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St. Olaf College

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aerial photograph of St. Olaf College campus

A bird’s-eye view of the St. Olaf College campus. Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Daniel Edwins, October 7, 2004. CC BY-SA 2.0.

St. Olaf College is a private liberal arts college in Northfield, Minnesota. It was founded by Norwegian Lutherans in 1874 and continues to thrive as a top-ranking school.

St. Olaf was founded on November 6, 1874, when a board of trustees signed articles of incorporation for an academy they called St. Olaf’s School. They chose the name to honor King Olav II Haraldsson of Norway(1016–1030), who was killed at the Battle of Stiklestad and is widely credited for Christianizing Norway. Classes began on January 8, 1875, and Thorbjorn N. Mohn became the school’s first principal.

Though St. Olaf was founded to support a liberal education drawing from the Norwegian Lutheran church, it did not begin with an official church connection. From the beginning, it was a coeducational institution; the first graduate of the academy was a woman, Marie Aaker. Another defining element of St. Olaf’s mission was the preservation of the Norwegian language and culture. Faith and religion featured prominently in coursework but did not dominate it.

In 1876, negotiations were completed to purchase thirty acres on Manitou Heights, which would become the permanent home of the school. St. Olaf officially became a college in 1889, and in 1890 it received the sponsorship of the United Norwegian Lutheran Church. The church, however, severed ties with St. Olaf three years later while attempting to resolve an ongoing dispute with Augsburg Seminary. Until the church rekindled its relationship with St. Olaf in 1899, Professor Halvor T. Ytterboe worked on behalf of the school to raise enough funds to keep it operating.

By the early 1900s, the college had a band, a choir and orchestra, a newspaper, a literary and debate society, and other student organizations. The band’s 1906 tour of Norway made the group the first American collegiate music ensemble to tour abroad. By 1912 there were a variety of additions to the campus, including a boys’ dormitory, a residence for the president, Steensland Library, a central power plant, Hoyme Memorial Chapel, a college hospital and farm, a bandstand, and a new dormitory for women.

The St. Olaf Choir, one of the college’s most widely known institutions, was founded in 1912 by F. Melius Christiansen. In 1913 it became the first American collegiate choir to tour abroad. It grew to become one of the premier collegiate acapella choirs in the country, and its annual “Christmas Fest” concert garners a wide audience at the school and on national broadcasts.

St. Olaf’s athletic teams grew in popularity in the early 1900s. Until 1917, athletic endeavors were organized by the student Athletic Association. Early sports included tennis, baseball, basketball, track and field, and, after much petitioning by students, football, in 1918. St. Olaf was one of the first American colleges to offer skiing and ski-jumping as a sport. The college was a charter member of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, or MIAC, which was established in 1920.

World War II brought big changes to the school. Enrollment decreased, dropping from 1,122 students in 1941 to 707 in 1943. In 1943 the college agreed to house a US Navy pre-flight preparatory school on the campus.

In 1958, St. Olaf joined nine other schools to create the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. The consortium was intended to help the schools work together to solve educational and financial problems.

St. Olaf maintained connections with its Norwegian roots throughout its history. Members of the Norwegian royal family visited the school over ten times between the 1930s and 2010s, including King Olav V; Crown Princess Märtha; Princess Astrid; King Harald V; and Queen Sonja. The school continues to offer degrees in Norwegian and Nordic studies.

The college celebrated its 125th anniversary in 1999. Its single largest construction project on campus to date, the student union Buntrock Commons, was dedicated on November 6 of the same year. The building continues to house dining areas, offices, a lecture hall and theater, conference rooms, and student entertainment spaces.

St. Olaf enacted a sustainability initiative around 1990. It built a wind turbine on campus to generate energy in 2005; in 2008, it completed its first LEED- (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified building, Regents Hall of Natural Science.

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Aasgaard, J. A. Quarter Centennial, 1874–1899: Souvenir of St. Olaf College. Northfield, MN: Northfield News Print, 1900.

Associated Colleges of the Midwest. ACM History.

Cooper, Michael. “St. Olaf Will Celebrate 125th Anniversary in ‘99.” Northfield News, 1999.

Gjerde, John. Norwegians in Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002.

National Register of Historic Places Digital Archive

——— . Old Main, St. Olaf College, 1976.

——— . Steensland Library, St. Olaf College, 1982.

Shaw, Joseph M. History of St. Olaf College, 1874–1974. Northfield, MN: St. Olaf College Press, 1974.

——— . Dear Old Hill: The Story of Manitou Heights, the Campus of St. Olaf College. Northfield, MN: St. Olaf College, 1992.

St. Olaf College. 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.

St. Olaf College. About the St. Olaf Choir.

St. Olaf College. Energy Conservation.

St. Olaf College. The History and Heritage of St. Olaf.

St. Olaf College. Regents Hall Featured in ‘The World’s Greenest Buildings.’

Ytterboe, H. T. Ole Voices No. 2: Etiquette 101. Edited by Jeff Sauve. Northfield, MN: St. Olaf Archives, 2011.

Related Images

aerial photograph of St. Olaf College campus
aerial photograph of St. Olaf College campus
Photograph of the St. Olaf Baseball team
Photograph of the St. Olaf Baseball team
Photograph of professors’ homes on St. Olaf Avenue
Photograph of professors’ homes on St. Olaf Avenue
St. Olaf College campus winter panorama
St. Olaf College campus winter panorama
Aerial view of St. Olaf College campus
Aerial view of St. Olaf College campus
Photograph of St. Olaf College bobsledders on campus
Photograph of St. Olaf College bobsledders on campus
Photograph of St. Olaf College campus windmill
Photograph of St. Olaf College campus windmill
Photograph of Old Main Hall
Photograph of Old Main Hall

Turning Point

St. Olaf’s School becomes St. Olaf College in 1889.



On November 6, a board of trustees signs articles of incorporation that create an academy called St. Olaf’s School.


Classes begin on January 8


On June 16, negotiations are completed for the purchase of thirty acres on Manitou Heights.


The first graduates of St. Olaf’s School are Marie Aaker and Esther Thompson.


St. Olaf’s Main Building is dedicated and opened to student use.


The first issue of the Manitou Messenger student newspaper is published in January


One June 20, the board of trustees passes a resolution to change the institution’s name from St. Olaf’s School to St. Olaf College (the school would go on to operate as a separate entity until ). Thorbjorn N. Mohn is named president


Anges Mellby becomes St. Olaf College's first woman graduate.


F. Melius Christiansen is named St. Olaf’s director of music. He founded the St. Olaf Orchestra in 1906 and the St. Olaf Choir in 1912.


The college agrees to house a Navy Pre-Flight prep school during World War II.


St. Olaf joins the Associated Colleges of the Midwest.


Old Main is added to the National Register of Historic Places (followed closely by Steensland Library in 1982).


St. Olaf celebrates its 125th anniversary.


St. Olaf becomes the first liberal arts college in the nation to construct a utility-grade wind turbine solely to provide energy to the campus.


Workers complete renovations of Holland Hall.