Welcome Back: Students of Today Walking in the Footsteps of the Past

From the frenzied freshman with campus maps to the jaded senior who’s barely bothered to shower, the first day of classes always makes me slightly nostalgic. It reminds me of the days when I was that bright-eyed freshman excited for the first real college experience. I wandered the beautiful campus of MSU from the Sacred Space to the football stadium absorbing everything that it meant to be a Spartan. In my new role as Campus Archaeologist I find myself taking a new perspective, a perspective which considers the evolution of the student throughout MSU’s history. On this gloomy first day of classes as I watch students scurry across campus, I wonder if the students realize the history of the ground on which they tread?

While Campus Archaeology is gearing up for fall construction projects, I’ve been researching the history of Michigan State University and the role of the student. 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. In this case, I want to understand the heart and soul of the University, the students.

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

MSU’s first class session took place in 1857. The students of this first year had the same goals as the students of today, to earn a degree that would advance their careers. The students were required to take courses in natural science, chemistry, mathematics, and English (including Rhetoric, history, and political economy); foreign languages were not required because they were not seen as practical. Additionally, students had to perform three hours of mandatory labor. Generally, this labor was done on the farm, since MSU was first and foremost an Agricultural College. But, for the first set of students, this manual labor entailed clearing the swamp to make agricultural fields, planting trees, laying brick; building the campus we know today (Widder 2005:37). Students slept, studied, and ate in the first dormitory, dubbed Saint’s Rest by the students. Campus Archaeology has excavated several portions of this building in order to understand student life.

Saints' Rest 1865, via MSU Archives on Flickr
Saints’ Rest 1865, via MSU Archives on Flickr

Since the new Agricultural College was erected three miles east of the Capitol in the middle of nowhere, students soon began to form their own social clubs and plan social activities. Debate clubs were organized so young men could heatedly discuss their new-found knowledge. Student publications like the Bubble and the Wolverine, gave views on campus life and concerns with instructors (Widder 2005: 288). The cafeteria food was so despised by students that they created boarding clubs which provided well-balanced meals for a weekly rate of $2.00 (Widder 2005:292). Men’s and Women’s Societies provided much need social activities, like dances in the armory and concerts in the park. Pledges of these societies were required to follow certain rules such as “every pledge must appear at breakfast”, or “two pledges can’t be seen together on campus together” (Widder 2005:302). Not too different from sorority pledges of today.

Athletics were also quickly adopted by the early students of MSU. Initially, the college would not financially support sports, so students organized on their own time (Widder 2005:371). The college administration soon changed its opinion and argued that physical education was good for the student and created a stronger identity with college. Beginning in the 1880’s, MSU supported numerous athletics for both male and female students (Widder 2005). MSU’s first football team was organized in 1884 for a field day with Olivet College. The football team lost that year (0-8) and had a losing season for the next two decades; one of the most humiliating losses was against the U of M with a (0-119) defeat (Widder 2005:378). It was not until 1913 that we had our first win over Michigan and a perfect season. After the first win over U of M, excited fans marched to Lansing, “built a bonfire in town, and called upon local businessmen to make speeches extolling the virtues of M.A.C. and its great football team” (Widder 2005:382). The celebration was so great that the faculty declared a campus holiday on Monday.

M.A.C. Football Stadium 1923
M.A.C. Football Stadium 1923

Traditions, like athletics, helped create the strong unified identity that has continued to grow and expand beyond the physical campus. The strong foundations laid by the early students and forged throughout the decades is still evident in the archaeology of MSU. By understanding the past students and their daily lives, we can connect the artifacts we find today to their actions and behaviors. The University not only is looking forward, but has begun to protect its past. 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 Kate Frederick, Campus Archaeologist, at hammon85@msu.edu.

Author: Kate Frederick

Widder, Keith 2005. Michigan Agricultural College: The Evolution of a Land-Grant Philosophy 1855-1925. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, MI

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