November 14, 2023

Built For Students, By Students: November 2023 Marks 100th Anniversary of MSU Union “Excavation Week”

The creation of union buildings on campuses around the U.S. was an exciting trend at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1905, Michigan State University — then the Michigan Agricultural College (MAC) — developed plans for a union of its own and a committee was formed to oversee the project. Funds at the time, however, were scarce. 

It wasn’t until 1915 when the concept of the MAC Union was revived. Each student from that graduating class pledged $5 (about $152 based on today’s inflation), and with the help of the Alumni Association, plans for construction were developed. However, construction of the building would be brought to a halt due to World War I — the building was later named the Memorial Union for a short time in honor of U.S. soldiers who perished in service to the country.

The official MAC Union Building Groundbreaking ceremony took place June 16, 1923, followed by what was called Excavation Week, which began Nov. 19.

Organized by Alumni Association Secretary Robert J. McCarthy and lasting five days, the event saw male students, faculty and community volunteers divvied up into teams of 30. The names of the students were listed in The Holcad newspaper where students were directed to look for the day and time of their shifts and their shift leader (W.C. Johnson, Don Clark, Matrice Taylor, A.C. MacIntyre, Harold Archibold, Elmer Perrine, Bub Kuhn, Ted Frank, J.L. Kidman, and Dutch Allen). 

The morning shift would work from 8 a.m.-noon, with the afternoon shift working 1-5 p.m. Throughout Excavation Week, the Swartz Creek and Varsity bands performed, refreshments were served, and students competed against professors for daily prizes. Perhaps a sign of the times, women were relegated to serving drinks and meals as well as writing up class absence excuses for the digging teams each day. Four students on the women’s team also tallied the amount of dirt dug each shift to help determine the prize winners. Students and faculty removed three thousand cubic yards of dirt in four and a half days. 

It was truly a one-of-a-kind event, making headlines across the country. From The Holcad, it was the first of its time: “In undertaking the task of doing the excavating for the Union Memorial Building, M.A.C. is setting a precedent for [U.S.] colleges. Never before has anything of this magnitude been accomplished by the students of an educational institution.” 

Less than two years later, the MAC Memorial Union opened Jun 12, 1925. The main entrance was off of faculty row (currently West Circle Drive), and the facility featured 11 dining rooms (some available to both men and women; some available only to men), 10 conference rooms, a two-story assembly hall, separate lounging rooms for men and women, a barbershop, a beauty salon, a billiards room (for men only), and a total of 16 guest rooms each with its own bathroom. It was truly the first of its kind in the nation. 

Throughout the past 100 years since Excavation Week, what we now know as the MSU Union has undergone many changes and renovations to become the meeting space Spartans know and love today. 

To honor Excavation Week, the University Activities Board (UAB) will be hosting several events with and in the MSU Union, starting with an Excavation Week Centennial Celebration on Nov. 20, from 2-4 p.m., on the main floor, upper lounge. Attendees can learn about the building's unique history, enjoy cake, ice cream, commemorative cups and more. 

This past summer, the MSU Union also acknowledged the 100th anniversary of the official groundbreaking for the building June 16. The MSU community looks forward to celebrating more moments in MSU Union history as it approaches its 100th anniversary in 2025.

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