By Kayla McGrady Berger '05

Like every college, Carleton has its legends, myths, and rumors—often passed along blithely by alumni and older students to the newbies. But how many of these tales are true? We discovered there’s more to myths than meet the eye.


meters.jpgMyth: Carleton’s first female students could be exempted from studying Greek because professors worried it might be too strenuous for them.

greek-statue.jpgIn Fact: Northfield College’s first freshman class enrolled in 1870 with three men and two women. During their first year, they studied mathematics, anatomy and physiology, Latin and Greek composition, and the classics. However, both women were allowed to substitute selected works of literature for Greek studies. (The academic catalog does not specify the reasoning behind the exemption.)

One woman left after only one term. Two of the men would later follow suit, leaving only Myra Brown and James Dow to graduate from the newly renamed Carleton College in 1874. (Six months later, they married each other.)

Because no other women enrolled before the exemption was eliminated in 1876, Myra Brown Dow was the only woman to graduate from Carleton under this rule.


mostlyfalse.jpgMyth: Carleton was almost founded on the shores of Lake Minnetonka in Excelsior, Minnesota.

In Fact: The Congregationalists who set out to establish a college in Minnesota briefly considered locating the school in Excelsior, but a few years later, they chose a site in Northfield instead. Carleton: The First Century states that “records do not support an assumption, long held in some circles, that Carleton had its origins in Excelsior.” 



unknown.jpgMyth: A group of pagans buried an evil obsidian sphere in the Arb.

Arb006.jpgIn Fact: According to legend, in the 1990s a local pagan group was given an obsidian sphere that had been imbued with negative energy, so the members buried it in the Arb to keep it from hurting anyone.

“An obsidian sphere would be an ideal form to contain a large amount of strongly spiritual energy—although the negativity would have come from a person bending his or her will on it, not from the obsidian itself,” says Kelly Reich ’05, an Eclectic Wiccan. “Burying the sphere would have allowed the energy to slowly and naturally dissipate into the neutral earth around it.” Reich recently attempted to locate the sphere in the Arb, using a combination of logic and magic, but was unsuccessful.


mostlytrue.jpgMyth: Carleton confiscated the already-printed 1929 Algol to remove a photograph of a naked student.

In Fact: A photograph of a mostly nude male student did appear in the 1929 Algol, in the ribald features section, which was titled “The Alc’hol of 1929.” Administrators confiscated at least 200 copies of the yearbook because the entire section “reflects discredit on women of the college and gives a false impression of student life and standards at Carleton and thereby injures the College and its reputation,” according to a faculty resolution.

Algol_1929_redacted.jpgA May 31, 1929, article in the Minneapolis Journal describes the scene: “A long line of students were waiting at a bookstore to get copies when two draymen appeared at the store with an order to confiscate the books. Two large boxes of the yearbooks were loaded onto the dray and taken to the treasurer’s office.”

Approximately 500 copies already had been distributed and, although administrators asked students to return the intact versions, we do know that at least one person did not.

David Jones ’66 inherited two copies of the 1929 Algol—one from each of his parents, Quentin Jones ’29 and Elizabeth McBride Jones ’31. He reports that one copy has the “Alc’hol” section, and the other doesn’t. “It looks to me as if somebody excised a number of pages from the ‘non-Alc’hol’ Algol,” he says.


false.jpgMyth: Goodhue Hall’s Arb-side rooms are smaller because the architect forgot to include bathrooms in the design and they had to be added at the last minute.

In Fact: Built in 1962, Goodhue was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, a prominent architect best known for his design of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. He also designed Carleton’s West Gym, Watson, Olin, and the fourth-floor addition to Myers. Far from being a novice, Yamasaki was a detail-oriented and innovative architect who completed several drafts of his Goodhue design—all of which had clearly labeled bathrooms.

The Carleton Archives contains draft designs from May 1960 that show an L-shaped building that is quite different from the dormitory that was eventually built. In this design, each upper floor has four large bathrooms and houses 50 students. There are no archived records as to why the design was modified, but each upper floor of the finished building has seven much smaller bathrooms and houses 53 students.



trueandfalsepenguin.jpgMyth: President Gould brought back from the Antarctic a live Emperor penguin, which he named Oscar. When it died, he had it stuffed and kept it in his office.

In Fact: While President Gould did bring a penguin he’d named Oscar back with him from the Antarctic, it was dead before it made the journey—Gould wanted a specimen, not a pet. Oscar now resides in a glass case in Gould Library.


false.jpgMusser_exterior.jpgMyth: Musser and Myers were built with National Defense Education funds to serve as fallout shelters or hospitals in case of nuclear attack.

