Agriculture in the Time of War: The Women’s Land Army at MSU

Agriculture in the Time of War: The Women’s Land Army at MSU

My goal for CAP for this semester is to continue to research sustainability in food practices at MSU. Previous blog posts have discussed some of these topics, including the role of women and the entire local community during World War II in programs such as 

People’s Park: the Short Course Dormitories

People’s Park: the Short Course Dormitories

As our archaeological investigation of People’s Park continues, so does our archival investigation. As Adrianne explained in our last blog one of the motivating factors behind our shovel test survey of People’s Park was pinpointing the location of the Chittenden Memorial Cabin; however there were 

Historical Impact of War on Campus

Historical Impact of War on Campus

As I continue to collect information from the University Archives about the early sustainability practices on campus, I keep uncovering little snippets of information in pamphlets or handwritten notes that send me on paper chase for more clues. I have been trying to be more diligent about coalescing all these tangents into a readable draft of a paper, but some weeks the detective work gets the best of me and I use my time at the Archives to page through 140 year old pages simply because, well, it’s pretty cool that they are 140 years old. We have a fantastic Archives resource on campus. I’ve recently started  to read some of the Presidents’ Papers collection, which has some truly interesting information that I hope to use to trace the value the university placed on aspects of food and transportation over the first 100 years.

For this blog post, I’ve decided to share another excerpt from the paper draft I am continuing to edit this semester. This section references the impact of wars on the university, both in terms of student involvement and academic response. Enrollment numbers dropped during each war, with increasing spikes in enrollment post-war (especially after World War II). What I find most intriguing is that the university refashioned itself to become part of the national war machine during each conflict (though in markedly different manners throughout the decades).

Civil War

In his recollections of time spent at the college, Henry Haigh noted that in the years 1862 and 1865 there were no graduates, while in 1866 only two students received degrees. The Civil War was making attendance at the fledgling college obsolete, so much so that the Bill to Abolish the College was introduced in the state legislature. The governor did not support the bill, and while attendance was depressed during the first half of President Abbot’s tenure, enrollment gradually rose until it exceeded the capacity of the college. This trend continued, requiring the administration to address accomodation issues.

In 1863, an Act to Establish a Military School at MAC was introduced. The act stated that all arms, accoutrements, books, instruments, and military instructors were to be procured at the expense of the state. Military tactics and engineering were to be taught at the college in order to supplement the war effort.

World War I Memorial, erected 1922, via MSU Archives

World War I

Often, the direction of research at MAC was directly linked with current national or global political affairs. For instance, when the college hosted the 1919 Agricultural Exposition (an annual event), exhibits showcased the response of the state to the war. Production and cost of war munitions, dairy, and meat were specific topics at the wartime exhibition.

In a document detailing the history of the MAC Women’s Club (1916-1918) during World War I (Snyder 1918), Professor AJ Clark advised club members to conserve fuel by closing off rooms, sifting ashes, and combining family households. References to the urgency of the fuel shortage are found throughout the document. In February 1918, the club hosted Mrs. Luther Baker who discussed the scarcity of garden seeds. It was suggested that garden clubs be started with seeds bought from reliable companies. Clearly this focus on gardening and food production illustrates the sustainable practices people were looking toward during wartime. A large meeting on community gardens was recorded, as well as notes on the club’s involvement on a national level with the food conservation program developed by the US Department of Agriculture. Club members found creative methods to deal with food conservation and rationing; for instance, women hosted luncheons at which only foods approved by the government for wartime were prepared. Recipes were exchanged at these luncheons, with each invitee encouraged to host a party of her own. Rather than feel restricted by the government conservation suggestions, club members rallied to effectively build sustainable and healthy communities through food and fuel sharing.

World War II

During World War II, Michigan State College reevaluated academic programs in light of the national war effort. In a release from the Department of Publications to the Detroit Times in 1943, the college stated that, “Whether it be in the classroom or experimental laboratory, every project of research, instruction, and extension is evaluated on the basis of its contribution towards victory.” Sixty campus departments offered classes redesigned to fit the new goals of the country, offering everything from Japanese language courses to mathematics classes in air and marine navigation procedures. Special skills agriculture courses were offered to women to relieve the shortages in farm labor when men were deployed to war. The Physical Education department eliminated activities that did not directly provide “vigorous physical activity” and “recreational features of value to service men in army camps.” Sports such as football, baseball, and basketball were emphasized as these activities were considered to increase competitiveness necessary to win the war. Women in the Home Economics department were entered into special courses in industrial food management designed to train students for managerial positions in large industrial lunch rooms. After the war began, these lunchrooms were established to efficiently feed growing numbers of troops.

Experimental studies were performed by the Home Economics department to streamline food production. One study on carp explored ways of making carp, a widely available fish, more palatable. The food for victory program supported experiments in fruit and vegetable dehydration to more efficiently preserve perishable food items. Specialists from the college worked with Michigan canning factories to determine the best soils for high yields in order to combat food shortages across the country. To counteract the nitrogen limitations imposed by the government, the college began training programs in soil management so that state farmers could produce their own nitrogen by growing mulch and cover crops.

The Animal Husbandry department attempted to control invasive nodular worms in sheep populations through experimental studies. The worm infestation, common in all sheep, compromises the integrity of catgut which was used for surgical sutures in military hospitals. Sheep affected by nodular worms tended to be smaller in size and grew poorer quality wool. Controlling the worms in sheep populations resulted in more meat, better wool for uniforms, and much needed catgut to tend to war wounds.

The publication release highlighted, in detail, the efforts of the college to respond collectively to the war effort. Students were trained in disciplines and skills that were considered necessary to navigate the wartime atmosphere. The unified effort was reflected in the final line of the Department of Publications release: “Only those programs which point directly toward victory are considered a part of Michigan State College today” (pg. 4).

Author: Amy Michael