Thorson Hall Hillside

"I wanted to make St. Olaf so nice no student would ever have to apologize for it," said John Berntsen, former head of the St. Olaf College grounds. He retired in 1964 after fifty-two years of devoted service. One of his pet projects over the mid 1930s to early 1950s was the quarter-mile southern hillside below Thorson Hall, which occasionally had been used as a pasture.

His project was not without conflict as the college treasurer, Peter O. Holland, wanted to invest in the college's prized Holstein herd instead. Convinced that beautifying the hill was necessary, Berntsen moved forward against administrative opposition and built up the unfriendly, white silica sand hill that held little vegetation. Berntsen once admitted, "Sometimes I tried to push faster than others wanted."

He sent to Maine for evergreen seedlings and established a nursery for the college. Over time, Berntsen hauled tons of soil and fertilizer to the hill and planted more than 600 trees, including Norway spruce, Silver spruce, Black Hills spruce and some flowering crabs and lilacs.

The trees, like sentinels that tower on the edge of the athletic fields, endure decades later, while Holland's Holsteins have long parted ways. The poetry of Berntsen's vision is simply and unapologetically beautiful when the evergreens are cloaked in light snow as students walk by admiring one man's legacy.

Images

Winter Coat for Thorson Hall Hill

Winter Coat for Thorson Hall Hill

Thorson Hall is named after Harold Thorson (1841-1920), a Northfield merchant and one of the founders of St. Olaf College. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives View File Details Page

Before The Pines, 1936

Before The Pines, 1936

The south slope of the future Thorson Hall hillside shows little vegetation and a fenced in pasture. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives | Creator: 1936-1937 Student Annual, Viking View File Details Page

Plantings on Thorson Hillside, ca. 1938

Plantings on Thorson Hillside, ca. 1938

John Berntsen, head of St. Olaf gounds, hauled tons of soil and fertilizer to the hill and planted more than 600 trees, including Norway spruce, Silver spruce, Black Hills spruce and some flowering crabs and lilacs. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives | Creator: Robert A. Honnette View File Details Page

Stairway to Heaven, ca. 1946

Stairway to Heaven, ca. 1946

That's not snow, but rather white silica sand that forms the hill. John Berntsen, head of grounds, proved his landscape vision of planting evergreens in the mid-1930s was timed well by the completion of Thorson Hall and dedication in 1948. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives View File Details Page

Thorson Hall, 1949

Thorson Hall, 1949

This photograph provides an interesting view of the hillside when the landscaping was near completion. Today, towering pines dwarf the hillside and lilacs scent the spring air. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives View File Details Page

John Berntsen, Head of St. Olaf College Grounds

John Berntsen, Head of St. Olaf College Grounds

"I wanted to make St. Olaf so nice no student would ever have to apologize for it," said John Berntsen, former head of the St. Olaf College grounds. He retired in 1964 after fifty-two years of devoted service. | Source: St. Olaf College Archives View File Details Page

Current View: Thorson Hillside

Current View: Thorson Hillside

Spring view of the pines on the Thorson hillside. | Creator: Melanie Jones, May 5, 2015 View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Jeff M. Sauve, “Thorson Hall Hillside,” NorthfieldHistorical, accessed March 29, 2017, http://northfieldhistorical.org/items/show/46.
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