In Fact: The construction of Musser and Myers in 1958 did mark the first time that Carleton used federal money for a building project, but the assistance came in the form of an $800,000 loan from the Housing and Home Finance Agency. Although there was no mention of any alternative uses for the new dormitories, the federal loan did require Carleton to utilize the dormitories “in such manner as will yield the maximum revenue of which such facilities are capable to the end that the Bonds may be adequately serviced.”



false.jpggossip.jpgMyth: Evans was built in columns to prevent gossip among female students.

In Fact: Evans’s interior design was intended to reduce noise to facilitate studying. Without a central hallway, the sound from conversations would not travel throughout the building. Evans, which opened in 1927, was modeled after the dormitories built a year earlier at Harvard Business School for graduate students who likely put a high premium on privacy.

According to Carleton: The First Century, the deans of women didn’t like Evans’s design because it “makes difficult the creation of floor esprit de corps.”

For this reason, first-year students haven’t been assigned to Evans for several decades.


meters.jpgMyth: A scene from a Hollywood movie was shot at Carleton.

In Fact: The food-fight scene from D3: The Mighty Ducks, released by Walt Disney Pictures in 1996, was shot in Severance Great Hall. While many scenes were shot at nearby Shattuck–St. Mary’s School in Faribault, Great Hall was chosen as the dining hall for the movie’s fictional boarding school.

“When the Minnesota Film and TV Board approached us, we almost said no,” says Joe Hargis, associate vice president for external relations. “But the production timetable changed so that they could shoot while classes weren’t in session, and it worked out.” Carleton was paid about $10,000 for the use of Great Hall. “Plus, we got a credit at the end of the movie,” says Hargis. “Priceless.”



false.jpgUntitled-1.jpgMyth: Carleton has always been on the trimester system.

In Fact: Although Carleton is known today as a leader in the liberal arts, this is one area where the College preferred to follow the lead of other schools. Carleton started out on the trimester system but switched to semesters in 1904 after faculty members persuaded the trustees that a “large and representative number” of U.S. colleges were already using semesters with positive results.

The College returned to the trimester system in 1961, again after other colleges—particularly Dartmouth College, which adopted trimesters three years earlier—had demonstrated its success. (Carleton’s long winter break debuted in 1974 as a way to reduce fuel costs during the 1970s energy crisis.)


false.jpgMyth: Carleton’s swimming requirement was instituted because a student drowned in Lyman Lakes.

In Fact: The drowning victim in this popular and prolific myth also has been a professor, a graduate, the child of a wealthy donor, and even the daughter of President Cowling—but none of these stories is true. Similar stories about campus drownings are so prevalent among higher ed institutions that has officially debunked them all.

Three people—including two students—have drowned in Lyman Lakes, but the swimming requirement was implemented in 1911, just after the new swimming pool in Sayles-Hill Gymnasium opened. That was five years before the man-made lakes were created.   

Carleton discontinued its swimming requirement in 2000.



trueandfalseMyth: Carleton’s male-to-female ratio was set at 45:55 to ensure that men could get dates.

In Fact: In the early 20th century, the ratio was 45:55 due to a much higher proportion of female applicants, but administrators considered this a bad thing, and Carleton struggled with its ratio throughout the Great Depression and World War II.

DatingBy 1958 the male applicant pool was so robust that trustees announced a plan to move the ratio toward 65:35 to support “Carleton’s contribution to important departments of our national life, especially science and public affairs, because of the proportionately higher number of its men who go into graduate work and careers in these fields.”

While the trustees also mentioned wanting to “improve the social environment on campus,” they were seeking dates for the women, not the men.

“There was much discussion during the late 1950s about how unhappy women were because there was little to do on Saturday nights if they didn’t have a date,” says College archivist Eric Hillemann. “Increasing the pool of men was seen as a way to address this social problem.”

Carleton’s current male-to-female ratio is 48:52.


  • January 25 2013 at 5:05 pm
    Tim Vick

    I believe that Dacie Moses told me back in the late 1970s that she was actually the person in the Treasurer's Office who was assigned to cut the offending picture out of the collected copies of the 1929 Algol.  But, she would chuckle, she made sure that a few copies made it through the process intact, some of which went to various college officers and one of which is still in the Algol collection in Dacie's living room today.  Dacie worked in the Treasurer's Office from 1919 until 1951 and she worked in the Library from 1952 through 1969.

  • April 14 2013 at 3:06 pm
    Emma Burd

    The story I've heard about Evans is that it had the columns installed during the 60's as a riot control measure, so that students couldn't privately gather in large groups and plan how to overthrow the college!

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