Transportation in and around campus during its early years: a brief look

The discovery of several horseshoes in Munn Field a couple of weeks ago (near the location of the old horse arena),

One of the horseshoes found at Munn Field
One of the horseshoes found at Munn Field

coupled with the CAP team’s ongoing archival research on the origins of the Grand River corridor, got me thinking about the importance of transportation during the early days of the university.
It comes as no surprise that travel by horseback or horse-drawn vehicles would have featured as a regular part of life for both students and professors in the pre-motor-vehicle days of 19th-century campus.
It also stands to reason that shipments of supplies or mail, or the arrival of visitors, to M.A.C. by wagonload or railroad would have been a noteworthy event at a time when even a place like Grand Ledge was far enough away to which to send a postcard (The cost per ounce of postage in 1885: 2 cents, the 2013 equivalent of which is 51 cents).

MAC students walking near MAC campus early 1900
MAC students walking near MAC campus early 1900

The M.A.C. Board of Trustees’ meeting minutes from the late 19th century regularly mention reimbursing members of the college for transportation costs, or votes to allow the payment of transportation for building supplies, new farm animals, or faculty trips.
For example, in 1876: “Resolved that the Farm Dep’t be instructed to accept the offer of a Harvester from the College to pay the cost of transportation.” (By comparison today, transportation costs with large purchases today are often covered by the seller).

In 1877: “Resolved: That Prof. Gulley be allowed Five dollars each for the fifty pigs furnished by him to the Farm Department.
Resolved that the pair of Poland China pigs purchased by Prof. Gulley for the Farm Department be returned and the bill for their cost including transportation amounting to $52.95 be paid” (the 2013 equivalent would be $1141.88).

In 1881, a professor’s participation in an agricultural expo was contingent upon the reliability of the rail system:
It was resolved that the Prof. of Agriculture be required to make an exhibition of Cattle at the next State Fair, provided the railroads give the usual facilities for transportation

In 1902, transportation problems prevented the college from receiving shipments of coal necessary for smithing, smelting and coking:
I have thus far been unable to purchase any hard coal though it is greatly needed and some difficulty is being experienced in getting delivery of soft coal under our contract. The following letter from A.B. Knowlson who has our soft coal contracts will show this situation:
” Grand Rapids, Mich. Dec. 5th 1902.
A.M. Brown, Sec’y.
Agricultural College P.O., Mich.
Dear Sir:
Replying to yours of the 4th we have had trouble with the parties whom we had our contract covered with for Hocking coal, and they would not ship us coal, claiming they could not get transportation. We have been forced to go out in order to try and fill the contract, and pick up coal without any profit. We are doing the best we can for you in order to
fill the contract, although our contract with you is made subject to strikes and transportation, etc. We want to fill the order even if we don’t make a cent, and trust you will bear with us, as well as you can under the circumstances. If you think it is necessary we will come down and talk the situation over with you.
Yours respectfully,
A.B. Knowlson

