Field of Dreams: An Eclectic History of the Adams Field Area

Field of Dreams: An Eclectic History of the Adams Field Area

During this semester, I have been researching the use history of the Adams Field/Music Building area ahead of proposed construction.  This work has reminded me just how complex, and sometimes odd, college campuses can be, and the many activities that take place within them.  On researching this one particular area, it seems as if a million different things happened there in just the last 162 years; a slight exaggeration, but not by much! Sporting events, side shows, dances, two presidential visits, farming, construction and landscape modification, and temporary camps are just a few of the many documented happenings in this particular part of campus.  Here, I will quickly review a few of these events that I have not already discussed elsewhere and explore their importance for us at the Campus Archaeology Program.

One of the more important activities, the reason an armory and Adams Field were originally constructed around 1885, was for military training.  While much of this training involved marching, drills, exercise, and the occasional skirmish, practice with different firearms also took place (Kuhn 1955:155-156).  Physical training facilities, in high demand by students, were also housed in the armory, such as “parallel and horizontal bars, a trapeze, rings, ladders, dumb bells, and Indian clubs” (Kuhn 1955: 156).  Directly north of the armory, an updated bathhouse was constructed in 1902 in order to aid in this physical training and provide students with a readily available place to bathe.  The two buildings were connected by a corridor and the bathhouse held, among other features, a “plunge bath” that was 35 ft. by 17 ft. in dimensions and about 5’ 6” deep (Beal 1915:277).

1886 image of officer candidates drilling with firearms on Adams Field.
1886 image of officer candidates drilling with firearms on Adams Field. Image Source

While military and athletic pursuits were a major activity in this part of campus, other events took place here as well.   The armory was occasionally used for lectures, speeches, and even commencement ceremonies early in the history of the University (Beal 1915:271).  It was also utilized as an extra living space for summer visitors when rooms were short, as well as the headquarters for doctor’s visits before a hospital was established on campus (Kuhn 1955:168, 188).  While we don’t often think of this space as a residential area, in 1888 the first Abbot Hall was built just north and east of the present Music Building.  This space became the women’s dormitory early on and housed a fully equipped cooking laboratory and dining room (Beal 1915:271-272; Lautner 1978: Key to Map, 120).

Large university events also have a long history in this part of campus.  Before the university athletic program was funded by the university and ticket purchases, teams were supported by fundraising.  The largest fundraiser, started in 1907, was the athletic carnival, which took place in the armory and Adams Field.  For one day each year, each campus group would host or create an attraction or side show, including a gambling station, wild west saloon, shooting gallery, the Russian bearded lady, and “Wadji, the fossil bedbug, sole survivor of ‘Saint’s Rest’” (M.A.C. Record, March 2, 1909; April 13, 1909).  Along with these attractions, the domestic science department supplied food for hungry attendees.  The day began with a parade through campus and ended with a large dance in the armory, where the “floor was covered with dancers tripping the light fantastic” (M.A.C. Record, April 30, 1912).  The revelry continued long into the night (M.A.C. Record, April 30, 1912).  This event was able to raise enough money to help support the athletic program each year, until it became unnecessary in 1912 (Kuhn 1955:257). Other campus dances, such as the Junior Hop, an institution in campus social life for decades, were held in the armory as well (Kuhn 1955:191). One sitting President, Theodore Roosevelt (1907), and one future President, Barack Obama (2007), have also given speeches on Adams Field, which drew massive crowds from all over the area (Kuhn 1955:202; Stawski 2011).

1909 Athletic Carnival. Costumed students marching in front of Morrill Hall.
1909 Athletic Carnival. Costumed students marching in front of Morrill Hall. Image Source
The crowd at President Roosevelt’s 1907 address on Adams Field
The crowd at President Roosevelt’s 1907 address on Adams Field. Image Source

All of these different activities involve material culture in some way.  While many of these events would have been cleaned up, leaving few archaeological traces, even the loss and trampling of individual objects over time may contribute to the archaeological record that we at Campus Archaeology find and document.  Other activities, such as the leveling of Adams Field for sports and military drills, might destroy earlier archaeological evidence and context by moving and mixing up objects that were once peacefully buried.  All of these events, no matter how large and what types of objects were used, are important to document, as they all, over time, possibly contribute to what we find, or do not find, in a particular area.  They also contribute to our overall understanding of a space and the role it played over time in campus history.  While this area today is just an open field and a few school buildings, it has seen things over the last 162 years that few other parts of campus have.

Author: Jeff Painter

References Cited

Beal, W. J.
1915   History of the Michigan Agricultural College and Biographical Sketches of Trustees and Professors.  Michigan Agricultural College, East Lansing.

Kuhn, Madison
1955   Michigan State: The First Hundred Years.  The Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.

Lautner, Harold W.
1978   From an Oak Opening: A Record of the Development of the Campus Park of Michigan State University, 1855-1969.  Volume 1.  Self-published manuscript on file at the MSU Archives and Historical Collections.

MSU Archives and Historical Collections
M.A.C. Record, Vol. 14, No. 22, March 2, 1909

M.A.C. Record, Vol. 14, No. 27, April 13, 1909

M.A.C. Record, Vol. 17, No. 30, April 30, 1912

Stawski, Christopher
2011   “Walter Adams Field Survey: Archaeological Report”.  Campus Archaeology Program, Michigan State University, East Lansing.

4 thoughts on “Field of Dreams: An Eclectic History of the Adams Field Area”

  • Are all of your archeological work done on campus proper. Have you done any digging on campus property outside of the main campus area.

  • Hi Lanny,
    Occasionally we will aid people off campus, but almost everything is done within the campus boundary.

  • The reason I asked that question was the campus is spread out over many miles with all the research and farm facilities. When MSU built the lakes (pond) off of College and Jolly Rd. they removed a old brick school house that stood on that corner. I wasn’t around when it was removed so not sure if they hauled it away or buried it. It was built in the 1870’s or 80’s. I went to school there back in the 40’s and 50’s and would love to see you dig it.

  • Hi Lanny,
    Thank you for sharing that bit of history, it is very cool! We do monitor campus in its entirety, so we have done some work outside of the main campus area, but not as much. We primarily conduct salvage work and do testing before construction takes place on campus, so we are often limited in where we test by where the University is working. Since most of the construction taking place on campus happens on the main campus, that is where we do most of our digging. We also have done more targeted excavations through field schools and other projects, but since we have specific questions about campus history that we would like to address with that work, it also tends to focus on areas that contain the oldest remnants of campus. It is very interesting to hear about some of the uses of the south campus area before it was incorporated completely into the University, and we will keep the school house in mind next time we hear of any construction taking place in that area!

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