It Happened at Michigan — Teaching farmers in Ann Arbor


No one will mistake today’s University of Michigan for an agricultural college. But for a few years before the Civil War, U-M leaders were determined to teach the art and science of farming.

President Henry P. Tappan was committed to building agriculture into the U-M curriculum, which pitted him against the powerful Michigan State Agricultural Society. Where Tappan and U-M faculty argued that agriculture students would receive a well-rounded education by attending Michigan, the society’s leaders wanted a separate state university with an experimental farm for research and practice.

An old photo of farmers pitching hay.
Farmers pitch hay on a Detroit farm. Agriculture accounted for the bulk of Michigan’s economy in the mid-19th century. (Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library)

No sooner had Tappan begun his presidency in 1852 than he challenged the state’s farmers.

“O say, farmers of Michigan, that our great desire is to make the University useful to you and we are determined to do it. We will educate all your sons who wish to be educated for the different professions,” Tappan said.

That did not sit well with J.C. Holmes, an officer of the Agricultural Society. “To teach thoroughly the science and practice of agriculture must be the main object of the institution, for our agricultural interest is paramount to all other interests in the state; therefore, these teaching must not be made secondary or subservient to any other object.”

U-M regents plowed ahead, putting up money for new courses, agriculture periodicals for the library, and chemicals for the campus laboratory. 

An old photo of the early campus of U-M.
U-M leaders believed their young campus was the ideal location for an agriculture department to educate the state’s farmers. (Bentley Historical Library)

In mid-1854, regents appointed Charles Fox, an Episcopalian rector living on Grosse Ile and editing a journal called Farmer’s Companion and Horticultural Gazette, as professor of theoretical and practical agriculture in LSA. His appointment was a first not only for U-M but also for any college in the state.

And then everything collapsed. Fox succumbed to cholera in July 1854 before he could teach his first course, and plans for a U-M Agricultural School died with him. A year later, state lawmakers established the Agricultural College of the State of Michigan — today’s Michigan State University.

The state’s first professor of agriculture, Charles Fox, is memorialized in a large Tiffany window on the north side of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.


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