The Many Faces of Cowles House, MSU’s Oldest Building

This summer, Cowles House, MSU’s oldest standing building, is due to get a facelift. As part of this remodeling, crews will remove a few trees from around and inside the building and expand the west wing.  In preparation for this work, I have been researching the history of this building, as well as what previous CAP excavations have recovered in the area.

Completed in 1857, Cowles House was one of four homes built to house the earliest faculty members and administrators of MSU.  Some of the most prominent individuals in MSU’s history, such as Williams, Abbot, Beal, Bessey, Hannah, and McPherson, all lived in this house during their tenure at the college (Brock 2009; Kuhn 1955).  From 1857-1874, Cowles House served as the residence of the college president.  After 1874, Cowles House, then known as Faculty Row No. 7, functioned as the home of the professor of Botany (Beal 1915:35, 267;

A View of Cowles House ca. 1920

A View of Cowles House ca. 1920. Image Source.

During these early decades, Cowles house was not only a place of residence, but was also a hub of campus entertainment. Early on, no organized social life existed on MSU’s campus.  Students instead gravitated towards faculty homes, where faculty and staff would regularly host small get-togethers (Kuhn 1955:127). The Abbot’s, who lived in Cowles House during their time at the college, frequently invited students and guests into their home. As documented by Kuhn, Abbot had students come to his home weekly to read and discuss literature.  They also entertained on the weekends: “On Saturday nights the Abbot home was open to students; twenty or thirty would gather about the fire to eat apples and to talk of politics, of ethics, and of literature” (Kuhn 1955:90).

By the early 1900s, Cowles House had been repurposed to serve a broader function.  On a 1927 map of campus (MSU archives:, Cowles House is labeled as “Secretary’s House,” indicating a switch from residential space to a more administrative one.  I have not been able to discover more about what this label entails, such as if the house was entirely office space during this time, but it is clear that the space was no longer reserved for faculty use.

In 1941, under the Hannah administration, Cowles House once again became the home of the president of the university.  As such, the building underwent major renovations after the end of World War II, during which much of the building was rebuilt and a new wing was added to the west end (Kuhn 1955:402).  Recently, Cowles House has functioned as an entertainment and banquet space, as recent presidents have decided to live off campus (Brock 2009).

A View of Cowles House Today

A View of Cowles House Today. Image source

Artifacts from south of Cowles House, Shovel Test Pit G1

Artifacts from south of Cowles House, Shovel Test Pit G1

Cowles House has been of great interest to Campus Archaeology due to its location within the Sacred Space.  As little has changed in this part of campus, this area has the potential for preserving intact archaeological deposits from the earliest days of campus.  CAP has conducted numerous surveys around the building, including in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2014 (CAP Reports 7, 11, and 15), but we are yet to find any clear features or concentrations of materials. Instead, only a diffuse scatter of artifacts has been found around the building. Brick fragments, window glass, nails, and other construction debris are the most common objects found, while a few ceramic sherds, animal bones, bottle glass, and two golf balls have also been recovered. In general, this record is likely the result of construction and remodeling episodes, mixed in with trash from everyday life.  While CAP has tested extensively around the building, we have not investigated every area, and plan to survey and monitor intently as renovations take place this summer.  We are always on the look-out for that rare deposit that can provide us insights into the lives of the early MSU faculty and presidents!

References Cited

Beal, W.J.
1915   History of the Michigan Agricultural College and Biographical Sketches of Trustees and Professors.  Michigan Agricultural College, East Lansing

Brock, Terry
2009   “Survey Spot: Cowles House”  Blog posted on CAP website, Sept. 9, 2009.

CAP Report 7
2009   Music Building and Cowles House Survey.  Campus Archaeology Program.

CAP Report 11
2011   Walter Adams Field Survey: Archaeological Report.  Campus Archaeology Program.

CAP Report 15
2012   West Circle Steam I Survey: Archaeological Report.  Campus Archaeology Program.

Kuhn, Madison
1955   Michigan State: The First Hundred Years.  The Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.

MSU Archives and Historical Collections:

Gone but Not Forgotten: Campus Buildings that No Longer Exist.  Online Exhibit.

Map of MSU Campus and Buildings, 1927.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving for university students means a couple days off from classes to reconnect with family and relax before the last three weeks of school. It also means getting to eat turkey, and feast for a day. While we don’t have any archaeological record of feasting or Thanksgiving on the 19th century campus, we do have archival data that is relevant.

From the diary of Edward G. Granger we learn about a turkey hunt. While it obviously isn’t related to Thanksgiving the holiday, knowing that students were hunting there own turkeys may be indicative of what occurred for Thanksgiving on campus.

Decemeber 4th 1858

After finishing my letter, I played a game of chess with Foote, or rather, tried to learn him what little I know of the game.

Then Foote and I went out hunting, Foote taking an axe along in case we run over a bear.

