Part I – NWSA superintendents, and one young boy

    With permission from Dr. Albert Sims, Director of the Northwest Research and Outreach Center, I have him to thank for allowing me the privilege of peering into the past of the Northwest School of Agriculture (NWSA). I have looked at boxed up, well-worn documents from over a century ago concerning the former NWSA campus. Soon the originals will go to the U of M campus in St. Paul, Minnesota for safe storage. With the exception of a few people, most of these letters from the first three superintendents have not seen the light of day since they were boxed up.  The first letters date back to 1895. Maureen Aubol, who works directly under Dr. Sims, has helped both Phyllis Hagen and me with photocopying and scanning these primary sources of history. Representing the Polk County Historical Society as board members, we and other researchers will have access to the copies stored at the Carnegie building. With this series, I hope to share with my readers what I have learned over the past nine months.

    Those who know and care about the early beginnings of the Northwest School of Agriculture (NWSA) believe that the material I have been reading needs to be documented because it is rich with history. Not many people are left who graduated from this great agricultural high school in northwestern Minnesota.  The campus is currently known as a four-year university, the University of Minnesota Crookston (UMC). It closed its doors as a four-year Ag high school in 1966 with the last superintendent, Bernie Youngquist. After sixty years as the NWSA, it opened to a new era as a two-year technical college with Provost Stanley Sahlstrom as the leader.

    My volunteer work of reading old letters started June of 2017 and that phase will soon be over. The next phase is writing about the different themes that kept surfacing from NWSA’s beginning to when Supt. Selvig ended his time of leading in 1927. The dates of correspondence start in 1895 with the first ten years of Superintendent Torger Hoverstad, then Superintendent Robertson (1905-1910).  Superintendent Conrad S. Selvig, after 17 years, became a Representative for Minnesota 9th district in 1927. After reading his volumes of letters, I have likened Supt. Selvig to being a “Marketing Machine.” He was not unlike Dr. Stanley Sahlstrom, both seemed to have blood that flowed maroon and gold.  Superintendent Selvig loved his Ag school and he wanted his higher ups in the Twin Cities to know NWSA was an entity to be recognized.

    This series begins about NWSA as a place where today’s people in the 21st century will be able to see what obstacles the earlier educators were up against. Those students who attend this beautiful campus or those who come from afar to teach or work at UMC know the building names such as Youngquist, Sahlstrom, Sargeant, Skyberg, Bede, Brown and others. Not much is known about the people. Little is known about Superintendent Torger Hoverstad and with this series I want to bring his work to the forefront. It took pure grit for Hoverstad to see through the struggles of the first ten years from 1895-1905. Supt. Hoverstad changed a former duck pond, bequeathed by James J. Hill, to a well-respected experiment station and state farm and eventual place of higher education. We need to learn how Hoverstad held on that long because similar problems exist today.

    I knew as I sifted through the brittle papers yellowed with age that something would have to be written. However, after months of reading I did not think there was anything for me to share until I got into a box of letters from 1918. From a century ago, I KNEW this was my starting point to share. After eight years of being the NWSA Superintendent, Conrad Selvig had found his stride of leadership in northwestern Minnesota. He was a detail-oriented man who communicated very well through letters. As a composition teacher, I not only pay attention to style and purpose in writing but also grammar and spelling. Of the thousands of Selvig letters I have read, I have found only a few errors.  He made sure that he had good secretaries and some of his favorite phrases were “immediately, put a rush on it, as soon as possible, without delay.”  He was a man of action and Selvig was highly sought after to head different organizations besides leading NWSA.

    What struck me was the fact that Supt. Selvig was a man, not only of passion, but also of compassion. As I was reading the 1918 boxes of letters, Selvig had a running dialog with Superintendent C.E. Faulkner of the Washburn Memorial Orphan Asylum in Minneapolis.  I was encouraged to see the styles of two good letter writers who eventually met but first knew each other through their correspondence.

    Both administrators Selvig and Faulkner cared about their young charges and in this case, C.E. Faulkner was answering a query of Selvig’s. It concerned James Felber who was about to graduate from 8th grade. Faulkner wrote the following about James in Jan. 12, 1918: “He wants to be a farmer. He went out, tried it, and liked it. I believe that it is best for him. It would not be fair to him to send him to the farm as he is. If he goes from the Farm School, he will be able to ‘hoe his own row.’”

    Faulkner continued in the same vein to “My dear Mr. Selvig” on Feb. 15, 1918 when he wrote, “Observation during a long experience satisfied me that the only right way for city bred boys to farm, lies through the farm school. The haste, waste, failure and injustice incident to haphazard methods of home finding, advertise their own condemnation.” Throughout the months leading up to fall registration the two superintendents discussed how to find Crookston homes for a few boys who are too young to enter the 9th grade of the NWSA. Several other boys who are at the Orphan Asylum were already ready to enter if they worked at the State Farm to pay their tuition.

    I will end with a boy named Joseph Kinning. He was younger and stayed with a family in Crookston before he was old enough to room and board at NWSA.  Faulkner addressed his letter to Selvig on Sept. 17, 1918 with his first sentence, “I sincerely hope that you will not become tired of your duties as a foster father to the boys who are trying to win their way to self-support through the aid of your institution.”

    On November 9, 1918, Selvig wrote to Faulkner in a businesslike way, as was his usual style, “Joseph asks me whether we can make arrangements for him to go home Christmas. I take it he means Minneapolis. If he merely refers to coming here, we will be glad to try to arrange for that.”  Faulkner responded a week later, “I am writing this to say that I do not think it would be best for Joseph or any of the boys to come to the Twin Cities during the holidays. It will be very nice indeed if you can plan a coming together for Christmas at your place.”

    Next week I will reveal what may have happened to Joseph Kinning because he went missing in December of 1918.  In a few cases, the subsequent boxes of correspondence are not there to know what actually happened to young boys like Joseph.  I guess that is what has kept me going these last nine months as I have skimmed and read each piece of correspondence.  Seemingly, these two men, Selvig and Faulkner cared deeply about the welfare of these children that had been orphaned, maybe one of the parents died during WWI or some other tragedy happened. After all, NWSA was about the farm students’ future. What happened to Joseph Kinning is what I will share next week. I am glad that today’s UMC administrators still care about their students’ welfare.

    Kristina Gray is a local author and historian, and a faculty member at the University of Minnesota Crookston.