Law books or piano? There was not room for both when John and Ann North planned their move from New York to St. Anthony in Minnesota territory in 1849. Ann’s piano won and the law books were shipped later. In 1855, John North founded Northfield and they left St. Anthony for their new home here by bobsled Jan. 1, 1856, despite 44 degrees below zero temperatures. In this way, Ann North’s piano made its way to town and Northfield’s rich musical history commenced. Ann North would play and sing at local meetings, including the dedication of the school house on Nov. 7, 1856.
In October 1856, the townspeople formed a Lyceum at this school house “to create a taste for literature and a thirst for knowledge,” with John North as its first president. A year later, on Nov. 4, 1857, the Lyceum had its own building at 109 E. Fourth St., which today still stands as Northfield’s oldest building. It was a community center, providing a place for debate, a library (with 269 volumes by 1858) and entertainment. A thirst for music was answered by the Lyceum, as each meeting opened with singing. When Hiram Scriver (the city’s first mayor and builder of the stone building which now houses the Northfield Historical Society) was the secretary of the Lyceum, he noted in the minutes, “Our choir reflects great credit on the musical ability of Northfield.”
The Lockwood Opera House was established at 419 Division St. in 1872 for amateur, professional and variety shows and in 1899, the opening of the Ware Auditorium (now the Grand) greatly expanded entertainment opportunities for the town, including musical events.
In 1875, Northfield had a music teacher, Miss May Martin, and St. Olaf School’s inaugural term at the start of that year included instruction in piano, organ and a vocal class. Students formed “St. Olaf’s Sangkor” on Dec. 3 with 28 males and nine females. However, by April 1876, the choir officers decided to join a new gymnastics club, instead, and the choir ended, thereby missing the opportunity to be considered the progenitor of the famed St. Olaf Choir. This same spring, music teacher Ella Fiske, one of the three first faculty members, and her students presented vocal and instrumental entertainment for St. Olaf School. In 1878, a Haydn Chorus Society was organized with about 60 participants from Carleton and Northfield and in 1880, the Department of Music at Carleton became the first department to have its own building.
In March 1888, the Manitou Messenger reported, “Song choirs are springing into existence and are as long-lived as May flies, an ephemeral insect which our prospective zoologists will be able to fully describe.” Two years later, a St. Olaf student obtained some discarded instruments from the town and organized a band, which led to the establishment of a 14-member, all-male St. Olaf cornet band in October 1891. A St. Olaf orchestra was formed with 18 members in 1894.
In 1903, F. Melius Christiansen was engaged as music director at St. Olaf, a fortuitous choice. By the time he handed over the baton to his son, Olaf, in 1944, St. Olaf’s choral musical reputation was firmly established. He was also the director of the 46-member, all-male St. Olaf Band, which was the first American collegiate musical group to tour in Norway in 1906, introducing the saxophone and baseball to the land of many of their ancestors. The St. John’s Lutheran Church Choir, which Christiansen also directed, toured Wisconsin and Illinois in the spring of 1912 and is considered to be the start of the St. Olaf Choir. The first Christmas festival was held on Dec. 17, 1912.
Meanwhile at Carleton, an orchestra was formed in 1908, giving its first concert in the spring of 1909. An annual May Fete began on May 22, 1909, featuring marches, dances, singing by a glee club, ice cream and crowning of May Queen. By the 1920s this fete at Lyman Lakes was said to attract more outside visitors to Carleton than any other event. In 1912, Carleton’s School of Music became a Conservatory of Music and was able to grant Bachelor of Music degrees. A Music Hall, built in 1914, was called the best building in the United States devoted to music.
Two big names associated with early Carleton music history are Frederick “Daddy” Lawrence and Jimmy Gillette. Lawrence returned to Carleton in 1912 to be professor of piano, organ, composition and director of the college choir, which sang at the Congregational Church. A noted composer, he stayed until 1937. In 1923, Jimmy Gillette came to Carleton as professor of organ, becoming the college organist and department chairman, and gaining a national reputation directing the Carleton Symphony Band on cross-country tours. He is believed to be first American composer to write symphonies for wind bands.
Northfield High School’s early musical history can be summed up in one name: Paul Stoughton. He came to Northfield in 1935, using whatever space he could find for music lessons, including a large broom closet. He became director of music and served as director of the band from 1935 to 1959, the choir from 1937 to 1954 and the orchestra from 1952 to 1973. He retired in 1973.
As for student dancing, an early Lyceum debate topic was “Resolved: That dancing is a proper amusement of young people.” The proposition carried 20-3, “after its discussion socially and politically from Adam to our progenitors.” Carleton allowed dancing for the first time in 1918-19 as a “war measure” to raise the spirits of cadets on campus. On Dec. 9, 1915, St. Olaf added dancing to its list of prohibited activities when two students attended a dance at the dedication of the town armory and said they knew of no rule against it. It wasn’t until 1961 that St. Olaf allowed social dancing on campus. Only square dances, called “square gaming” to distinguish them from dances, were allowed previously.
Information and photos for this story were found in the archives of the Northfield Historical Society and Carleton College.