John C. Holmes
John C. Holmes, circa 1883. Photo Credit: Beal, p. 400.
John Clough Holmes (1809–1887) was, by all accounts, the man most responsible for the establishment of the Agricultural College. Professor Beal called him “the most important agent” of the school, while President Abbot said, “To no one man is the College so much indebted as to John Clough Holmes.”[Beal, p. 401.] Yet there is a darkness to his tale that goes unmentioned in the written record, and Holmes’ name is virtually unknown to the general public today.
J. C. Holmes came to Michigan from Massachusetts in 1835, and gained employment in a Detroit merchant store. Within five years he had married the boss’ daughter, and soon was a partner in the family business as well. His personal affairs in order, Holmes set out to make a change for his adopted state.[Beal, p. 401.]
Holmes served as president of the Detroit Horticultural Society in 1847. The following two years he was a member of the Board of Education of Detroit. Then in 1849 he co-founded the Michigan State Agricultural Society.
The Michigan State Agricultural Society immediately assumed a lofty goal: to foster the establishment of an agricultural college in the state of Michigan. Holmes, who served as secretary of the Agricultural Society from 1849 to 1857, was also the agricultural college’s most tenacious proponent. In conference with his fellow society members, he drafted a legislative bill that would create the college. Significantly, Holmes (among others) vehemently propounded that this college be independent of both the University in Ann Arbor and the Normal School in Ypsilanti, for he “feared that agricultural studies would not receive the attention needed to survive and thrive” at those schools.[Widder, monograph of 16 Jan 2004.]
“Secretary John C. Holmes addressing the Michigan State Agricultural Society, 1849.” Image source: Kuhn, p. ii.
After five years of building a consensus and garnering petition signatures from across the state, Holmes travelled at his own expense to Lansing, arriving on January 14, 1855, for the winter legislative session with petitions and his draft in hand. Over the next four weeks, he shepherded the bill through both houses, cementing support, protecting its essentials, and defending it from the predations of University president Henry Tappan. Ultimately, the act as signed by Governor Kinsley S. Bingham on February 12 contained only two significant differences from the draft Holmes presented: that the purchase price not exceed $15 per acre, rather than the $25 Holmes desired; and that the site must be within ten miles of Lansing, a provision added to silence the various factions that wanted the new college built in their own backyards.[Kuhn, p. 10]
Holmes’ work had only begun, because Act 130 put the Agricultural Society wholly in charge of selecting the site for the Agricultural College. In June 1855 Holmes and the society’s executive committee visited nine sites of offered land, including some near “the present towns of Holt, Millett, DeWitt, and Haslett.”[Kuhn, p. 11] As a result of the low offering price of $15 per acre, all of the sites were uncleared land, and many were quite untenable for a campus. But one of the sites looked like it might do, and Holmes wrote the proposal to purchase the 677-acre Burr farm. He also included a second proposal, outlining both the college’s organization and “specific appointments for a staff.”[Kuhn, pp. 11–12. Lautner, p. 18]
The State Board of Education approved the site purchase in July 1855, but months later had proven unable to make any progress in deciding on basics for the college—including what buildings it might require. The Board turned to Holmes, who had continued to acquaint himself with the site by making some preliminary surveys. After some consideration, he reported back to the Board that the school required two main buildings: a combination classroom and office building, and a dormitory. Thus, John C. Holmes is the man responsible for the design of both College Hall and the original dormitory, now known as Saints’ Rest. In addition, although Lautner makes a point of noting that “who proposed the sites for these first buildings is not answered in any record,” he concedes that Holmes’ ubiquitous hand makes it unlikely that anyone else made that decision.[Lautner, p. 19]
The buildings were completed, and the first classes commenced in May 1857. As the College began operations, Holmes was appointed its treasurer. Showing that no decision was small enough to escape his view, he is said to have “supervised the placing of chairs and tables in College Hall.” The college’s 200-volume library was donated by the State Agricultural Society—curiously, this meant that Holmes (as secretary of the society) had conveyed the library to himself (as treasurer of the college).[Kuhn, p. 15]
The next few years are where the record gets cloudy and strange. In addition to treasurer, Holmes was appointed as the school’s first Superintendent of Horticulture, responsible for campus planning and planting. This title was used alternately with Professor—but not for long. On February 5, 1858, the Horticulture Professorship was suspended in order to release funds to appoint a Professor of English Literature (T. C. Abbot); the Board felt that “the present uncultivated state of the Farm” hardly warranted a full-time horticulturalist as yet. Even so, Holmes was allowed to continue residing in one of the original Faculty Row houses until the end of the term (though which one, № 4, 5, 6 or 7, is not specified).[Minutes, 5 Feb 1858, p. 37. Lautner, p. 23]
Then on March 7, 1859, Holmes was asked to resign as treasurer, and he complied. Some time in that year or the one following, he was appointed once again as Superintendent of Horticulture, a position in which he taught no classes but rather supervised students in planting the College gardens and improving the grounds. Through 1861 he continued to be listed in the college catalog under various titles including Professor of Horticulture, Secretary, and Treasurer.[Minutes, 7 Mar 1859, p. 46. Kuhn, p. 30. Beal, p. 401]
Yet after 1861, there is silence. As part of the major reorganization of the College that year that transferred control from the Board of Education to the newly formed Board of Agriculture, Holmes was “not retained despite the urging of his colleagues and the unquestioned spiritual debt which the College owed him.”[Kuhn, p. 65] Holmes returned to the Detroit area, lived another twenty-six years, and continued to be active in his community, yet never again held any official position at the College. There is no known explanation for this change of fortune, but as Lautner wrote, “clearly there were troubles here other than financial ones that are not suggested in the minutes.”[Lautner, p. 24]
Lautner continues by contrasting Holmes’ legacy with that of John Harvard, whose donation of a modest library and four hundred British pounds led to a major university that bears his name, implying that M.S.U.’s debt to Holmes is far greater. Circa 1883, President Abbot wrote that “Mr. Holmes is still a not infrequent and always welcome visitor at the college, and one of its warmest friends.” One hundred years after the founding, Kuhn’s high regard for Holmes was clear, with the above painting included as the frontispiece of his book—an image clearly meant to signify the exact moment of the Agricultural College’s genesis, imbued with an almost mythological glow.
The record of his fundamental and indispensable influence in the creation of Michigan State University is unquestioned, if perhaps incomplete. Throughout the various written histories of M.S.U. he is held in high esteem. Yet it was not until 1965, more than one hundred years after his departure, that a campus building at M.S.U. would be named for John Clough Holmes—an east campus residence hall which now houses the Lyman Briggs College.