It is difficult for many to imagine St. Olaf College as anything other than the modern institution it currently exists as. However, a recently donated document may help students gain new insight as to what the school was like in generations past.
A signature book dating back to 1883 was donated to the college by Dennis Thompson ’68. The book belonged to Henry Gilbertson who was enrolled at St. Olaf at the time. The book offers insight into what life was like on the St. Olaf campus 130 years ago.
For some historical context, it’s important to understand the fundamental ways in which the institution has changed over the span of generations. Originally, St. Olaf was not a college at all – it was a preparatory school. Its class size paled in comparison to the size of our student body today. In 1883, the year Henry Gilbertson drafted the signature book, only 91 students were enrolled at St. Olaf’s School and only 20 were women. Today, 3,179 students roam St. Olaf’s 300-acre campus and 58 percent of the student body is female. Most students in 1883 were first or second generation Norwegian-Americans, and attended college in a town made famous for its confrontation with the James-Younger gang only seven years prior.
Gilbertson himself is pictured in the book, although he did not graduate from St. Olaf. It is assumed he left early in order to return to work on his family’s farm in Sioux Falls, Minnehaha Country – or modern day South Dakota.
Students weren’t the only ones who left their mark in Gilbertson’s book. Its pages are littered with the writings of faculty and administrative officials, among them Halvor T. Ytterboe and T.H. Mohn. Ytterboe joined the faculty of St. Olaf in 1882. He was respected by his students and admired by many. Mohn served in the college’s administration, and unlike President David Anderson ’74, he was addressed by a different title: Principal. Mohn was 30 years old when St. Olaf appointed him to the position of headmaster. He worked tirelessly to expand the school until his death in 1899.
Among the signature book’s pages are some short remarks by Hannah Thorson, who studied at the school from 1882-1883. She wrote, “May he to whom this book belongs few sorrows meet, if any; his gloomy hours be short and few, his happy days be many.” She addressed the note to “Mr. Gilbertson,” her fellow student. The formal address is indicative of the standard etiquette between males and females at the time. During this period in the college’s history, genders sat at separate tables during meals and dating was restricted. School regulations governed other aspects of students’ lives, prohibiting tobacco use, billiards, card playing and profanity. Students were expected to spend their free time in their rooms studying, and lights were blown out at 10 p.m.
Henry Gilbertson’s book provides a window into an era we can only imagine, enabling current readers to get a glimpse into the history of St. Olaf. While giving insight into the adversities these students faced, it simultaneously portrays students who are not so different from their modern colleagues. Those interested in learning more about the book can visit the College Archives in Rolvaag Memorial Library.