St. Olaf Sentiments: April 17, 2015

Treasures in the College Archives

St. Olaf is considered to be one of the most haunted college campuses in the United States. The college’s archives department routinely gets calls from television shows and other requests for information. In addition to spooky tales, there are many interesting and rarely talked about stories and objects detailing the extensive history of St. Olaf.

In the days of old at St. Olaf, when people like Mohn and Kittlesby were walking around, there was an outbreak of Scarlet Fever. Professor Ytterboe decided that the contagion was in the men’s bathroom in the basement of his namesake dormitory. To get rid of the cause of the disease and protect his students, the concerned professor decided to burn chemicals in the bathrooms. He did this for around ten weeks in the fall of 1903.

Unfortunately, while burning the chemicals, he did not open the windows or leave the room. Professor Ytterboe died a few months later, in February of 1904, as a result of formaldehyde poisoning. The man who had been beloved by St. Olaf faculty and students died on campus with his nervous system severely compromised.

In the early days of the College, many families lived on campus. These were the families of faculty. In fact, many families started at St. Olaf; around half a dozen babies were actually born in Old Main.

Some college practices have, thankfully, come to an end. According to an alumnus’ diary, in the early 1900s, female students had to be in their dorms by 10:00 p.m. and have their lights out by 10:45 p.m. In addition, if a gentleman wanted to take one of the ladies out to spend some quality alone time with her, he would have to meet with her “housemother” first. These processes gradually ended.

Some St. Olaf traditions have come to an abrupt halt in more dramatic ways than others. The Homecoming Court was discontinued at St. Olaf when a few disgruntled students entered a large female farm pig in the race for Homecoming Queen. “Alice Swineson” became homecoming queen in 1969.

However, Swineson did not get to wear the queen’s crown and it was donated to the college archives in 1972. Several students have had the opportunity to try on the ornate crown.

“If students come down with a little bit of notice, I am always happy to show them our treasures,” said Jeff Sauve, college archivist.

Sauve is caretaker to this treasure trove of college history. The college archive includes roughly 2,000 linear feet of manuscripts, 5,000 photographs, 700 videos, 1,000 audio recordings and one silver crown.

Two coins dating back to the time of the Roman Empire are among the rarest items in the archives.

“We have one coin dating to around the time Of Jesus’ birth and one dating to the end of the empire,” Sauve said.

These objects were a surprise find in papers given to the St. Olaf archives by an alumnus who was an art collector. Alumni have bequeathed most documents in the archives. This ensures that there are always interesting items such as 80-year-old locks of hair – and even teeth – in the basement of Rolvaag Library.

Along with collecting and assessing historical documents, the archivist’s duties include undertaking projects to preserve the history of the College.

Coming out this summer is a “Sight Story Mobile Historical App,” a virtual tour of historical – and present day – St. Olaf College. Included will be 28 sights with a plethora of information.

The information includes, but is not limited to, audio clips, pictures, biographies, video clips and tours. This was made possible with a grant from the Minnesota Legacy Collection. The goal of the project is, “to make new information available and dig into the story of St. Olaf.”

About Christine Barkley

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