The slogan is emblazoned on signage off the highways leading into Northfield: “City of Cows, Colleges, and Contentment.” Within 20 years of the city’s own founding, two colleges — then only three blocks from one another — had cropped up along the banks of the Cannon. Even before Jesse James and his gang tried to rob the First National Bank, the burgeoning institutions that would become the Carleton and St. Olaf Colleges were educating the young city of Northfield.
Like the slogan itself, the city has evolved significantly over the course of its 167-year history. And for 147 of those nearly 175 years, Northfield had at least one college to help guide its forward progress.
Read on to learn about the initial history of the city and its two colleges, their early development, recent collaborative efforts, and how they will continue to grow into the future.
The beginning years
Carleton College, the 955-acre campus on the east side of the Cannon River, started originally as Northfield College. In the fall of 1867, students flocked to the former American Hotel to attend classes. However, the hotel posed many physical and financial challenges. In 1871, the emerging college was able to move to its first building after a generous $50,000 donation by Massachusetts brass ware manufacturer William Carleton and $10,000 gift from Susan Willis Carleton.
Four years later, the college graduated its first two students, James J. Dow and Myra A. Brown, who married six months later, beginning the beloved phrase “Carls marry Carls.”
Since its inception, the college has been deeply integrated into Northfield. This was palpably felt in 1876, as Carleton College treasurer Joseph Lee Heywood was fatally shot in the Jesse James Gang’s raid at First National Bank.
The first edition of the Carletonian was issued by the Philomathian Society in 1877. The publication still stands today as the student newspaper of record at Carleton College.
On the other side of the river, a group of Norwegian-American pastors and farmers wanted to develop a school that would offer a program of liberal studies to students. Under the leadership of Pastor Bernt Julius Muus, the founders modeled the school after Norwegian national and religious symbolism. The school aimed to celebrate the Norwegian immigrant community residing in Northfield, centering around the merits and identity of the Nordic Middle Ages.
In 1887, St. Olaf students published the first edition of the Manitou Messenger, the publication which was renamed The Olaf Messenger in 2020. St. Olaf School was then changed to St. Olaf College in 1889, with the first class graduating in 1890.
Over the course of the 21st century, St. Olaf and Carleton have sought to physically expand in a number of ways, interacting closely with Northfield development authorities and neighborhood councils to foster the expansion in as integrative a way as possible. They have both grown their natural lands recently, occupying more environmental space on the city’s outskirts.
An example of expansion within the city is Carleton’s development of the Weitz Center for Creativity, which opened in the fall of 2011. The building that currently houses the Weitz Center, located next to Northfield’s Central Park a few blocks away from the main Carleton campus, served as a middle school and high school for the city over the course of its over 100-year history. Carleton, which purchased the building in 2005, sought to preserve the historical elements of the space during its redesign. The space now acts as a “working laboratory for creativity — not only in the arts, but across the entire curriculum,” according to Carleton’s website, while also hosting community events such as movie screenings.
Further direct recent collaborative efforts between Carleton and St. Olaf span a wide range of causes. In 2014, the colleges jointly launched the “Broadening the Bridge” initiative, a collaborative initiative to “extend [Carleton and St. Olaf’s] reach to one another” by awarding grants to build “shared projects and courses” leading to “collaborative academic models.”
The program came about after the colleges received a $1.4M grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; within the first year, Broadening the Bridge developed its first collaborative class, a political science course taught by Professor Greg Marfleet at Carleton.
Funding through the initiative also helped promote other curricular collaborations. For a time the colleges offered team-taught courses, where a professor from each college would jointly instructor a collaborative class. The colleges have a co-registration system. And while Carleton doesn’t offer licensing for education majors, St. Olaf does, so the educational studies departments at the two colleges often collaborate to assist Carleton students receive educational licensure.
Administratively, Broadening the Bridge further encouraged the colleges to create joint positions which would be individually too expensive for the colleges to afford. St. Olaf and Carleton share digital security and environmental safety staff, two fields that require high and pricey expertise. As well, students at either college can access dining halls at the other school through a shared identification card system.
Many joint efforts followed, including a jointly-curated exhibition of Japanese art, and a lengthy series of talks surrounding “the Future of Publishing” that spanned the 2017-2018 school year.
Before the colleges’ administrations collaborated to build academic engagement, its students joined forces in the early 1990s to tackle an increasingly visible social issue: The HIV/AIDS pandemic. Despite growing student outcry, St. Olaf did not provide condoms to its students (staff perceieved the college’s affiliation with the Lutheran church as contradictory to any such efforts). Spurred on by Jonathan Fierer, the first openly HIV-positive Ole, St. Olaf’s student body worked with Carleton’s HIV/AIDS Awareness organization to launch Condoms Across The Cannon. The program began in November of 1990 and, according to the Carletonian, “enabled Carleton students to mail condoms to St. Olaf students.” The colleges seem to have placed their rivalries on hold: Richard Greene ‘91, then a senior, identified the project as a “show [of] solidarity and support,” recounting that “[w]e sent 170 in one day.” Tonya Hennen ‘93, then a sophomore, theorized that “Carleton is supposed to be a liberal campus… since St. Olaf was doing this protest, [I thought] helping them out might improve relations… We are trying to help them out, not to mock them in any way.”
