School, now St. Olaf College, at Northfield, Minnesota, represents the growth of an idea which dominated the mind of the Reverend Bernt Julius Muus. He was pastor of Holden and adjoining congregations in Goodhue County, Minnesota, for a period of forty years, from 1859 to 1899.

Before the incorporation of St. Olaf's School on November 6, 1874, the Norwegian-American Lutherans had established schools of higher learning largely for the purpose of providing the needed pastors to minister to the constantly increasing number of Norwegian Lutherans immigrating to this country and making their homes throughout the Middle West. It was chiefly for this purpose that the Norwegian Lutherans, later known as the Norwegian Augustana Synod and the Conference, in conjunction with the Swedish Lutherans, now popularly known as the Swedish Augustana Synod, identified themselves in the fifties with the Illinois State University of Springfield, Illinois. After severing their synodical ties with the Northern Illinois Synod, these two bodies, impelled by the same motive as before, established a school at Chicago and, two years later, moved it to Paxton, Illinois. The Eielsen Seminary, which was in operation for a year, had the same end in view. Augsburg Seminary primarily prepared men for the ministry. Luther College, at Decorah, Iowa, was originally designed to be a theological seminary. It never became one, but operated as a preparatory school for men who intended subsequently to take up the study of theology. For that reason Luther College was popularly known as (the ministers' school in Decorah). And one comes across this expression even today, although its graduates in large numbers now engage successfully in vocations other than the ministry. The founders of the college must have had a presentiment that this would be the case, as they called the moneys gathered for the erection of the main building Universitetsfondet (the University fund) and the cause Universitetssagen (the University cause).

St. Olaf's School differed from the aforementioned institutions in its initial aim. Its purpose was, first, "to give the Christian confirmands of both sexes a higher education than the schools of their home communities could give them" and, second, "to direct the moral conduct of the students." {1} Most of the Norwegian-American Lutheran schools of higher learning established up to this time primarily expected their graduates to enter the ministry. St. Olaf's School designed to give the Christian youth a general education. It aimed to develop intelligent and well-informed men and women, whatever sphere of action they might enter when their days of schooling were at an end. The school intended to produce an intelligent laity as well as an intelligent clergy.

This policy did not exclude preparing men at St. Olaf for subsequently taking up the study of theology. Pastor Muus was much interested in getting an intelligent ministry. This fact becomes apparent upon an examination of the acknowledgments made for moneys received by the treasurer of the Norwegian Synod in Kirkelig Maanedstidende. Up to June 15, 1871, Muus's congregations (Holden, Vang, Gol, Urland, Dale, and Wangen's Prairie) had, through his efforts, contributed to Universitetsfondet $8,547.45, {2} not counting other contributions which he made to Luther College during the sixties. He was interested in every phase of Christian education. He established parochial schools in his congregations. He left no stone unturned to secure teachers for these schools. It was in this manner that he secured the services of Johan Kildahl, the father of Dr. J. N. Kildahl. He met the Kildahl family in Red Wing, Minnesota, when the Kildahls were on their way from Norway, with no particular destination in mind. He ascertained that Mr. Kildahl was a teacher and Mrs. Kildahl a weaver. As Muus needed a parochial school teacher and Mrs. Muus a weaver, the outcome of the chance meeting was that the Kildahl family accompanied him to Holden, and thus started the nine-year-old Kildahl on his distinguished and useful career as a pastor and a teacher. Lacking schoolhouses, Pastor Muus turned the farm log-houses into schoolrooms, the school staying usually a week at each home. He was much concerned about the welfare of his confirmands, not only before but after they had taken the vow of confirmation. From the year 1859, when Pastor Muus came to this country and took up his work as a minister of the Gospel, he cherished the idea of establishing an academy or some institution where confirmed Christian young people could get more advanced training than that obtained in the parochial and the common schools. It was not until ten years after his arrival in America that he could make a small beginning toward the realization of his cherished ideal. Hindrances barred the way. His countrymen, many of them, did not realize the value of a Christian education. He had to arouse their interest in schools in general, and particularly in those of higher learning. He lacked competent instructors and adequate schoolrooms. In 1869 he made his first attempt at establishing the academy which was at least the forerunner if not actually the beginning of St. Olaf's School.

