Turning the Eagle

Melanie M. Jones

What do St. Olaf College, Carleton College, and a downtown Northfield Civil War monument adorned with an iron eagle all have in common? Jim Walsh, a blogger for the St. Olaf College Ole Touchdown Club, explained in a blog post after the two rival colleges met once again in 2014 for their annual clash:

“The most prideful aspect of the St. Olaf/Carleton rivalry is ‘turning the eagle.’ . . . The winning team walks to the square [Bridge Square] and the seniors each turn the eagle until it is pointing to the respective campus. No one seems to know when or why this tradition started, but it means a lot to the players and those who live in Northfield.”

On July 4, 1921, the city of Northfield dedicated the gray and pink marble monument to “The Soldiers and Sailors who saved the Union, 1861-1865.” By the early 1930s, both colleges celebrated their respective homecoming football games by “snake dancing” or parading to downtown Northfield. To show school spirit, the eagle was turned to face the respective school.

By unfortunate scheduling, on October 10, 1942, St. Olaf and Carleton celebrated their homecomings on the same day. The evening before, the Oles and Knights held their pep fests and then sent forth their snake dancers. Inevitably, they confronted one another on the Fourth Street bridge. Vonnie Ekholm Norum ’45 recalled the melee:

“The snake dances broke up and it was quite hectic in the dark. I remember little freshman beanies being thrown in the river and a boy climbing the statue in the middle of the square yelling, ‘Oles on top.’ He was pulled down, and another climbed up yelling, ‘Carleton on top.’ I don’t remember more as the girls got out of there quickly and went for a snack. But we had some serious lectures at chapel about being good sports.”

After World War II, the current tradition of “turning the eagle” developed between the two colleges. Since that time the eagle has swapped its view many times, including streaks for both sides: Knights from 1990 to 1996; and Oles from 1964 to 1980 and 1997 to 2007.

As of 2014, the eagle faces St. Olaf’s Manitou Heights. But the tradition may change as the city of Northfield contemplates renovating Bridge Square; a few redevelopment plans call for moving the monument to another site, eagle and all.