Sustaining the Campus Community During WWII

After several months, I have finally worked my way through the materials cataloged by the last MSU Historian, Madison Kuhn. Archiving everything from handwritten accounts of clearing the forest for the first college buildings to pamphlets announcing carnivals and balls on campus, Kuhn amassed an impressive and wide-ranging collection of historical documents. Many of these are applicable to the goals of CAP insofar as they “fill out” what we know of a particular period by allowing us to read not only the history reported by the university, but also the history reported by the students in their own words. We can articulate the information in these documents with the archaeological material we find through CAP excavations in order to create a more detailed picture of the campus past.

Vegetable Gathering, circa 1940s, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

I have spent the last several weeks at the Archives reading about the university response to World War II. We know that the nation united in the war effort during this time, but we can also understand the university response at a finer scale through newspaper clippings and Board of Trustees notes, in addition to the material remains of the past excavated by CAP. I was surprised to discover just how strongly MSU responded to the national call for war time rationing and training. A pamphlet from the late 1940s references the Quonset huts set up to receive young men coming back from war. Because enrollment spiked after the war, there were multiple temporary housing locations constructed for the influx of students. A housing pamphlet printed in 1947 and given to prospective students describes the temporary housing at Red Cedar Village, which consisted of two housing units fabricated from converted metal hospital units. Students were even allowed to room in the Jenison Field House to accommodate the post-war attendance boom.

The baseball team signs a pledge to help defend freedom, ca. 1940, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

During the war, MSU students and faculty worked cooperatively toward a common goal. The academic response can be measured by the Department of Publications statement to The Detroit Times in 1943 regarding the new direction of the college. By this time, every discipline had been streamlined to reflect the war effort and all students were encouraged to pursue only those physical and academic endeavors that were in line with the goals of the nation. Every physical activity not deemed to contribute to the military training and endurance skills of young men was dispensed with, and the Home Economics department shifted their focus to preparing young women to manage large industrial cafeterias rather than the home. The Agriculture and Horticulture departments adjusted curriculum to reflect a growing focus on efficiency. Soils were researched to determine which produced highest yield crops, innovations in dehydration and canning were pursued, and even the students in the Animal Husbandry department were instructed to experiment with sheep in order to produce higher quality wool for uniforms and catgut for surgical needs. The official statement from the Department of Publications reads as follows, “Whether it be in the classroom or experimental laboratory every project of research, instruction, and extension is evaluated on the basis of its contribution towards victory.” With this information in mind, I plan to explore the ways in which the campus community practiced and maintained sustainability measures during the war. Working with CAP fellows who are familiar with the variety of materials excavated over the years, I expect that we will be able to produce a more sophisticated picture of the faculty and student wartime response using archaeology.


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