Fortunately Pastor Muus has over his own signature left us an account of his venture. In it he reveals to the reader his yearning to establish an academy, the obstacles he met with, the name of the teacher procured, the nature of the schoolroom used, the subjects offered, and the difficulties of overcoming the inertia and lack of interest in the project among the people he sought to benefit.

He heads the account with the caption: "Academy in Holden, Minnesota." {3} He then says:

As the editors [of Kirkelig Maanedstidende] ask for information concerning my academy, I take the liberty of giving them the following facts. From the very beginning of my ministry, I was keenly conscious of the great benefits which would accrue from establishing a high school in which the youth of the congregations could acquire a better education than could be obtained m our parochial and common schools. But many obstacles were in the way. Among these I may mention lack of room and of competent instructors. By building an addition to the parsonage, we have acquired available room in the basement. I have discovered T. Jesme, whom I think both competent and willing to teach. The course of study I originally outlined was as follows: Bible, three hours; Christian Faith and Doctrine (troeslaære), two; Church History, two; English, six; Norwegian, six; Geography, two; History, two; Penmanship, three; Arithmetic, three; Physics, two; Geometry, one; Drawing, one; Singing, four. The attendance, however, was so small that for financial reasons I had to drop Physics, Geometry, Drawing, and Singing. The inadequate preparation of the pupils entering required the giving of an additional number of hours in Penmanship and Arithmetic. The first term I personally lost money on the affair, but I do not like to drop it. I am firmly convinced that such a school will be of much value to the coming generation. I will therefore try another term of three months. It will begin on January 7 [1870]. The charge for tuition will be $10 for three months. I know it will take some time for my countrymen to realize the importance of this cause. For this reason I will try another term. If they have no use for such a school, I cannot afford to lose any more money on this venture. I cannot even afford to lose the money I have already lost thereon. I have offered my countrymen a valuable help for the education of their youth. If the undertaking fails, I shall assume no blame for the failure.

Yours most respectfully,
B. J. Muus

HOLDEN PARSONAGE, November 19, 1869

Was the Holden Academy discontinued at the end of the aforementioned three-month term? The records are silent. But in 1874 we find something like it operating in the parsonage. Pastor Muus kept a private tutor (huslærer) for his own children. He did not send them to the parochial and the common schools. The private tutor gave Muus's children instruction in the four R's (Religion, Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic). In 1874 we find that additional subjects were introduced, at any rate Latin, and that other children besides the Muus children were given instruction in the parsonage school. Besides Birgitte, Nils, and Jens Muus, we find Isaac Huseth and George Taylor Rygh in attendance. Later also came Peter O. Floan, Jens Nordby, and Ole K. Haugen. The subjects studied at this school enabled Rygh and Isaac Huseth to enter Quinta or the Senior Academy Class at Luther College upon their matriculation at that institution.

Several intimate that Dr. J. N. Kildahl was a pupil in the Holden Parsonage School. If he was, he must have attended the school prior to 1873. Be that as it may, he was confirmed by Pastor Muus, and soon after the confirmation, Pastor Muus made Kildahl's parents two visits to persuade them to let their son go to Luther College. They finally consented though they felt they sorely needed his services at home on the farm. The Reverend H. B. Kildahl says that his brother was not overburdened by this world's goods. He put all his belongings in a wheat sack and carried it on his shoulders when he went to Luther College.

Miss Birgitte Muus, now Mrs. B. Klüver, gives a very sympathetic account of her father in a letter to the writer, dated at Oslo, Norway, July 3, 1929. She lets us get some glimpses of the Holden Parsonage School, or Latinskole, and of her father's interest in St. Olaf. She says:

Father spoke of St. Olaf when I was only six or seven years old. Father wished young people to get an education. He often made the remark that learning was a burden to no one, but was valuable for both men and women in every circumstance of life. No one can rob a person of his learning. He thought education would be useful for a woman in home-making. And if a woman remained unmarried, schooling and learning would better enable her to look out for herself.

