Questions and Answers in Archival Documents

Under the guidance of the very helpful staff at the MSU Archives, I have been compiling a list of sources that may be useful for the CAP sustainability project. These sources are varied and some, to me, are surprising. I never thought I would find any interest in perusing the documents from the waste control authority, but alas! Information relevant to the sustainability project comes in many forms, so I have been looking through a number of seemingly disjointed sources. However, information relevant to some CAP project (not always mine) is usually found and, as such, we have begun to enter these archives sources into Zotero.

My project has been a trial and error exercise since the beginning of the semester; I have dead-ended on multiple sources and uncovered some gems in others. I cast a wide net (e.g. alumni papers, scrapbooks, Campus Park and Planning Division, Annual Reports to the Board of Agriculture, etc.) hoping to get some returns that could further inform the archaeological materials in CAP’s possession. What I did not expect was the multitude of threads that I have followed leading to questions about the campus and its previous inhabitants. Straining my eyes to read a 100+ year old document has been worth it to find that little bit of information that leads to the next idea or pursuit, many of which are cultivated at weekly CAP meetings when I get to share and hear feedback about these new discoveries!

Example of Historic MSU Document, Catalogue of Staff and Students from 1870, via

Some of the handwritten letters or accounts are particularly interesting as they beg further questions not just of the information contained within, but of the author, the intended audience, and the persons written about in the document. For instance, who were those workmen that built the first plank roads to the college? How did the university cope with expansion, both in terms of physical space and academic pursuit? What factors exacerbated or encouraged growth? Who were the first students and employees of the university that had so much faith in the institution in those beginning thin years? When disasters struck in the form of fires or illness or war, how did the college manage and resolve the problems? How did the campus community interact with local farmers, many of whom were suspicious of the motivations of the college? At what point did the tide change? We know from historical documents that the first decades of the college were met with much adversity, from a state that was not sold on the idea of university education to the drop out rate and failure of many crops on the campus.

Three Students Farming in 1919 on MAC’s Campus, via MSU Archives

I believe that a way to access the change in attitude toward and at the university is to look for documents that detail the successes of crop production and the sale of these crops outside the university. Archaeological materials can aid in the reconstruction of this change as well. In a report to the President of the college in 1872, Dr. Beal reported that while the vegetable crop provided good yields, no crops were raised with the intention of selling outside the campus. Beal also wrote of the “disgrace” of the orchards and fruit gardens, expressing concern that state farmers may point to this as a failure of the college education system. More money and labor was needed, in Beal’s opinion, to insure success of the orchards. In later documents after the turn of the century, there are references to the amount of money being put into dairy production and selling outside the university. With more searching, I hope to fill out this gray area of time when attitudes regarding the utility of the college changed and how this shift relates to the sustainability and expansion of the early campus.

Author: Amy Michael

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *