The Beal Legacy

7 09 2012

This photograph shows Dr. Beal sitting in his “Wild Garden,” before planting had begun.

Being the famous pioneer Land Grant Institute that Michigan State University is, it follows that we have been a leader in environmental activism since the college was established.  The area of East Lansing that was to become the Michigan Agricultural College originally belonged to the Potawatomi tribe, who maintained the landscape by setting fires on a regular basis.  When the first class dedicated the grounds, one student, Charles Monroe, commented on the scene, where he noticed that, “…at every point of the compass to which you turned, you beheld dead and blackened trees which presented a most desolate scene.”

“The Pinetum” is one of the many natural areas set aside during Beal’s time that still exists today.

Creating and maintaining a beautiful campus became a goal for the school.  Within four years of Monroe’s statement, students had planted 2,000 trees on campus.  Ten years after that, Dr.’s Robert Kedzie and William Beal began work not just on campus, but throughout Michigan to replenish the many pine forests removed earlier in the century.   They began the process of acquiring land across Michigan, which today reaches 17,000 acres, for the purpose of preservation and study, and they set aside over 200 acres on the school grounds to maintain as natural areas.  In 1873, Dr. William J. Beal created his most impressive specimen on campus: what was affectionately known as his “Wild Garden,” later renamed the Beal Botanical Garden.  As of today, the garden is the oldest of its kind in the United States, and it holds over 5,000 species and varieties of plants.

Beal built a structure for botany on campus that has gotten MSU national recognition, even being ranked in America’s 25 Most Aesthetic Campuses in 1992 by Thomas Gaines.  He created small arboretums across campus that miraculously still stand today, he made what is thought to be one of the first tree and plant labeling programs in the country – which is now the most extensive in America, he established a laboratory and collection for a botanic museum, and he pioneered research into multiple areas of botanical study.  In addition, as early as 1873, he was responsible for starting the tradition at MSU of trading seeds and plant species with horticulturists around the world, bringing the college’s botanical practice into the international sphere.

The Beal Botanical Garden is shown here fully operational, almost forty years after its creation in 1909.

The careful observance and maintenance of our campus’s plants has not lessened since the time when Beal painstakingly began his work.  Bruce McCristal explains in his book The Spirit of Michigan State that MSU currently holds over 7,800 types of trees, plants, and flowers on the grounds, with—just to make an impression—over 300 varieties of crab apple trees.  The landscapers of MSU work tirelessly year-round, taking down around a hundred diseased trees every year and adding up to 400 more.  And in addition to this, we continue to create new gardens and walkways each year to showcase the ever on-going and incredible work of our botanists.

MSU’s Whitehouse: A history of the residence of the president

19 04 2012

The Cowles House has become one of those staples of the MSU landscape. This beautiful farm cottage adorns the south side of West Circle Dr. and stands as one of the landmarks of MSU. Not many people, however, know the history behind this intriguing building…

With bricks molded from the mud of the banks of the Red Cedar, this house is currently the oldest existing building on our campus. It was one of four original residences built for faculty and and initially served as the house for the serving president of MSU. It was constructed in 1857 and housed past presidents until 1874. It was then converted into a faculty residence, the offices for the College of Education, and a female dormitory. The college eventually realized the need for a house specifically to serve as the residence of the president as the farm cottage had turned to other uses.

In 1873, a house designed by E. E. Meyer was constructed on the current site of Gilchrist Hall. This house would provide the home for Presidents Abbot, Willits, Clute, Gorton, and Snyder during their terms until 1915 when it was converted into a dormitory for women. It would serve this purpose for 10 years until it was then turned into a hospital in 1925. In 1939 the building was demolished as a way to make room for the new West Circle dormitories.

Over time, the farm cottage began being identified on maps as the residence of the professor of Botany. We can attribute this title to Dr. William Beal for he lived in the residence for 38 years from 1874 – 1941! In 1941, President John Hannah moved in postponing a much needed renovation. After World War II, the house underwent remodeling. This project, headed by alumnus Fredrick Cowles Jenison, turned the farm cottage into the structure that it is known as today. The project became very dear to Jenison as his grandfather, Albert Cowles, was a student of the first class of 1857 and helped gather material for the original foundations of the house. Jenison named the house after his grandmother, Alice B. Cowles, and we refer to the house as such today.

In 1986, the Michigan Historical Commission declared the Cowles House as a state historic site. Students can now, on the exceptional chance, have the opportunity to visit the house for a special dinner, graduation reception, or any other special gathering. If you walk inside, you will find three levels, all adorned with beautiful furniture. The first level is primarily used for gatherings and receptions. The two upper levels are home to a total of 6 bedrooms and the office of the president. It was tradition for the president of MSU to live in that house, however, president Lou Anna K. Simon chose not reside at the Cowles House.

The Cowles House is a beautiful piece of architecture that defines the beauty of our MSU campus. I encourage you all to stop by soon and appreciate the splendor of the oldest building at MSU.

Letter featured in Darwin Day Programs

3 02 2009

One of the treasures of the MSU Archives is featured in the 2009 Darwin Discovery Day programs at Michigan State University.  An 1878 letter written by Charles Darwin to MAC Professor William J. Beal is part of the online exhibition.  Darwin’s letter is in response to a letter that Beal had sent to him on May 2, 1878.

Charles Darwin's letter to William Beal

Darwin's letter to Beal


William Beal began lecturing in botany and horticulture at Michigan Agricultural College in 1870.  He is, perhaps, best remembered for the botanical gardens which bear his name.  While a professor at MAC, Beal conducted a number of experiments in horticulture.


In the mid-1870s, Beal was experimenting with cross-breeding corn to grow improved varieties.  At the same time,he read naturalist Charles Darwin’s book, The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilization in the Vegetable Kingdom.  The book stated crossing two samples of one variety, not two varieties, would yield an offspring with more vigor than either parent.  Beal wrote to Darwin expressing interest in experimenting with corn strains.  Darwin’s reply was encouraging.


Beal did try the experiment with corn in 1879 and discovered that his hybrid yield did have improved vigor over the parent strains.


2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday.  You can view the Discovering Darwin Day websites for more information.


A transcription of the letter:


May 21, 1878

Dear Sir

I am much obliged for your extremely kind notice of my book on Cross Fertilization and for your note of May 2d.  I have further to thank you for a copy of your article on Hairs [grasses] etc.  I am glad that you intend to experiment.  I remain,

Dear Sir,

Yours faithfully

Ch. Darwin