Hillcrest's History Shines Torch of Christian Ed. During Dark Times in Depression

President E.M. Broen of the Lutheran Brethren Schools continually faced cash flow troubles throughout the 1920s and 1930s. For President Broen, upkeep on the aging Grand Forks school building and its grounds proved to be a challenge.

The Grand Forks building is pictured days before Hillcrest staff loaded teaching materials in vehicles to transport to their new home in Fergus Falls, MN.

The campus was nice enough. It had two main buildings and ample space—more than two square blocks, which provided room for future growth. Its location next to Lincoln Park provided access to tennis courts, a golf course, and picnic grounds, as well as toboggan slides and skating rinks.

President Broen considered a new men’s dormitory to be a necessity, to be built “as soon as the necessary funds” could be obtained. The main building, constructed in 1891, required constant upkeep. The women’s dormitory, built in 1900, had room for fifty young ladies.

The famed ski jump in Grand Forks was captured in countless scrapbooks from alumni who attended Hillcrest in the first two decades of the school.

President Broen had to work on fund-raising immediately upon the school’sarrival in Grand Forks in 1918. The “immediate needs of the Bible School” amounted to roughly $17,000. In 1919, the school’s administration held a major fundraising campaign to cover the building and renovation costs, as well as to pay off some of the debts incurred from the purchase of the Grand Forks site.

The money-raising committee, made up of members of the Grand Forks Commercial Club (like a modern-day Chamber of Commerce) and church members, garnered pledges worth $10,000 within a short time.

Numerous advertising campaigns promoted the Bible School throughout Minnesota and North Dakota during the difficult financial times of the '20s and '30s. 

Lutheran academies in general declined in numbers in the 1920s. Public high schools were perceived as having improved both the quality of their buildings and of their instruction from former years, and some parents became averse to sending their children away to boarding schools in their midteen years. Of the roughly ninety-nine Lutheran academies that existed in the United States in 1920, just fifty-five remained in operation by 1930.

The Lutheran Brethren school administration faced a crossroads in 1926. Bills at the school kept piling up, and yearly deficits kept growing larger from 1919 to 1926. By the end of that span, the total debt surpassed $26,000.

The school, despite its vital spiritual mission in Christian education, was on the road to ruin. In that fateful year, at the national church convention, the school’s Board of Trustees reluctantly advised the convention delegates to close either the Bible School or the high school, in order for the school to survive the financial crisis.

The difficult times of the Great Depression (1929–1940) tested the faith and determination of individuals and institutions alike. The convention prayerfully vowed to keep both schools in operation, and then hired Reverend R.S. Gjerde, a 1910 Bible School graduate and the synod president at the time, to be a serious fundraiser who would wipe out the accumulated debts.

When Pastor Gjerde contacted the faithful people of the synod, they responded, soberly and sacrificially, with $27,000 in “cash and pledges” by 1927. The Lutheran Bible School and academy became debt-free, but only for a short time. The Stock Market crashed in 1929, a symptom of deeper economic troubles both nationwide and worldwide. In the 1930s, enrollment at the high school declined, as families who might have sent their children to the private Christian school faced reduced income from farms, businesses, or other work as the economy fell apart. Fewer students meant less revenue for the school; it was a time of financial crisis.

E.M. Broen was a cherished teacher whose love for missions and students fostered the DNA of Hillcrest and their mission-minded classrooms that continues to this day.

E.M. Strom, who taught Bible classes and Norwegian language classes at the school, witnessed all of the fiscal troubles during the Grand Forks years. “The trying years” of the Great Depression, wrote Pastor Strom, “caused our synod to pass through painful trials and agony. The financial burdens were so heavy that it seemed humanly impossible to continue our school and our mission program.”

A solution seemed “humanly impossible” and “all doors were closed,” Strom wrote, “the leaders of our synod called together the Christians from far and near to spend a few days in prayer and study of the Word.” At the prayer day that took place in Grand Forks, they prayed for a way to navigate through their financial crisis.

At another meeting, held in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, the synod had to “decide whether or not [they] could continue to carry on the work of the school.” The problems seemed “insurmountable.” As E.M. Strom recalled, “When most of us were almost ready to vote in favor of closing the doors of the school,” then Pastor Broen, who had helped found the school way back in 1903 and who had led it through turmoil and triumphs, with an investment of faith, prayer, and energy, stood to address their fainting hearts.

With tears in his eyes, Pastor Broen said, “Brethren, I believe that the Bible School has a mission to perform. I dare not vote to lay it down.” The churchmen determined to keep the schools open. And the teachers helped—they wrote a letter.

They gave the letter to Pastor Strom to deliver to the church leaders with a promise to “continue as the Lord provided.” Some of the teachers “cancelled their salaries,” and all taught without full salary in order to help the school operate from 1929 through 1935. All understood that the school was in danger of closing.

E.M. Broen, pictured with a handful of the Hillcrest and Bible School faculty, watched his staff carry his vision for Hillcrest Academy by going with no or reduced-pay for five years during some of Hillcrest's darkest times financially.

In 1931, the teachers agreed to keep on teaching “even without a guaranteed salary.” In the 1932-1933 school year, the teachers and administration had a total of $1,930 of salary left unpaid. In the 1933-1934 school year, they were paid less than half of their contracted salaries. They had been paid a total of $4,776.32, but $5,871 had been left unpaid. In the 1934-1935 school year, the teachers were paid a total of $5,647.40, with a total of $4,196.44 left unpaid.

