Sustainability at MSU: End of Year Update

I spent my year working on the sustainability project with a specific focus on using University Archives materials to understand food and transportation on the historic campus. Through pamphlets, diaries, newspaper clippings, photos, reports, and ledgers, I pieced together information about early student experience in MSU’s beginning years. Much of the archives research required locating documents that were tangentially related to the project in order to track changes over time.

Two male students in dorm at Owen Hall, 1900, via MSU Archives and Historical Records
Two male students in dorm at Old Wells Hall, 1900, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

For instance, I looked through years of brochures from the early 1900s advertising the annual state farmers’ meetings held on campus. In each of these, food, housing, and transportation options for visitors would be listed. As the years went by, food options on campus expanded to include mentions of restaurants on Grand River Avenue. Boarding choices in the earlier years were limited to home stays or college dorms, whereas later years referenced hotels available on the trolley route from Lansing to East Lansing. Transportation prices rose slightly to accomodate, presumably, the growing dependence on trolley cars. From ledgers kept by the agriculture and dairy departments, it is possible to document changes in food prices (and demand for food types) through time. Fortunately, Dr. Manly Miles kept a thorough ledger noting all sales and expenditures for the agricultural college from 1867-1877.

I believe the most interesting finding was in the local and state reaction to the college in the early years. Since the university is so entrenched in the community now (and because I only have the experience of a modern student), I assumed that the college had always been supported by the local and state population. Through diaries and personal accounts, I learned that state farmers and government leaders had been quite wary of the institution, even at times hoping for and predicting its eventual downfall. The hard work of the early students and professors who split their time between academics and manual labor ensured the success of the college. As wars took their toll on college-aged men, the university adapted to national needs and supported the war effort.

The sustainability project has allowed me to pursue many leads at the University Archives, sometimes resulting in exponential research questions. As I try to reign it all in, I have found that the most relevant source material are personal accounts. Reading handwritten documents from MSU’s first students has been a thrill and I look forward to continuing this project.

Author: Amy Michael

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