The early years of the Michigan Agricultural College were a constant battle for survival – lest the school be integrated with the university in Ann Arbor, or the farmers of the state deem M.A.C.’s program to be unsatisfactory, or the location too isolated. When the idea of an agricultural school was in its infancy, state-wide arguments ensued as to where the institution would be housed, whose jurisdiction it would fall under, and what courses would be appropriate for the new curriculum. There were proponents for both sides, but the founders of M.A.C. prevailed: the college would purchase its own land (which turned out to be the Burr Farm), and they would preside over their own affairs. The plan for the establishment of a school that provided practical scientific farming education was first written by one Bela Hubbard of Detroit in 1849, and was finalized by Governor Kingsley Bingham six years later. Two years following, in 1857, the first students of M.A.C. arrived for training in scientific agriculture.
However, the school was incredibly isolated; the capitol had only moved to its current Lansing location in the year 1847, and the nearest railroad was found forty miles away until 1862. To some, though, this was not a burden. The location and size of the M.A.C. property was beneficial in that it allowed for the institution to both literally and figuratively grow – the professors and farmers-in-training needed expansive land tracts for their agricultural experiments, in addition to having the space for addition and development of school buildings.
The founders of M.A.C. were conscious from the beginning of the relationship between the students and the location they were in. As Linda Stanford phrases the situation in her book MSU Campus, Buildings, Places, Spaces, “A school dedicated to the study of agriculture and the mechanic arts with a ‘liberal and practical’ curriculum
should be set in an environment reflective of nature…its architecture should reflect the nature of its curriculum. Therefore, early buildings were inexpensive, almost unadorned…” By the 1860s, twelve buildings in this style had been erected on campus. College Hall was completed by 1856, although it collapsed in 1918. The Cowles House was built the following year and is miraculously still standing. The first simple wooden bridge over Farm Lane – now traversed by hundreds of students daily – was built in 1861, and was supposedly styled in the likeness of one in New York City’s Central Park. By the 1870s, President Abbot realized the extent to which the campus might expand and created the Committee on Buildings and College Property in order to plan the location of drives, walks, buildings, and plants. It is doubtful, however, that he truly understood the outstanding institution M.A.C. would become one hundred and fifty years later.