Near the sylvan lanes of the quiet town of Amherst, Massachusetts, a great experiment was about to begin. As a young nation struggled through a bitter civil war, its beleaguered president, Abraham Lincoln, long a strong advocate of opportunity and freedom, made a farsighted and important decision. With his signature, the Land Grant Act of 1862 (Morrill Act) became law. Federal aid was to be given to establish colleges to provide instruction in agriculture and the mechanical arts. This act of Congress contained the empowering clause, "in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life."
In response, a revolutionary school curriculum was developed by educators and enthusiastic trustees that combined modern farming, science, technical courses, and liberal arts. The goal of converting the drudging farmer into a progressive citizen met with some initial skepticism, but proponents rallied to the cause and the movement surged ahead. American agriculture demanded new machinery, improved methods, and greater productivity.
The Massachusetts Agricultural College (M.A.C.) was one of the first land-grant colleges and it brought a new opportunity for the common man without means. Here was a chance to study at reduced tuition rates and gain experience through work. The college reflected the national will to train, educate, and promote its working classes for the betterment of all. In fact, its first charge had the noble aspiration of improving the welfare of the human race.
Four farms were purchased in 1864 and 383 acres were combined to provide a site for the new college. In fall 1867, the first class of 47 students and four faculty entered the newly constructed buildings that comprised the original campus. These included a chemistry lab, North and South colleges, a dining hall affectionately dubbed the Old Hash House, and a botanic museum. The most prominent and magnificent of these new structures, however, was the Durfee Conservatory. A Victorian plant house par excellence, it was a jewel set in a beautiful pastoral setting, reflecting the best efforts of the Commonwealth in horticulture and serving as an attractive showplace for exhibition and instruction.