Welcome Back to MSU’s Historic Campus!

MSU Entrance
MSU Entrance

It’s that time again, a new semester has begun at Michigan State University. New and returning students have filled the campus with life and activity. While Campus Archaeology doesn’t take a break, we still look forward to the beginning of a new year. We’ve had a busy summer filled with excavation and survey across the campus. For us, the semester means an increase in research by graduate and undergraduate students. The goal of our program is not only to protect and mitigate the archaeological resources of this historic and beautiful campus, but also to add to the historical records and better understand how the university has changed and developed.

MSU has gone through five major phases of change and development.

Beginnings 1855-1870: This first period of time represents the first steps of the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan, before it received Land Grant funding and had very little in the way of state support. Despite the hardship and struggles of this first inaugural period, there was optimism for what education could do for Michigan and there was hope for the future of the college. During this period the first buildings were erected, campus maintenance and care was done by the students, and the college fought through a lack of financial support and potential closures. The archaeological remains of Saints’ Rest, the first dorm which was erected in this period, and College Hall, the first academic building, show the struggle of the students and staff to maintain what resources they had. Maintenance tools and construction materials were found in the Saints’ Rest basement, and a piece of plaster from College Hall is signed by the students who helped with its maintenance.


Botany Class, 1890’s, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

Foundation 1870-1900: The second period of the campus is representative of economic change and increasingly structured institution. The campus finally received financial support from the Morrill Land Grant, which helped them to construct new buildings for living and teaching space. The courses expanded, the administration became more organized, and the first women and international students began taking classes. The college begins to assert its identity in this period by wearing green and holding their first official football season. From this era, CAP has found trash heaps near the Beal Gardens with historic ceramics, shoes and oil lamps showing the rise in students. It was also in this period that we find wooden water pipes and trolley railway spikes, evidence of the early growth of the funded college.

Expansion 1900-1925: The third period of campus is one of dramatic expansion, modification of the landscape and a change in name to the Michigan Agricultural College. With enrollment and programming doubling, the campus begins to spread south of the river. Larger buildings are constructed to replace small ones, and older buildings are razed or collapse. Moving south of the river leads to a need to control the flooding river, and the land is highly modified in order to gain control. The introduction of automobiles and a growing community outside of the college aids in its rapid expansion. CAP has found a number of sites dating to this era of expansion such as the Morrill Hall boiler building and various early electrical related artifacts like lightbulbs and switches. We also have found old building materials, such as the remains of College Hall, in the banks of the Red Cedar River, showing changes to the actual landscape.

Legacy 1925-1955: With the rapid expansion of the previous decades and the diversity of curriculum leads to a change in name from the Michigan Agricultural College to Michigan State College. With the introduction of WPA money and the GI bill, the campus continued to grow and diversify exponentially. This period led to the transformation of the college into a major research university. The college began to assert the identity we know today; becoming part of the Big Ten, attending its first national conferences in football and basketball, introducing Sparty, and changing the paper to the State News.

Modern 1955-2012: Since the campus has developed its strong unified identity it has continued to grow and expand beyond the physical campus. The strong foundations and traditions have carried students across the world and made MSU an internationally recognized institution. The university not only is looking forward, but has begun to protect its past. In 2005, during the Sesquicentennial, the archaeology program excavated the first dormitory, Saints’ Rest, and showed the importance of the physical history found beneath the feet of modern students. In 2007, the Campus Archaeology Program was founded as a way to protect and integrate these artifacts with the general narrative and documentary history of MSU.

You can help with this timeline and add to our understanding of changes to the campus by volunteering for CAP or becoming one of our interns! If you’re interested, contact Katy Meyers, Campus Archaeologist, at meyersk6@msu.edu

Author: Katy Meyers Emery

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