This Month in History: How Gustavus Adolphus College Came to St. Peter

In May of 1873, the Minnesota Conference of the Augustana Lutheran Synod convened in Saint Peter. Anticipating changes for St. Ansgar’s Academy, the new Swedish school located in East Union, in rural Carver County, Minn. The Conference was led by the school’s founder, Eric Norelius, who wanted to move the academy to Minneapolis where there were promises of land and money to help solidify the school’s future. The Conference accepted this plan, and at the same time changed the school’s name to the Gustavus Adolphus Literary and Theological Institute.

In 1877, Old Main stood as the only building at Gustavus. Gustavus Archives

The funds for a move to Minneapolis never came through, however, and the Conference had to postpone the move. In October of 1873, a delegation from the almost-state-capital Saint Peter led by Swedish immigrant Andrew Thorson approached the Conference. The group included four prominent Saint Peter business leaders—none of them Swedish or Lutheran. They asked whether the Conference would consider relocating the school to their community. Conference officials responded by appointing a committee to secure bids from towns that were interested and requiring a suitable site and $10,000. Thorson was instrumental in obtaining pledges from the town’s Swedish Lutheran Church, nearby Scandian Grove Lutheran Church, business leaders, and other prominent “Americans” (meaning non-Swedish citizens) in the area. Saint Peter’s bid was extremely generous in the hard times of 1873: ten acres of land on a hillside west of the town and a gift of $10,000. It was the only one received by the Conference.

The conference accepted the bid and construction was begun on the “Main” building on top of the town’s large hill. The school opened its doors for its first term and was renamed Gustavus Adolphus College on October 16, 1876. According to a 1930 Saint Peter Herald article, “Opening day found conditions quite chaotic. What little furniture there was was mostly borrowed!” Eric Norelius gave his dedication speech twice—once in Swedish and then again in English. Thus Gustavus Adolphus College  began here in St. Peter.

The Main building initially was the home of the whole college, a dormitory for the men, a modest library, a dining hall, a science hall, a classroom building and offices. In fact, the basement served as a home the for college president, the Rev. Jonas Nyquist and his family. Without the dedication of the townspeople of Saint Peter, Gustavus might be in the midst of a bustling Twin Cities area, as opposed to our quiet hill in the Minnesota River Valley.