Update on Research into MSU Sustainability

Over the past few weeks, I have continued to read through the documents collected by former university historian Madison Kuhn. While my project focuses specifically on articulating historical documents detailing food and transportation with archaeological materials, I have found items in the Archives collection that have been at turns funny, poignant, surprising, and sobering. Simply holding a 100 year old pamphlet in one’s hand can be a bit of an experience, especially for those of us fascinated by the past. This project has allowed me to learn about the small details of the university that do not get published in retrospective books or highlighted in newspapers; it is in these details that we can start to piece together daily activities that can help us to better understand the archaeological materials recovered by CAP. Reading through handwritten diaries and recollections of certain events has been particularly illuminating, and in a strange way, fairly intimate. The writers of many documents express not only their fondness for the university, but give some description of their years spent here in a very personal manner. In short, it has been fun to read first-hand accounts of fires, labor, war, and hardship, in addition to circuses, dances, and classes.

West Circle Drive by the Faculty Residences in late 19th c, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

At the inception of the university, there were no proper roads linking the college to surrounding towns. A plank road was built using trees sourced from local farmers’ lands. The toll gates on this road were manned by students and crossing the road in a horse and buggy would have cost 1 cent per mile. Initial construction of the road started when a group of businessmen in the Lansing area obtained a charter from the state legislature to lay the plank road. In a number of documents detailing the early years of the college, it is evident that farmers and state legislators were wary of the university. Many accounts reveal that the university had to work toward legitimization in both the eyes of the local people, and several accounts actually describe incidents in which farmers and students clashed ideologically. From the perspective of a student in 2012, this was quite interesting to read, especially the bits about the state government being fairly unsupportive of the university for some years. Today, we often defer to the notion that higher education is inherently a positive endeavor, but in the mid 1800s this was not the case. The university was viewed as impractical and expensive, though this perspective changed rapidly as more students enrolled and the university expanded.

Dairy Bottles
Dairy Bottles

In the next few weeks, I plan to locate documents written during years of turmoil (i.e. wars, the Depression). I would also like to investigate the fires that were happening across the state in the 1870s, as there are accounts of student and faculty involvement in controlling and manipulating these disasters. It may be interesting to see if the fires changed the landscape of campus or student activity in a meaningful way that may be read in the archaeological record. Additionally, I plan to expand upon the information I have found regarding dairy production, as CAP has excavated many bottles linked to the manufacture and distribution of dairy products. A letter written by EL Anthony, a former head of the Dairy Department at MSU, noted that prior to 1925 the dairymen of the state produced enough product required by consumers. However, after that time, dairy products began to be sourced from other locales as consumer demand escalated. This type of historical documentation can be matched up with archaeological information to provide a more sophisticated picture of the past experiences of the MSU community.

Author: Amy Michael

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