Hello again everyone!
I do hope you have all enjoyed my recent writings. I put a lot of time and effort into them, and they may serve as springboards to later discussions. If you did not like them, well then rejoice in the fact that I want to move on! There have been other projects stirring around in my head, and I have been wanting to devout some time to those ideas.
What kind of ideas? I am sure this is what you are wondering (or maybe about lunch?), so I want to briefly introduce you to what I want to talk about for the near future. I’ve been thinking about stories, especially spiritual stories. These are the kinds of stories that circle around us, and in many ways give structure to our lives. At the same time, they are informed by our own experiences and history.
Those are what I want to talk about for the next few posts. I have always been fascinated by folklore and mythology. In a way, folklore is the spiritual stories of everyday folks. Mythology, at least most Indo-European mythologies, tend to focus more on gods, kings, and heroes. Basically, people that have some status or standing in society. People that aren’t peasant farmers, for the most part. Or mill workers, miners, or other everyday working folk. Hey, that’s why it’s called folklore.
In no small way, this is how we encounter the spirits each and every day; in whatever ways they present themselves. Maybe it is the story of the spirit we met in the woods, or the spirit in the lake? Or, as with what I want to talk about today, the spirits we meet on campus.
Back in October my wife and I attended my alma mater, Michigan State University, for their annual event Apparitions and Archaeology. In short, this event is collaboration between the Campus Archaeology Program, and the MSU Paranormal Society. It gave me a lot to think about, and I want to tell you about that now. So, without further ado, I present some of the spirits of MSU.
As way of a short introduction, I want to present some of the history of MSU. Surely, more can be found here.
(Fancy Map Image, from our tour)
MSU was founded in 1855, as the first agricultural college in the US, and a pioneer land grant college. The first buildings on the campus were primarily built by students, from local as well as imported materials. Few of these original buildings still stand, as most either fell over or burnt down. (Built by students, mostly heated by wood fires and steam boilers.)
The tour included several stops at historic sites around campus, and so it was a fun kind of scavenger hunt. I do not have the space to detail all the locations, so I encourage you to visit the links provided at the bottom of this post. But before I get there, I want to talk briefly about how I will be framing this discussion.
The intersection of archaeology and animism is a fascinating way to look at the spirits on MSU. Not only are the spirits themselves possessed of agency, but they are also a very real part of the memory of the land. Each of the sites have very real material remains buried beneath the ground, as part of the earth memory. Like human memories, these are fragmented and incomplete. But at the same time, they speak to us. The past speaks, through archaeology, and through the folklore that lives on to this day.
The Spirits of MSU, are the spirits of a place, as well as the memories of the land. They are as much science as they are folklore. So let’s look a little closer, shall we?
Beaumont Tower/College Hall
(Picture Today/Southeast corner of Beaumont Tower, 1928. Photo courtesy of MSU Archives and Historical Collections. )
“Prior to Beaumont Tower, College Hall, the first building on campus, was located at this spot. It was erected in 1856 and was the first structure in America that was dedicated to the instruction of scientific agriculture.
The tower itself was constructed where the northeast corner of College Hall once stood. Some of the foundation walls for the original building still exist underneath the sidewalks.” – CAP
I’ve decided to use quotes from the Campus Archaeology blog, because it gives you a brief history, and frees me up to talk about other aspects of this site. I was part of the Campus Archaeology program back in 2011. Part of College Hall collapsed in 1918, and if memory serves, part of its construction actually involved a stump under one of the load bearing walls. The early students didn’t have stump grinders, and really made due with what they had. That is at least part of the reason it came down.
But more than this, Campus Archaeology excavated part of the site around Beaumont Tower, and found numerous artifacts from College Hall, the very memory of the building that once stood. The foundations were still there, as well as cinder pathways. A blueprint of a memory, the spectre of a building that has long passed. The bones of a now buried construct.
Folklore tells of couples in 19th century dress walking around the tower, holding hands. Also, several sightings have been reported of a man with coattails in a stovepipe hat wandering around the Tower.
You see, the land below our feet is the ultimate complex system, which can have memories. It keeps the remains of old buildings like memories. And those buildings, may well keep some memories of the people that once inhabited the area. The spirits of people are remembered, and what is remembered lives.
(Students outside Saints’ Rest ca. 1857. Image from MSU Archives. )
Just like college hall, Saint’s Rest was one of the earliest buildings on campus. It was originally built in 1857. Like so many other buildings, it was not long for this world, burning to the ground in 1876.
Campus Archaeology got to investigate part of the site, and made numerous discoveries. In addition to foundations and the basement, the team also uncovered a privy. That is, an outhouse, which was a source for a wealth of artifacts.
Why? Because if you drop something into an outhouse, very few people I know are likely to go after it. Which lead the CAP team to the discovery of Mabel, a porcelain doll that is believed to possess an ominous spirit. She is said to throw things from time to time.
Besides Mabel, the MSU Paranormal Society has recorded several other incidents in the area;
“For years, students dressed in 19th-century clothing have been seen wandering through the area east of the MSU Museum—where Saints’ Rest once stood. Another ghostly figure wearing overalls and work boots has been spotted, suggesting the spirit of a maintenance worker lingers nearby.” – Spartan Spirits
The ghosts of a remembered past, still looking for what was lost? Or something to fix?
Mary Mayo Hall
(Image from here)
“The most infamous story is that of Mary Mayo herself, who can be seen wandering the hallways and playing the piano in the “Red Room,” rumored to have been used for satanic rituals and where a young woman may have died. The entire floor is now closed, but unexplained lights and figures often are seen through the windows of the 4th floor.” – Spartan Spirits
Mayo Mary Hall, unlike College Hall and Saints’ Rest, is one of the buildings that is still standing on campus today. Mary Mayo herself was a strong advocate for a women’s curriculum, and the women’s dormitory that bears her names was originally constructed in 1931.
Excavations in the area uncovered lots of early construction material, such as wooden plumbing and locally made bricks from the clay of the Red Cedar river.
I’ve only touched upon some of the sites found on our tour through campus, and again I encourage you to visit some of the websites below for other pictures and additional information.
In closing, I spent most of the tour thinking about the intersection of folklore, archaeology, and animism. You see, there are many unseen agencies in our environment. Some of these are right below our feet, the actual physical memories of things that once were. Artifacts, old building materials, porcelain dolls that mysteriously have fallen into privies. These are the very real ghosts of our past, memories of the earth beneath us.
Yet, animism, says that the world is full of persons, many of which are other-than-human. Stories that have gained meaning over time, folk tales that may contain actual truth, or even the agencies of fanciful tales spun for the sake of an eager audience.
In my animism, those stories have a power all their own, their own special kind of agency. Whether they are spirits of the unseen, spirits of the spoken word, they have power. Power to shape our reality, to make us think about what once was. A story is the spirit of a memory, the spirit of a place.
Because reality is more than just what we can touch and feel, sometimes it is far less corporeal. Sometimes it is the memories of a place, and how we relate to those stories.
Thanks for reading!