By Mark Fischenich
---- — MANKATO — The imposing blue residence on Pleasant Street wouldn't be called the Eberhart house if there hadn't been so many Olsons, Olssons and Olsens at Gustavus Adolphus College in the 1890s.
Of course, Olaf Adolf Olsson wouldn't have had to change his name to Eberhart out of frustration with the excessive number of Olsons at Gustavus if the St. Peter college had any standards in 1891. Gustavus was apparently the ultimate safety school back then, accepting Olsson as a student even though he had the equivalent of a fourth-grade education.
But then, if Gustavus officials had laughed Olsson and his fourth-grade education right out of the admissions office, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to show his ambition and intelligence by completing both his high school courses and all of the required college-level courses in four years.
And without that college degree, he probably wouldn't have been able to go on to study law, set up practice in Mankato, go into the thriving quarry business, eventually be elected governor of Minnesota and build the imposing residence on Pleasant Street just 21 years after arriving in America as an impoverished 12-year-old immigrant.
Eberhart's house, expected to become the first privately owned home to become a Heritage Preservation Landmark in Mankato, was already on the National Registry of Historic Places because of the notable life of Olaf Adolf Olsson.
That was Eberhart's name when he was born in Varmland, Sweden, in 1870 and when his parents immigrated to the United States in 1881, leaving little Olaf with relatives because the financially struggling farmers couldn't afford tickets for the entire family. The plan was for Olaf to be adopted by the relatives and stay in Sweden, but he had different ideas — making his way to St. Peter to catch up with the family a year later because he missed his parents, according to a Minnesota Historical Society summary of his life.
In 1883, the family moved to Nebraska. Olsson stayed with them for eight years, farming and only sporadically having an opportunity to attend school. At age 21, he headed back to Minnesota to attend Gustavus, graduating at the top of his class in 1895 despite his limited schooling prior to attending college.
"While at Gustavus Adolphus College, he gave himself a new name, Eberhart, so he would not be confused with the many other Olsons on campus," the Historical Society reports.
No word on why he picked Eberhart, a Germanic name meaning "strong boar," or why he switched his first and middle names from "Olaf Adolf" to "Adolph Olson." He primarily used "A.O. Eberhart" during his political career, serving as Mankato's state senator before being elected lieutenant governor and then governor. After he lost his third re-election attempt in 1914 and failed to win the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 1916, he moved to Chicago to work in real estate and insurance, returning to Minnesota only upon retirement.
He died on Dec. 6, 1944, at a rest home in Savage.