The first teacher that we had was Student Jensen from Kristiania, Norway. He was our teacher for only a year or two. Then we had Student Monsen, very good in Latin. {4} Next to Religion, Latin was regarded as the most important subject. Father sent to Norway for these teachers. He paid their passage across the sea, and gave them a certain salary a month, plus board and room. Monsen stayed with us for years, eight or nine years. At brief intervals we had as teachers Blickfeldt, Kirkeby, Jesme (only in Norwegian and English), and Thorleif Homme. All are dead, except Homme, who lives as pastor emeritus in Norway. Boys having a taste for study were welcomed as pupils. Among them were Isaac Huseth, son of Halvor; Jens Nordby, son of the miller in Wanamingo, and George Rygh. I cannot recall whether or not J. N. Kildahl attended. I think he did.

It was a preparatory school. Father desired very much that the pupils should become interested in Latin. And, above all, Father desired that the young should at all times and in all walks of life be thoroughly familiar with the Lutheran faith and doctrine. That idea was uppermost in his heart and mind. I can never forget the earnest manner in which he prepared the confirmands for confirmation. The whole life of the confirmand was to be directed by the instruction. At the close of every confirmation day he [Muus] returned home with a cheerful heart. He based the future hope of the church on the confirmands. Some young people used two or three years for receiving instruction preparatory to taking the confirmation vow. And usually they regarded such a practice as being perfectly proper. I attended the confirmation class for three years. I committed to memory, word for word, Pontoppidan's "Double" Explanation. And I have been very glad ever since that I was held to the work.

Father was sad, grievously sad, at times. But just a little word of encouragement would cheer him. And then we were able to share our joys together. Together we rejoiced in the most insignificant flowers, in shrubs, in trees, in all kinds of animals and living things. He would not permit us to disturb the mosquito on his hand until it had satisfied its hunger. I cannot forget the many delightful buggy-rides we had. I frequently took him to and from the station. I accompanied him visiting the sick. Especially do I recall rides with him on moonlight nights when he smoked his long pipe and I managed the lines. He spoke of the courses of the heavenly bodies and told me the names of the constellations and stars. As I listened to him, I thought it would be delightful to die -- if for nothing else, to make a closer acquaintance with the heavenly bodies. Father was wont to say that if he had not become a minister of the Gospel, he would have become an astronomer. On such occasions he enjoyed himself like a child.

Pastor Muus's love for St. Olaf, Mrs. Klüver expresses thus: "The weather would have to be a cyclonic storm indeed which could keep Father from going out canvassing or working for St. Olaf whenever he had any time at his leisure."

His experiences in starting an academy in the parsonage showed Pastor Muus the necessity of arousing the Norwegian-American Lutherans to a realization of the fact that they ought to give their children a higher education, even though they did not intend to have them become ministers or teachers. His experiences also showed him the necessity of establishing the school at some point having direct railroad connections. The Holden Parsonage, twenty-eight miles from Red Wing, twenty-three from Faribault, and twenty-three from Northfield, the nearest railroad stations, attracted no pupils from afar at that time, when transportation had not advanced far beyond the stage of the ox-drawn wagon.

Pastor Muus reached the conclusion that he would have to establish his school in some town or city having railroad connections. To most people Red Wing would seem to have been the suitable place for such an institution, as it had at the time a comparatively large population of Norwegians. Pastor Muus, however, did not favor Red Wing. {5} Receiving encouragement from Pastor Muus at the annual meeting of the Norwegian Synod held in June, 1874, in the Holden Church, Harold Thorson of Northfield offered to the church at that synod meeting "5 acres of land, valued at $1,500, and $500 in cash" if it would establish and maintain an academy on this land. {6} The synod meeting adopted a resolution thanking Thorson for his offer and encouraged the idea that an academy be erected but assumed no obligations for financing the undertaking. Pastor Muus later called a meeting of the ministers and influential laymen in the territory contiguous to Northfield. He and Thorson received no encouragement from the meeting, except from the Reverend N. A. Quammen of Christiania, Dakota County, Minnesota, who was heartily in favor of the project and promised them cooperation.

