While doing research for CAP’s upcoming displays for Chittenden Hall I came across an interesting coincidence that I thought I’d share in a blog. I was reading about the early days of MSU, the rocky beginnings, the underwhelming Presidents, and the struggle to be understood as more than just an agricultural college, when I found myself reading about Lewis R. Fisk, the second President of MSU. The name struck me because earlier in the week I was having a conversation in my local coffee shop about another Fisk, Abram C. Fisk. Abram Fisk, a prominent figure in the history of my hometown of Coldwater, MI built a beautiful Italianate home in the 1840’s. This home has since been remodeled into the Blue Hat Coffee and Gallery, where I spend many hours a week chugging coffee and catching up on work. I had previously never thought of the possible connection, but I decided to do some digging. Turns out, Lewis R. Fisk, second president of MSU, was (most likely) the brother of Abram C. Fisk of Coldwater.
Lewis Fisk’s parents (James and Eleanor Fisk) moved with their 10 children from Penfield, New York to Coldwater, MI in 1835. Some of the Fisk children made a home in Coldwater, and became a family that is often mentioned in the history of my small hometown. Based on the timeline, the Fisk Home (a.k.a Blue Hat Coffee) was built in the 1840’s, only a few years after the Fisk parents moved to Coldwater. The records show that the home was built by Abram (not James), so I’m deducing that Abram was, in fact, a brother of Lewis.
Lewis Fisk attended Albion College, then the University of Michigan, receiving his B.A. in 1850. He taught Natural Sciences at Albion for a few yeas, then went back to the University of Michigan to earn his M.A. in 1853. In 1856, Fisk was hired to teach chemistry at the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan (a.k.a Michigan State University). Then, in 1859 he became the President pro-tempore for MSU.
Fisk’s presidency at MSU came at time of major uncertainty for the burgeoning college. Joseph R. Williams, the first president of MSU, had led the surge to shape MSU into more than just a school for agriculture, Williams advocated for a well-rounded four-year curriculum. When Fisk became president pro temp, he became a champion for the same cause. He argued that “this institution should be built upon an agricultural basis…that no department of practical farming should be left unexplained…it should be a place where science and practice shall be beautifully combined” (Widder 2005:41). Because of Fisk’s steadfast beliefs that MSU should be more than a technical college, “youth from Michigan and elsewhere enrolled in the agricultural college because they wanted to be transformed into enlightened citizens, not just better farmers” (Widder 2005:42). Though you wont find a statue of Lewis C. Fisk, or listen to a lecture in a building of his namesake, the second president of MSU helped lay the groundwork for the MSU we know today.
As I sit here in the Fisk Home (Blue Hat Coffee), writing about the legacy of one of the Fisk’s of Coldwater, I’m reminded of what a small world it really is.
Widder, K. R. 2005 Michigan Agricultural College: The Evolution of a Land-grant Philosophy. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, MI