America’s First Agricultural College, 1938
Henry Bernstein (American, 1912 – 1964)
MSU Library, first floor

Originally commissioned by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts of the WPA for the old East Lansing Post Office on Abbott Road (now Dublin Square), this mural is typical of the emphasis on representational art, scenes of local history, and nostalgia for the disappearing rural life. The Section, however, did not initially approve of Bernstein’s proposals for the mural, which all related to Michigan State University. Although Bernstein felt that the communities of East Lansing and MSU were intertwined, the Section thought that scenes of student life were inappropriate for a public commission. Of the three proposals – scientific farming, students studying, and students at leisure – the Section finally approved farming, the most prevalent theme depicted in WPA murals in post offices. Farming was a definitive part of the environment of small town communities in the Midwest, and especially important to Michigan State University, the first land-grant college. Bernstein incorporated many of the typical components of farming murals encouraged by the Section. The mural depicts five agricultural students in nineteenth century dress reaping a harvest and has a general aura of prosperity and hard work emphasized by the abundance of produce, plush landscape, sunlit sky, and the absence of modern machinery – here replaced by an old-fashioned scythe. Take a moment to notice the cutout shape of the mural along the bottom edge, an indication of the specific wall for which the mural was originally designed. America’s First Agricultural College is on permanent loan from the Federal Government to the MSU Libraries.

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