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Land-grant exhibit looks back at 150 years of U of M history

“The Morrill Act came along in 1862, at a time when this institution’s future look especially bleak,” explained Erik Moore, an Andersen Library archivist.

map of u of m c. 1885

Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
The 1885 map of the University of Minnesota campus shows just a handful of buildings.

The 1885 map shows a handful of buildings scattered throughout the wedge-shaped campus overlooking the Mississippi River.  They included the Main Building, known as Old Main, the Agriculture Building and, at the upper left corner of the campus, a massive structure identified as the Coliseum.

This early University of Minnesota map, on display at the Atrium Gallery in the university’s Elmer L. Andersen Library, is part of an exhibit marking the 150th anniversary of the federal Land Grant Agricultural College Act, better known as the Morrill Act.  

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The exhibit, entitled “For the Common Good,” opens today. It shows how the federal measure helped shape the development of the university and influenced the school’s perception of its role in the broader community.

‘Future looked especially bleak’

“The Morrill Act came along in 1862, at a time when this institution’s future look especially bleak,” explained Erik Moore, an Andersen Library archivist who helped organize the exhibit. “The university was closed, it was deeply in debt, and its one building was only partially completed.  The act was a lifeline that helped the university survive those difficult times.”

Founded in 1851, the fledgling institution had been forced to close when it was hard hit by the financial panic of 1857-58. The land-grant exhibit includes an account of that troubled era in an 1868 report to Minnesota Governor William Marshall from John S. Pillsbury, who is widely credited with rescuing the school and nursing it back to financial health.

“The material prosperity of the State was for a time prostrated amid misfortune and discouragements,” wrote Pillsbury, who would later be elected governor. “On account of the lack of accessible funds, great difficulty was found in the payment of demands against the University, and for this reason the institution became involved and seemed likely to sink under heavy debt.”

With access to new revenues Pillsbury helped reopen the U

In 1867, five years after the Morrill Act was signed into law by President Lincoln, Pillsbury, then a U of M Regent, helped reopen the school and obtain federal designation as the state’s official land grant institution.

“There are misconceptions that the Morrill Act provided the land upon which schools like this one were built,” said Moore. “But that was not the case. What the act did was to give the land-grant schools access to revenues from the sale of certain federal land donated to the states.”

The University of Minnesota, like other land-grant institutions, was expected to comply with the goals of 1862 act, enacted during the Civil War. Those goals included the promotion of training in “military tactics,” along with the more peacetime pursuits of agriculture and mechanical arts. 

Cadets in front of the Armory building, c. 1900.
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
The Armory on the Minneapolis campus replaced the Coliseum as the site for compulsory military drill.

The 1885 university map reflects those early legislative goals. It shows the Coliseum, a large field house that was used for military drills. The Coliseum was the predecessor of the 1896 Armory, today one of the university’s most revered historical landmarks.  Compulsory military drills at the Armory, a legacy of the Civil War-era legislation, continued  through the 1930s until they were abolished by the Board of Regents.

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Agriculture, mechanical arts

In addition to the Coliseum, the map shows an agriculture building, which later burned down. After  the fire, agricultural training would be consolidated on the newly built St. Paul campus.

At the center of the campus, 1885 diagram shows a “site for College of Mechanical Arts.”  The next year, in 1886, construction would begin on the mechanical arts building, today known as Eddy Hall,  the oldest campus building still in continuous use.

mechanic arts building
Courtesy of the University of Minnesota
The Mechanic Arts building, now known as Eddy Hall, is the oldest campus building still in continuous use.

The Andersen Library exhibit does more than look back at the school’s early history.  As part of a more extensive university observance of the Morrill Act’s 150th anniversary, the exhibit examines current U of M  efforts to move beyond its campus boundaries to serve the broader community. These include the new University Outreach/Engagement Center in North Minneapolis (UROC).

“In 1862, Morrill Act laid out community service as a mission for land-grant institutions,” Moore said. “That mission continues to guide the university today.” 

“For the Common Good” will remain on display at the Elmer L. Andersen Library’s  Atrium Gallery through Nov. 30. For more information, contact the University of Minnesota Archives at (612) 624-0562.