Documenting the sustainable past on campus

This year I am continuing work on the sustainability project that former CAP graduate research fellow Jennifer Bengtson and I worked on for the past two semesters. Michigan State University has a long history of sustainable practices, especially with regard to food, transportation, and energy. Focusing specifically on food production/consumption and transportation, I will continue to articulate historical documents and photographs from the university archives with the materials collected by Campus Archaeology to demonstrate the sustainability of the historic campus. In the past several weeks of archival research, I have located a number of documents in the Madison Kuhn collection that are of interest to the Campus Archaeology program and serve to contextualize our finds. Kuhn, the last of the official university historians, archived a wide ranging selection of materials relating to campus happenings and national events affecting the university community.

Faculty Victory Garden, 1940’s, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

For example, I read the story of the MAC (Michigan Agricultural College – the former name of the university) Women’s Club during World War I wherein fuel shortages and appropriate fuel-saving measures on campus were discussed. This document also outlined the ways in which the campus community produced and conserved foods supported by the national wartime goals set forth by the United States Department of Agriculture. I have asked the staff at the University Archives to help me find out if the food grown in the Home Economics classes was sold and/or consumed within or outside of the university. Dr. Goldstein, director of the Campus Archaeology Program, has also asked me to research whether there is any truth to the rumor that the university faculty and staff were paid in foodstuffs during the Great Depression. These historical examples illustrate how larger social processes and events were affecting the maintenance and workings of the campus. Archaeological materials excavated on campus can provide another layer of information not recorded in the archives.

Students Working the Fields, 1892, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

While it is fairly easy to link sustainability on campus to events like wars and recessions, there are many details of this project that require some detective work. For instance, I read through the pamphlets for the annual Agricultural Expositions held on the campus in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These brochures reference the types of issues and problems important to farmers during these years, but that information is not directly applicable to campus life. However, because the university was hosting a growing number of farmers each year, there are many references to lodging, food, and transportation that could be acquired by each participant. As the years progress, there is mention of the electric streetcar service from Lansing to East Lansing, complete with directions and fare cost (which rises at one point). It is also interesting to note that eating on campus is encouraged, with multiple options becoming available into the early part of the 1910s. Clearly, the campus was expanding with the influx of students and could provide choices to visitors. By 1923, the annual pamphlet for a farmers’ convention notes that both Lansing and East Lansing are well supplied with restaurants. Conceivably, it should be possible to archaeologically document the increasing production and consumption of food on the historic campus.

During the next few weeks, I will be moving through the rest of the Madison Kuhn collection and beginning to look at documents from the campus parks and planning division, student scrapbooks, and food services. Fortunately, the staff at University Archives are very supportive of my CAP project and have been helpful in tracking down documents that, at first, may seem only tangentially related to archaeological questions. This research demonstrates that articulating archives and archaeology is a mutually useful endeavor that can benefit our understanding of the historic campus.

Author: Amy Michael

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