Both colleges’ administrations opposed the program—Carleton’s for economic reasons; St. Olaf’s for moral reasons. Furthermore, Carleton still charged its students ten cents per condom. Nevertheless, Carls weathered the costs, buying in bulk and, at one point, causing the college to sell out entirely. Far from a drop in the bucket, this new initiative kept free safe-sex resources flowing from Carleton to St. Olaf: Several years into the program, a Carletonian article dated November 1995 recounts a recent Friday when “over a hundred St. Olaf students, faculty, and administrators received a latex condom with accompanying literature.” By 2003, St. Olaf had begun distributing prophylactics to its students.
Leadership of the two colleges have sought to promote these recent collaborative efforts.
Current St. Olaf President David Anderson ’74, who is set to retire at the end of the next academic year, has led St. Olaf through three tenures of Carleton presidents.
“I have had warm working relationships with all three of the Carleton Presidents during my tenure at St. Olaf,” Anderson wrote in an email to the Messenger. “It’s been exciting to explore the many ways in which we can make both colleges stronger by cooperating in ways big and small.”
Academically, the most tangible relationship between the two colleges is the inter-library loan program, which allows students at either college to request materials from either library. Anderson highlighted the program as one example among many of the two colleges’ linkage.
“The close relationship between our two libraries is the best example of that, but the many other networks that exist between our two colleges has made both institutions better,” Anderson wrote.
Look to the future
As Northfield continues to become more upscale with denser development projects like the 5th Street Lofts apartments downtown and businesses like Little Joy and Loon Liquors, it’s clear that the city is positioning itself to remain economically relevant as the Colleges themselves continue to expand.
Enrollments at both Carleton and St. Olaf have remained relatively stable over the past 10 years, hovering at around 3,000 students for St. Olaf and 2,000 for Carleton. Yet an oncoming demographic cliff, set to hit in 2025, has forced Carleton, St. Olaf, and colleges across the country into preparing for lower enrollment and, subsequently, lower tuition revenue.
St. Olaf is about to finish work on a new dorm and 13 townhouses on the avenue leading up to the school that, according to current St. Olaf President David Anderson ’74, “has the potential to be truly transformative for the College” once the project is done. The dorm will expand student housing options, especially for older students, and allow existing dorms to be renovated in a more sustainable way.
Carleton is undergoing a similar housing project, although it is not set to expand the scope of student housing on their campus as radically as St. Olaf’s. The focus of Carleton’s own housing project is to provide a significant update to what has been determined to be an outdated set of current student housing options, according to a presentation from Carleton Dean of Students Carolyn Livingston that announced, “80 percent of residential houses were built prior to 1930 and have not had a major renovation and require capital investments in the near future.”
Structural investment in college spaces is a continuous process, yet these two recent housing projects at the two colleges highlight the newfound emphasis placed on a more sustainable model of college development in the face of the demographic cliff and other generational trends. This trend isn’t unique to Carleton, St. Olaf, or other colleges. The general infrastructure around the U.S. seems to be crumbling, and the development of new housing at Carleton and St. Olaf is a response to a dire need for updating.
Whether or not enrollment at the two college’s will rise in the future in alignment with these housing updates remains to be seen. Yet, if college enrollment in any way follows the city of Northfield’s population trends, then the student population of Northfield could be looking up.
Northfield has grown nearly 5% since 2010 when it recorded a population total of 20,007 people. The most recent census places Northfield at a population of 20,790. This 10-year increase represents a relatively steeper growth trend than in previous decades, thanks at least in part to the city’s efforts to diversify its population and invite a newer, younger generation to the town, which had previously had a particularly elderly bend.
Leadership changes at the two schools will also guide Northfield and the Colleges alike into the future. Alison R. Byerly became president of Carleton in August 2021. Anderson is set to retire as president of St. Olaf in May 2023.
Anderson highlighted a favorite example of the relationship between Carleton and St. Olaf — his aesthetic collaboration with former Carleton president Steven Poskanzer.
This year, Alison Byerly replaced Steven Poskanzer as president of Carleton College, and current St. Olaf President David Anderson ’74 is will see his tenure come to an end after the next academic year. Anderson’s time at St. Olaf has seen three different presidents pass through Carleton; an anecdote highlights the fruitful collaboration between the two college’s leaders that will assuredly continue into the future.
“President Poskanzer and I traded school ties, and he would occasionally wear his St. Olaf tie and I would wear my Carleton tie,” Anderson wrote. “These are the ties that bind.”
This piece was put together as a joint effort between the Olaf Messenger and the Carletonian.
Jake Maranda and Claire Strother, The Olaf Messenger
Simran Kadam and Ben Moore, The Carletonian