A glimmer of hope came at the 1935 national convention of the Lutheran Brethren Church. Delegates from Brooklyn, Chicago, Seattle, and from other Lutheran Brethren congregations heard the school committee report on deficits and declining enrollments, and came to understand that the “present building [was] very inadequate and sadly in need of repair.” John Kilde, a businessman from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and a man of deep faith, gave information about a unique opportunity available in his city. Kilde said that a beautiful and commodious building located there, a former college, could be bought for a “very reasonable” price.

The building was made of red brick and had been built on a hilltop in southeastern Fergus Falls. Four and one-half stories in height, with roof spires reaching even higher in the sky, the brick structure had been an architectural landmark in the area since its construction in 1901. The building also had a 1926 addition, when the Park Region Luther College had added locker rooms, an auditorium, and twelve more classrooms, at a total cost of $32,175.

The building was available because its original occupant went bankrupt in 1932. It had carried too much debt in the depths of the Depression. The price was extremely low—the $26,000 price tag was less than the cost of the 1926 addition to the original college building.

The convention voted to appoint a committee to look into the possibility. The committee acknowledged that it would take some money to get it ready for occupancy, and that it would be costly to move from Grand Forks to Fergus Falls.

The synod leaders asked all of its member churches to “discuss the matter and make their decision known to the president of the synod.” The people of the church discussed it and voted “approximately three to one in favor of the move.” The synod’s board members deliberated for several hours and finally voted in favor of the proposed purchase, again by a three to one count.

Children gathered to watch the historic Hillcrest building demolition after the Board of Trustees moved to tear the building down and sell the lumber and materials in an effort to raise money during the depression.

The school’s Board of Trustees met in Mayville, North Dakota. There, the trustees hired two carpenters, Nic Anderson and John Erickson, to carefully tear down the old school building in Grand Forks and sell the scrap lumber and materials, splitting the profits 50-50. This brought in $2,000 for the church. Then, the trustees divided the two square blocks of property in Grand Forks and sold off the building lots, bringing in substantial cash as the lots sold.

The historic Hillcrest campus pictured likely around the time the school moved in to the dilapitated building after renovating classrooms and dormitories for the delayed school start.

John Kilde and E.J. Blikstad of Fergus Falls went to visit their fellow businessmen on a fundraising mission. The response was overwhelming. Businesses saw the good sense in bringing the Lutheran school to Fergus Falls: Otter Tail Power Company contributed $15; Norby’s Department Store also gave $15; Minnesota Motor Company donated $10; and Fossen Grocery chipped in $10. Other companies and individuals gave a little, from the little they had: Matt’s Service Station contributed one dollar; as did Jensen’s Auto Wrecking and Olson Electric Shop. Together, the people of Fergus Falls raised $2,500 to “defray the expenses incurred in putting the college building in shape for occupancy.”

Pictures of the library in what became a place for students to wrestle out their faith in a new academic home in the 1930's. 

Pictures of the library in what became a place for students to wrestle out their faith in a new academic home in the 1930's. 

In the summer of 1935, the “new home of the Lutheran Bible School” and high school became “a place of bustling activity” as workmen under the supervision of master carpenter Gust Overgaard renovated and repaired the schools’ new home. Even the teachers lent a hand in helping with the renovations.

Classes in the remodeled school began with opening exercises on September 17, 1935, with the formal opening of the thirty-second year of the Bible School and the nineteenth year of the high school. In late October, nearly a thousand friends of the school gathered from far and near for a day of festivity and a Dedication Day service at the Lutheran Bible School and high school.

President E.M. Broen, who had led the schools from the beginning, delivered the dedication sermon. In it, he told of the “aim and purpose” of the school—it was to do more than just educate the students, “it would strive to help young people to get . . . a spiritual vision. “

Broen judged that Christian parents from coast to coast would send their children, at great expense, to the Bible School, because these parents were “desirous that their boy and girl [would] receive a spiritual vision in addition to high school education.” Some of these young men and women would then be enabled to become “missionaries to China and Africa,” or “pastors and evangelists” in the Lutheran Brethren churches; but even greater numbers would go “forth as homemakers, useful church members, and loyal and efficient citizens.”

When I saw the story of the Bible School in the Great Depression I thought. Who goes and studies the Bible in the Great Depression? Today we send kids off to college to earn a skill to make money...not to become a Bible scholar...certainly not to go to a Bible School like LBS which just studied the Bible...not other vocational courses with a Bilbel Class or two in today’s Christian Colleges. Somehow, going off to study the Bible for a year seems too impractical today...yet my mother did this and as a result had a level of Biblical literacy that I’m sure neither any of you or my grand kids have today. She saw it as essential to know scripture and understand it to just live as an effective Christian ...so going to Bible School didn’t sound so crazy if your faith was important to you. I don’t think she ever, in all the time I lived with her, missed a time of daily devotional Bible reading and prayer...a discipline that few have today. The memory of her inspires me a new to more disciplined in this area.
— Hillcrest Supporter Letter sent to Children after reading story of HLA during the depression era.

The dedication service concluded with another hymn, entitled “Now Thank We All Our God,” which told of the Lord— “who wondrous things hath done” and who “hath blessed us on our way.” The school, through the words of the song, called upon God to “be near us,” and to “cheer us,” to “keep us in his grace,” to “guide us when perplexed,” and to “free us from all ills, in this world and the next.”

As President Broen said, “It was an afternoon long to be remembered.” It ushered in a new chapter in the history of the Lutheran Brethren Schools, in its Fergus Falls home.

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