One of the primary objectives of the project was to determine how the early agricultural college obtained food and what they were both acquiring and consuming.

Food Acquisition

Today, MSU has the advantage of modern transportation and bulk food suppliers to make the task of feeding 40,000 students easier. Although the student population was much smaller in the nineteenth century, it must have been a great challenge for the State Agricultural College to acquire the amount of food needed to feed the students and faculty, considering the limited amount of transportation available in and out of East Lansing at the time. Railroads reached Lansing by at least the 1860s, but all roads leading into campus/East Lansing were reportedly very poor, making the delivery of goods from town an unsavory task for horses and wagons (UA.17.107 F10 B2410). However, certain items were ordered via mail or train, such as teas and extracts, which are always noted to have the added expense of “express”. The first direct railroad line between Detroit and Lansing opened up in August of 1871 (MDOT 2014), and the first mention of food items being purchased occurred in April of 1872, when “express on extracts from Detroit” was paid. By early 1873, “freight from Detroit” was a very common listing amongst provisions purchases, indicating a change in the ways in which food was being procured and perhaps even influencing the types of foods being selected. “Fresh fish from Detroit” became increasingly more common after this time as well.

Students working in field 1892. Image Courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections

Students had to work in the gardens producing food for the college, but they did not produce enough to fully supply the boarding halls with their produce needs, as evidenced by the frequency of vegetables and fruits purchased in the account books. The image to the right shows students working in a farm field in 1892 (Image courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections). In 1871 the account books begin to formally record the transactions between the “garden” (and later the Horticulture Department) and the boarding halls. Garden purchases include items such beets, parsnips, salsify, pickles, onions, cabbage, and carrots (UA 17.107, Vol. 32). In 1872 they begin listing purchases of meat and milk from the Farm Department. The boarding hall bought 6838 lbs. (795 gallons) of milk from the MAC farm in June of 1872 alone! In 1872, Beal himself mentions that crops and the garden did well and were used in the boarding halls, but that the “orchards and fruit gardens are a disgrace to the Agricultural College” (UA 17.4, B891, F16). While food needed to be purchased from sources outside of the college, it was partially self-sustaining.

Meat in the 1860s was purchased almost exclusively from a butcher named A. Bertch – he was billed monthly but the types of meats purchased are usually not listed. Some individual meat purchases were recorded – veal, beef, mutton, and pork were all offered on the boarding hall menu at some point or another. Flour was purchased in bulk from vendors like Thoman & Co. and Reitz & Beiderslatt. “Groceries” were obtained from the grocers E.B. Miller and J. Esselstyne & Son, and the details of the items within those bulk purchases are lost to time.

Eggs and butter were frequently purchased by the boarding halls. Sometimes the accountant listed the people from whom butter and eggs were purchased, usually the names of individuals. The college therefore had to coordinate with various local farmers and producers to procure enough eggs and butter to feed hundreds of students and faculty. In May of 1871, one account book (UA 107.17 Vol. 32) lists payments for 273 pounds of butter and for 246 dozen eggs!

Types of Food

Account books from the boarding halls from 1866 to 1874 documented the types of foods the early college was purchasing to feed students. As mentioned above, they bought a LOT of butter and eggs, often from local farmers.

Boarding Hall Provisions Account. Salsify purchase highlighted. Image Courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections

Food acquisition by the College was restricted by the seasonality of foods. Most fruits and vegetables are only available during the season of the year in which they ripen or are harvested. The boarding house bought berries exclusively between July and September, while cherries are purchased almost every year, only in the month of July. Other summer items purchased only in summer months include plums, tomatoes, beets, radishes, summer squash, and salsify, a root vegetable that tastes like oysters. Grapes and pears, which are available in the fall, were both purchased in November, and turnips, and autumnal vegetable indeed, were procured in August and September. Dried fruit, dried apples, and dried peaches, however, were purchased mostly between February and April, although dried peaches were also bought in July. Therefore in the absence of fresh fruit, dried alternatives were sought to supplement the daily nutrition of students and faculty. The image to the left shows Boarding Hall provisions account, with the salsify purchase highlighted (Image courtesy of the Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections)

Other seasonal items were also noted in the account books. Maple syrup was purchased in March and April, when sap would be flowing freely through the Michigan maple trees. MSU diners happily guzzled down cider as the apples ripened and the weather turned chilly from September to November. And of course, MSU maintained holiday traditions as well. Pumpkins were bought annually in October, either for decoration or consumption, and large numbers of turkeys were procured in November. Even our earliest students were lulled into tryptophan comas following their Thanksgiving feasts.

Special Occasions

It’s clear from these books that some foods were reserved for special occasions or came at too high a price to buy in bulk for students. President Abbot purchased beef steak, veal, and oysters through the college account (UA 17.107, Vol. 32), all items that do not frequently appear in the books otherwise. Canned oysters were purchased for students only occasionally: “oysters and jelly for commencement” and “18 cans of oysters, supper for students, Week of Fires” both show up in 1871 (UA 17.107, Vol. 32). For more information on the 19th century obsession with oysters, check out this awesome blog post.