Thorson Hall Hillside

Jeff M. Sauve

“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.