Seeing that he could receive no material assistance from the church as a whole or from the clergy in this territory in particular, Pastor Muus, supported by Thorson and Pastor Quammen, decided upon undertaking the establishment of the school by assuming, himself, full responsibility for its success or failure. Thorson was given the work of interesting the citizens of Northfield in the project. Two civic meetings were held, on October 1 and 15, 1874, which resulted in the pledging of $5,400 to the institution if it were established in the city. At the second meeting the following resolution was unanimously and enthusiastically adopted:

"We extend to our Norwegian brethren a cordial invitation to locate their college at Northfield, and we pledge them our hearty sympathy and support."

Before the citizens' meeting of October 15 adjourned, it was decided to set afoot negotiations for the purchase, as temporary quarters, of lots 4, 5, 6, and 7 in block 24, and the two buildings thereon formerly occupied by the public schools of the city.

Northfield's enthusiastic October meetings reinforced by substantial pledges so encouraged Muus that he felt justified in taking up the matters of forming a close corporation and of making arrangements for opening the school at the earliest date possible. He chose as fellow incorporators Harold Thorson of Northfield, O. K. Finseth of Kenyon, K. P. Haugen of Holden, and Osmund Osmundsen of Nerstrand, the five members consisting of one clergyman, one merchant, and three farmers. The articles of incorporation set forth the aim of the institution in these words:

The general purpose of the corporation is to give higher education to pupils fifteen years of age or over and to preserve them in the true Christian faith as taught by the Evangelical Lutheran Church, nothing to be taught in contravention of the Apostolic, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds, of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, and of Luther's Small Catechism.

Events now followed each other in quick succession. The four lots and two buildings thereon were procured by the recently organized St. Olaf Corporation for a consideration of $2,500. The Reverend Thorbjørn N. Mohn, serving a church in St. Paul, was secured to be the head of the school. The following announcement was published in the press: {7}

St. Olaf's School, an evangelical Lutheran high school in Northfield, Minnesota. Purpose: 1. To give the confirmed youth a higher education for practical life than the home schools can do; 2. To direct the moral conduct of the students. Subjects taught in the lowest class: Religion, English, Norwegian, History, Geography, Penmanship, Singing. Tuition for half a year (from January 8, 1875, to July 1) $15; room in the school building, $10; board, whatever it will cost. Pupils furnish their own bedclothes, towels, light, and laundry. Write to T. Mohn, in care of H. Thorson, Northfield, Minnesota.

B. J. Muus,
 President Board of Trustees

January 8, 1875, marked the opening of the institution. The day was used for dedicating the four-room, two-storied building and for registering the students so that they could begin classes the next day without loss of time. The first year's attendance totaled fifty. Some of these first pupils are now dead, and most of those living have attained the allotted age of three score and ten. {8}

St. Olaf's School had an auspicious beginning. And yet, hardly two years later, on October 26, 1876, its first crisis occurred. It was at the time evident that the future existence of the school depended on the erection of a new building. Thirty acres of land, what is now known as Manitou Heights, had been purchased for $1,250. But the clergymen who had been called in to give counsel in the matter deemed the erection of a new building inadvisable. These ministers would have felt much relieved if the corporation had decided to wind up its affairs at the time. Muus, supported by Thorson and Quammen, took a firm stand in favor of building. The determining factor for Muus's bold stand was the fact that in November and December, 1874, he had canvassed and obtained from various members of the congregations of Holden, Vang, and Gol, sums of money which were to be used for the erection of such a building, He felt that he would be untrue to the donors if he did not use the money for the purpose for which it had been collected. Muus won the day. The Board decided to build. We happen to have the list of names of at least some of the men who thus saved St. Olaf's School in that particular crisis. {9}

