Union Literary Society House (1890—c.1954)
Former Union Literary Society House, circa 1934, when it was the English Building.
Photo Credit: M.S.U. Physical Plant.
One of the College’s primary duties beyond the teaching of scientific agriculture was to prepare young men for leadership positions in their home communities. An important part of this goal was practice in public speaking, debate, and writing skills. As a result, students organized societies that held regular forums for discussions, essays and lectures. In the 1860s each class formed its own lyceum, as they were known; their names ranged from the grandiloquent (The Cincinnatus Lyceum, The Excelsior Lyceum, The Sons of Demeter) to the droll (The Stoical Pen Yanker’s Society, or S.P.Y.S.).
Then in 1872, the first Greek-letter “secret” society was installed as the Iota chapter of Delta Tau Delta. The fraternity was exclusive in membership and emphasized brotherhood and loyalty, but otherwise its gatherings were not significantly different from those of a lyceum. But that added camaraderie was quite an attraction; another fraternity was chartered in the following year, and the class societies were soon occulted in attendance.
In response, twelve men from the classes of ’76, ’77, and ’78 founded the Union Literary Society on April 8, 1876. They asked President T. C. Abbot and Professor George Thompson Fairchild (Professor of English 1866–1879, acting President ’72–’73) for a faculty charter; the professors “urged them to invite all non-fraternity men, in order to preserve social equality in a growing college.” The student leaders refused, wanting to include only “the best men” so better to compete with other societies, including the fraternities.[Kuhn, pp. 130–132]
As an aside, this competitiveness—chiefly in literary oratory—should not be taken lightly from our modern perspective: to wit, Delta Tau Delta was itself formed in response to a rigged vote in an oratory competition at Bethany College, West Virginia, in 1858. And at M.A.C. in 1895, a student gunning for the national competition “left school for a few days to secure expert assistance.” When he returned and was brought before the faculty on truancy charges, he responded that “his duty to the society [was] paramount to his duty to the college.” He was suspended for the remaining two weeks of the fall term. His fellow seniors, believing he had been expelled, protested to the faculty. For their efforts in advocacy—some might have said insurgency—many were dismissed from the college, leaving the class of ’96 “a broken class.”[Kuhn, pp. 186–187]
The Union Literary Society probably received its faculty charter (Kuhn neglects to clarify this point), for the society at first met in a classroom in College Hall, then acquired space in the basement of the first Wells Hall, before building the Union Literary Society hall—on campus, just west of Wells Hall—in 1890. Many student societies met in College buildings, but U.L.S. was the only one ever to have its own building on campus.[Beal, p. 205. Lautner, p. 61] Its architect was F. S. Robinson of Grand Rapids, who “was at once time a student at the college.”[29th AR, pp. 54–55] Though generally referred to as a “house,” it only contained rooms for meetings and recreation, and was never used as a residence. Over the years the society evolved to include many of the “social attributes” of the fraternities. Its first president later wrote, “Under the mollifying influences of a pleasant room … our austere bearing broke. Music crept in (we had almost none at first) then came the ladies and later the banquets.”[Kuhn, p. 131] Ultimately, those literary societies that did not fade away came to be affiliated with national fraternities; U.L.S. merged with the Aetheon Society (founded in 1915), and became a chapter of Delta Chi in 1935.
By then, the society had already moved off campus: in 1927, the College purchased the building from the Union Literary Society. First the Department of English, and later (circa 1937) the Department of Foreign Language, made their homes there. It survived until the mid-1950s, when it was razed to make way for the new Library building (now Main Library, West Wing).