Birth of a University
Michigan State University is frequently referred to as the “pioneer land grant institution.” The land grant system, officially endorsed in an Act of Congress in 1862 (commonly known as the Morrill Act), allowed the U.S. Government to grant areas of public land to their respective states, so that the states could in turn use the proceeds from sale of this land to finance the costs involved in the purchase, maintenance, and improvement of state-run colleges. The State of Michigan anticipated the Morrill Act by several years, and the institution that became Michigan State University served as a model for the Morrill Act and all land grant colleges that followed.
“In 1855 the Michigan Legislature passed Act 130 which provided for the establishment of the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan and appropriated ‘twenty-two sections [about 14,000 acres] of Salt Spring Lands for its support and maintenance…’ and $40,000 to carry the college through its first 2 years of operation.”[www.msu.edu]
The 676.57 acres originally purchased under the authority of this act straddled the border between Lansing and Meridian Townships—and straddled the Red Cedar River—and fronted on the Lansing–Howell plank road. (Note that at the time, Michigan Avenue only reached as far east as Harrison Road, though an unpaved path led to the plank road along a similar line.) The property was owned by Colonel A. R. Burr of Lansing, though he apparently never lived on the land. The area north of the river was divided by the township line into two small farms, operated by Robert Burcham to the west, John Smith to the east. These pioneer farmers moved on, and the college acquired their two small farmhouses along with the property. Three campus buildings—College Hall, a dormitory, and a brick horse barn—were begun in an oak opening in 1856, and classes commenced on May 13, 1857.
Other, far more capable authors and historians have written extensively on the history of the Agricultural College and its growth into Michigan State University. It is in the reader’s best interest to look into the books listed as the primary sources for this site, especially the works by Beal, Kuhn, and Widder.
Rather than rehash the scholarship of those authors, this site instead contains a timeline of building construction, 1855–1924, along with any available photographs and/or maps by the author.