The importance of transportation for the time period (and the awareness of such) is underscored by the copy of the commencement address by E.D. Partridge printed in the September 15, 1896 issue of the M.A.C. Record (the student paper at the time).
Titled ‘Transportation’, Partridge opens the address by commenting that “The growth [of the American transportation system], though slow and almost unnoticeable at times, has resulted in more good to the nation, and greater advantages to the people than any political movement could have brought about…. For, as farming increased, as manufacturing progressed, as the people turned their eyes westward and located at a distance from the center of civilization, as each community became less and less independent, it became plainer and more desirable that some regular means of transportation be established.” In this case, Partridge is speaking primarily of the trans-continental railroad system. He later says, “It is hard to say just what line of development the future will follow; so let us leave the future, and look at few of the needs for, and results of a good transportation system.”
He goes on to discuss the relative costs and benefits of cable cars, electric railroad, and bicycles for both urban and rural areas alike.
It’s interesting to note that, by the time Partridge’s speech was published in 1896, automobiles had been in production for 10 years in Europe (not that they were big sellers). Just a few years after Partridge’s speech, automobiles would go into large-scale production down the road from M.A.C. at the Oldsmobile Plant in Lansing, established in 1902, and a few years later by Ford. Yet it doesn’t appear that Partridge or his contemporaries would have predicted how predominant motor vehicles would become, nor their effect on the infrastructure and even social organization of a place like the M.A.C. Just a few years later, students at the college were apparently part of the growing national discourse passionately arguing over whither the future of American technology.  A printed version of a speech given by one Mr. Geo B. Fuller, M.A.C. 1900, printed in the March 13, 1900 issue of the M.A.C. Record, titled “The Evolution of the Automobile”, demonstrates the underlying optimism many had regarding this new technology and its potential for social and economic progress. Mr. Fuller’s speech talks of the public prejudice against early automobiles and their inventors in Europe. “The Englishman is an admirer of the horse; and those engaged in the horse trade were afraid of the automobiles, and took measures to have laws passed which would render them useless…. It was not until recently that movements might have been seen preparatory to the development and manufacture of automobiles as a new industry.” He furthermore speaks of automobiles as the solution to several extant problems, and predicts a new age of technological equality: “For the future, the automobile promises a city practically free from the rumbling of heavy drays, and the clatter of the horses hoofs which make modern urban life more or less miserable…. Not only will the rumble of heavy trucks disappear, but the removal of the horse from the street will practically solve the problem of street cleaning. The repairing of roads will be reduced to a minimum…. Once the horseless age is in full sway, every man will own his automobile. The bicycle will be put away – except for sport. Even on the farm motor-driven wagons will carry the hay from the field and the grain to the market. The horse will still be harnessed to the plow, furnish sport on the race course, and exercise for the few, but he will no longer be the burden carrier of man.”
It’s clear that the “horseless age” as envisioned by Mr. Fuller isn’t quite what came to pass, and the arrival of personal automobiles on the M.A.C. campus came with its own problems, to judge from further mentions of transportation in early 20th century M.A.C. Record issues and Board of Trustee minutes. By the 1920s automobiles had become common enough for college officials to worry about organizing parking during football games, but also popular enough for the student paper to offer advice on driving routes between cities.
The October 15, 1920 issue of the M.A.C. Record provides advice on automobile routes between East Lansing and Ann Arbor. Navigation by automobile in those days was much like driving off-road today, it seems; the routes between the two cities include dirt and gravel roads linking between the incipient state highway system, which did include Grand River (M-16) by 1918.

It’s not clear how students and faculty at an agricultural school such as M.A.C. would have felt about the changes that came with the transition to “the horseless age.” On the one hand, the presence of motor vehicles may have made certain aspects of campus life easier. On the other hand, some, especially those whose work (or research) depended a horse-based transportation system, may have felt that their future livelihood was at stake. It’s also not clear yet (from what I’ve found) just how quickly horse-based transportation truly disappeared from the landscape in a place as rural as the M.A.C. campus once was.

MAC Farm Lane 1913
MAC Farm Lane 1913

The reports on the first and second annual horse shows at the college in the early 1920s go out of their way both to remark on the presence of numerous automobiles (which underscores how noteworthy they actually were at the time) as well as comment at length on the importance of holding a horse show in the first place:
“The importance of such a contest at M.A.C. is twofold. It inspires interest in well-bred and trained animals and touches also on the preparedness of the military program. As an annual feature the horse show will undoubtedly grow in popularity and in the general interest displayed by the people of the state.” (M.A.C. Record, May 12, 1924). By 1930, however, emphasis on the nature of the horse show in the M.A.C. Record had shifted to its ‘aristocratic’ nature (actual wording used in the article), not its practical one (link). I can’t be sure that this is linked to changes in infrastructure and technological access, but this topic is of continuing interest to me, so I’ll likely be following it up more in the future. Stay tuned.


Author: Adrianne Daggett

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