The Priceless Photographs of Ole G. Felland – St. Olaf College

STORIES: The priceless photographs of Ole G. Felland

Professor St. Olaf Ole G. Felland took this photo from inside Steensland Hall on February 19, 1907.

Sfrom Steensland Hall was built in 1902, the two decorative white owls perched on its portico have seen countless people come and go. Probably the person most familiar to them in their early years was none other than the venerable St. Olaf Professor Ole G. Felland, who joined the faculty in 1881, teaching mainly ancient languages. A decade later he took on additional duties as the college’s chief librarian, a position he held until his retirement in 1926 at the age of 73.

A dedicated amateur photographer since the mid-1880s, Felland was always ready with his camera. His goddaughter, Edel Ytterboe Ayers, recalled in her book The former principal (1969) that on almost every special occasion in college, “he would be there with his big camera atop a high tripod. To me, he always seemed to be hiding behind a piece of black cloth.

Over a period of more than 40 years, Felland took more than 1,600 photographs, documenting the campus and its development. The unique collection depicts the lives of students and faculty, significant events, facilities, landscapes and the surrounding Northfield region. Ayers added, “At that time we didn’t have enough common sense to realize he was doing a complete history of St. Olaf College in pictures. These photographs are now priceless.

An interesting photo taken by Felland on February 19, 1907, provides some intrigue concerning the interior of Steensland at this time.

Sitting at the reception reading a book is Professor Agnes Mellby, St. Olaf’s first female graduate, class of 1893. A faculty member when enrolled, Mellby taught history and German and served as a “tutor” or Dean of Women until 1909. Sadly, she died in 1918 after a brief illness. Recognized for her unwavering support for the college during her lifetime, a women’s dormitory was named after her in 1938.

Prominently displayed on reception is a handsome Bust portrait of Henrik Johan Ibsen, the famous Norwegian playwright of the late 19th century. Sculpted by Jacob Fjelde in 1885, Ibsen sat patiently for the young artist who created several interpretations, one of which was shown at the college in Ålesund, Norway on July 13, 1906.

By this time, the 48-member St. Olaf Band had embarked on an incredibly ambitious tour of Norway – 26 concerts during the month of July, performing to an estimated total of 62,000 people. Concert attendees included the Norwegian royal family and Prime Minister Christian Michelsen. The excursion holds the distinction as the first American college instrumental music organization to hold a concert tour overseas.

At the Ålesund Evening Concert, a packed house of 1,400 festively dressed men and women greeted the St. Olaf Band with great enthusiasm. During the intermission, Ibsen’s bust was accepted by St. Olaf President John N. Kildahl. According to the tour director, Harry Randall, Kildahl remarked: ‘I would like, on behalf of the students, to thank you for this beautiful gift. We will take him home and find him the best place of honor in our school.

In the middle of the library sits a plaster cast of the Apollo Belvedere on a pedestal. Presented by the senior members of the class of 1902, the sculpture was located under the central dome in pink stained glass. Donors hoped she would appear as a “radiant apparition” to all. The tradition of the annual senior class gift continues to the present day.

White birch bookcases are almost full. When Felland was appointed librarian in 1891, the college catalog consisted of 600 volumes, with barely seven hundred in the treasury. By 1907, when he photographed the interior of the Steensland Library, the catalog had grown to 6,000 titles, taking up 85% of the space on the shelves. The situation worsened in the years to come as thousands of additional volumes were added.

Surplus books were relegated to Steenland’s basement or stored in various locations on campus, including the president’s office at Old Main. By 1916, Felland fully acknowledged that the fine library had “become far too small and extra space was badly needed”. His words were heard, but campus misfortunes in the 1920s and the Great Depression of the 1930s stalled construction of the Rolvaag Memorial Library until 1942. Felland did not live to see it built, having died in 1938. In 1966, a wing of the library was named after him.

The collection of Felland glass negatives, housed in the Rolvaag Library College Archive, has recently been professionally restored, digitized and put online. Learn more about Felland’s negative preservation work, including the role St. Olaf students played in the process, in this St. Olaf News article.

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