The question arises: Where and when was St. Olaf College born? Some will give the off-hand answer: In Lawyer Perkins' office in Northfield, when the articles of incorporation of the school were signed on November 6, 1874. It is true that the institution was then technically and legally brought into existence. But it was in reality begun in the Holden Parsonage. Pastor Muus had cherished the idea for years. He established in the parsonage a temporary academy. It differed from St. Olaf's School in name, in place, and in the composition of the teaching personnel, but it taught practically the same subjects as did St. Olaf's School in the first years of its history and it sought the advancement of the identical purpose. Muus's daughter says her father "spoke of St. Olaf when I was only six or seven years old." This must have occurred even before the academy at Holden had been started. Ole Huseth, in the years just before his death, frequently attended the annual Foundation Day festivities at St. Olaf. Half in jest, half in earnest, he would say that he was the original St. Olaf student because he was one of the three pupils attending the academy in the Holden Parsonage in 1869. Knut Groven and Augon Brokke are supposedly the other two. Dr. George Taylor Rygh, who a few years later was a pupil in this school, writes:

Historically, the Holden Parsonage private academy, with the well-beloved classically trained Mr. Monsen as its patient and interesting teacher, forms the tap-root of the mighty St. Olaf College oak, which today spreads its branches far and wide throughout the land. St. Olaf College is the marvelous development of that small beginning. St. Olaf College might well have sprung full-grown from the sunset heights of Northfield without any preliminary academy, but as a matter of history, it started as a model classical school in a dingy room over the Holden Parsonage kitchen. This room, by the way, had been a doctor's office, and in our schooldays was still redolent of drugs and medicines, and decorated by sundry cobwebby bottles and paraphernalia. {10}

In sum and substance the present investigations indicate that St. Olaf's School got its name and legal existence in Northfield in 1874 but in reality began its work in the Holden Parsonage, Goodhue County, in 1869, the concrete manifestation of an idea which the Reverend Bernt Julius Muus had cherished almost to the consuming of his being since his coming to America in 1859.


<1> This statement of purpose is found on the inside of the front cover of the first brochure of St. Olaf, published in 1875.

<2> Kirkelig Maanedstidende, 16: 191 (June 15, 1871).

<3> Kirkelig Maanedstidende, 14:383-384 (December 1, 1869).

<4> Dr. George Taylor Rygh gives Monsen's full name as Søren Tordenskjold Monsen.

<5> Some of this account is taken from the writer's Fifty Memorable Years at St. Olaf (Northfield, 1925).

<6> Minutes of the Board of Trustees of St. Olaf's School.

<7> Fædrelandet og Emigranten, December 10, 1874.

<8> The names of the first students at St. Olaf are: Marie Aaker, later Mrs. Theodore Bordson of Alexandria, Minnesota; Sissel K. Haugen, later Mrs. A. T. Brandvold, Faribault; Esther Thompson, later Mrs. L. C. Rugland, Ashby; Guri K. Lie; Betsy K. Lie, later Mrs. G. N. Steile, Bristol, South Dakota; Martha T. Aabye, Kirsti T. Haugen, Theoline Sophie Vestly, Berit A. Hoverstad, Ella E. Skare, Marie Grinager, later Mrs. E. Engebretson, Princeton, Minnesota; Anne Marie Hanson, later Mrs. H. P. Solstad, Fisher; Ingeborg Strandemo (or Strandemoen), Peder K. Haugen, Edward J. Erstad, Sivert E. Grinde, Ingebrikt J. Hegvik, Nils P. Langemo, T. Langemo, Ole O. Romundstad, Ole S. Vesledal, Anders T. Ellingbo, Ole K. Ulsaker, Knut O. Bakko, Knut O. Bratvold, Erik H. Stenbakken, Tjøstel A. Baanhus, Ole G. Opdal, Haakon O. Næset, Erik P. Skajem, Knut O. Holien, Bernt J. Lie, Sievert E. Lie, Anders T. Aabye, Torger H. Brokke, Theodor Thorson, Christen O. Holen, Ole O. Hellerud, Hans H. Rinde, Andrew Anderson, Nils E. Grinde, Svein O. Braaten, Thompson, North Dakota; Osten O. Bø, Guttorm A. Melland, Hans M. Hanson, R. O. Støve, Howard, South Dakota; Bersvend Johnson, Minneapolis; H. Holstad, M. Onstad.

<9> The names of these donors were entered by Muus in a ledger, which he later turned over to St. Olaf College. In 1915 the names were printed in the St. Olaf College Bulletin, "endowment number," p. 3-4.

<10> George Taylor Rygh to the writer, August 28, 1929.

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