We went up the river aways and saw a muskrat swimming down the river. Afterwards we saw some tracks of wild turkies some of which were evidently those of a wounded turkey as there was considerable blood on the snow. We tried to follow them but they stopped a little farther on, the turkey having flown. After a little farther, we turned and struck off into the woods. Presently, we came across the track of the wounded turkey again. We followed it a short distance to a brush pile where we found the turkey which had laid down to die. We cut off his head with the axe. We took him to Mr. Williams’ for a present to the President. The President invited us over to come over and help us eat him on Tuesday.

… Prof. Tracy came out to No. 2 and asked Foote if he found a turkey in the woods to day. Foote told him that he did. Then Prof. gave him a great blowing for hooking his turkey. It seems that Prof. shot the turkey this morning in the cornfield and that he did not follow the bird across the river because it was so near dinner time! Mighty Hunter!!!

December 7th 1858

This morning I intended to get up early but I was so sleepy that I laid abed till the bell rang. Must get up earlier another morning as there is much to be done in the line of studying.

At half past twelve o’clock Foote and I went over to the Presidents’s to help eat our turkey.


MAC Memorabilia 1910

There is also memorabilia from the college. In 1910, the smallpox epidemic required all students to stay on campus for their Thanksgiving break in order to get vaccinated. Since they were unable to return home, the college created a day of activities which is now recorded in a pamphlet. The grey pages read: “Greetings and best wishes from the Faculty to the Students, unexpectedly, by the force of circumstances denied the privilege of the usual Thanksgiving vacation.” The program includes football and sports in the morning, and dinner at the clubs in the afternoon.

Calling all Campus History Lovers!

Campus archaeology excavation

Campus archaeology excavation

This is a Campus Archaeology Intern Update by Paige

I’m sure you’ve seen us around campus at some point, with our large Campus Archaeology banner and a bunch of shovels to boot. We dig 2×2 meter test pits, and when we find an artifact, we take it from the earth, tag it, bag it, and bring it back to the lab. This semester I plan on making these artifacts available to the public online.

I’ll be using the program OMEKA in order to create an online museum exhibit, in which we’ll be able to place not only the artifacts we’ve found over the past two summers of excavation here at MSU, but to place with them some information that I’m gathering from the MSU Archives. Although you won’t be able to see the real life artifact, you’ll be able to see pictures of what we’ve found, right from the comfort of your own home (or office, or library, or wherever!)

Before I get to the part where I spend my whole life placing things in OMEKA and creating the exhibit, however, I’m spending some good quality time in the MSU Archives. (If you’ve never been, it’s definitely worth the visit, they have some awesome historical literature, and that includes a lot from campus.)

What I’ve been focusing on in my research so far has been The Eagle, a “newspaper” (they’re more like clippings) from a year and a half or so of our Campus’ history, starting in February of 1892. The Eagle was edited and published by Roscoe Kedzie, a 10 year old boy living on campus. Through reading these clippings, I’ve been able to find some that directly relate to the artifacts we’ve found over this past summer, as well as the summer before.

“The North Part of the Greenhouse is being glazed, 10 painters are at work. About 20 painters are at work on the college grounds.” –The Eagle, August 5, 1982.

Brick. Did we find bricks this summer or what? But not only did we find brick, we found some glazed brick (it has a completely different texture, color, and the glazes even come in different colors!) This was the first quote I found relevant to an artifact, and it almost passed me by until I realized when they say “painting” they mean glaze, not acrylic or oil paint. It felt really good finding substance to the artifacts you found in the ground.

By reading about how important the painting of these building were at the time, it made me feel like what I was doing as an archaeologist had even more worth than just finding surprises buried beneath my feet; I felt like all of it had a greater purpose, and that I was reviving the past.

Clump of hair excavated near Sleepy Hollow

Clump of hair excavated near Sleepy Hollow

A very interesting thing we were able to excavate this summer were locks of hair. Since this was one of the last things we were expecting, finding it came as a real shock. One more thing that came as a shock (but more of a jolt of awareness) was when reading through the Eagle I found a quote saying “Jackson the Lansing Barber has a chair in room 75 Wells Hall, is at the college every Friday afternoon and evening to do work in his line.”

Although I’m hoping to find more on the topic of where barber shops were (I’ve seen a lot of advertisements for a barber in Lansing) this was the first I found that said we even cut hair on campus, directly tying in with what we had found. Here’s to hoping!

So far, researching at the archives for my particular project has been not unlike digging a test pit: you don’t know what you’re going to find until you start digging, but  once you get into it, you find that you’re learning a whole lot more than just what it takes to find an artifact, or a quote. This summer as I dug, I found ants, green worms, hornets, and a very stubborn and friendly bee, just as in the archives I’ve found out much more about the people in the East Lansing area, their travels, their trials, and their doings. Not all of it is relevant to what my project is, but all of it is relevant to how it will shape my view of things.

Looking forward to updating you again soon! After all, there’s a lot more to the archives than just The Eagle, and I’m planning on finding it.