“I’m a digger.”
It was 8:30 a.m., and my friend Monica Mercado and I were standing in the lobby of Fuller House at Wiawaka, a women’s retreat center on Lake George. By indicating that we’re diggers, we made it known that we were not there to quilt, as some women were, or to rest and relax. We were there to do archaeology, to dig in the dirt.
Until last week, I had never participated in an archeological dig. But I decided it would be fun to spend a couple of days at the dig at Wiawaka, which I had written about in an article for the Gazette in 2012.
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, Wiawaka Holiday House is the oldest continuously operating women’s retreat center in the United States. It opened in 1903, charged with providing young female factory workers from the Capital Region with an affordable and wholesome vacation. In those early years, the majority of guests were employed as shirt-collar makers, laundresses and mill workers in Cohoes and Troy, once known as the “City of Women” because so many were working in the garment industry there.
The concept of women’s retreat centers came into being during the Progressive Era, a period of social activism that began in the 1890s and lasted until the 1920s. Causes included women’s suffrage, prohibition, the passage of food safety laws, the building of public parks and other causes aimed at lifting up and enlightening the poor. One big concern was the living and working conditions of factory workers.
Today’s Wiawaka guests hail from a variety of backgrounds — I didn’t meet any impoverished mill workers during my brief stay — and men are welcome in July. The place is essentially a summer camp for adults — meals are provided, there’s swimming, hiking and boating and the making of new friends is encouraged, if not required. The green wristband I wore to identify myself as an overnight guest wasn’t very different from the name tag I was once required to pin on my shirt at summer camp.
The leader of the diggers is Megan Springate, a doctoral student in historical archaeology at the University of Maryland. A native of Ontario, Springate became interested in Wiawaka after learning about the retreat center from a National Park Service list, “Places Where Women Made History,” that highlights 74 properties in New York and Massachusetts.
In 2010, she visited Wiawaka for the first time in response to a call for volunteers to help open up the grounds for the season, and she became interested in learning the stories of the women who stayed there. The artifacts uncovered during the dig will help her develop a more nuanced picture of the women who stayed at Wiawaka during its early years.
After breakfast, Springate led us to the dig site. We worked in a shaded hollow that was once the site of the Crosbyside Hotel, a fancy resort built in the 1840s. The hotel is of interest to Springate because Wiawaka was based there for its first two years, 1903-05, until the building was destroyed by fire.
Half of our group dug in the privy, the Crosbyside’s long-defunct outhouse (the old hotel could accommodate about 200 people). The rest of us spent most of the day working in a hole that contained what Springate referred to as a “fire layer” — a layer of dirt filled with destruction debris from the burned hotel. This fire layer is important because it can help pinpoint the date of artifacts.
“Anything in the burn and destruction layer was deposited in 1905,” Springate explained. “It may have been manufactured earlier. … The fire was horrible for [its victims], but it’s great for archaeology.”
I offered to dig and lowered myself into the hole. There was a rock jutting into the hole that I made note of — I didn’t want to bash my head on it — as well as a pipe-like root that spanned the center of the pit, which was about 3 feet by 3 feet wide and about 2 feet deep. As the day wore on, I actually found the root useful — I could sit on it or use it as a step when climbing in and out of the hole.
Using a trowel, I scraped aside dirt from the floor of the hole. I didn’t examine the dirt for artifacts, though occasionally something caught my eye, such as a thin metal object Springate believed might be a lever or a burned nail. Instead, I pushed the dirt into a dustpan with the trowel and deposited it into an orange bucket. The bucket was then dumped into a sifter, which separated the soil from larger objects that merited scrutiny. As I dug, I sometimes heard my workmates talk excitedly as they examined the contents of my dirt.
At one point, I poked my head up and asked, “What are you finding?”
“Everything,” replied Jen Allen, an archeologist from Maryland and a friend of Springate who is volunteering her services. We had found charcoal, ceramics, mortar, nails, glass and chunks of brick, and we carefully labeled each bag of artifacts.
“The most important thing is to know where the artifacts come from,” Springate told us.
Done for now
This is the final week of excavation for the summer; during the dig’s five-plus weeks, Springate worked with more than 50 volunteers. There’s a term for this type of project: public archaeology. The idea is that engaging everyday people in a dig educates them about the past as well as the field of archaeology.
“We’re giving people the opportunity to do archaeology and learn how history is done, to be able to talk to people about what women’s lives were like, about relationships between the classes, to ask how women’s lives have changed,” Springate says. “This is a way to start those conversations. … Part of what I’m doing is feminist archaeology. I’m not just looking at gender in the past. I’m connecting the past to the present.”
Springate is a good teacher and leader. She offered clear, easy-to-understand explanations of how to do certain tasks and why we were doing them, and she never seemed to lose her patience, which I found pretty remarkable considering the number of volunteers with whom she’s worked. Her friend and assistant Allen, who was visiting upstate New York for the first time, was also a calm and reassuring presence.
Like Springate, Allen believes public archaeology serves a valuable educational purpose.
“I’ll tell people that I’m an archaeologist, and they’ll say, ‘Dinosaur bones!’ or ‘Indiana Jones!’ They don’t know what archaeology is,” she explained.
On Monday, there were seven in our group, including Springate.
"I met Joe Zarzynski, an underwater archaeologist from Wilton. And I met the creator of the Twitter feed @AlbanyArchives etc., a compendium of factoids, photographs and images about Capital Region history. Both Zarzynski, 63, and @AlbanyArchives have a knack for storytelling and historical name-dropping; references to notable figures such as Calvin Coolidge and Philip Schuyler abound.
My friend Monica, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago in U.S. history, with a focus on women and religion, also knows a thing or two about history. And on Friday, we were joined by Zarzynski’s wife, Pat Meaney, who has studied archaeology at Schenectady County Community College.
Another dig participant, Greenfield resident Cheryl Jenks, 55, said she signed on to the project because she wanted to experience Wiawaka and explore her long-standing interest in archaeology. Wiawaka is the fourth local archaeological project she’s worked on.
“This is a cool vacation,” Jenks tells me.
So close and yet so far
Wiawaka is proof you don’t need to travel that far from civilization to get away from it all.
Though the site occupies 60 acres in the Adirondack Park, at the base of French Mountain, I could hear the traffic from Route 9L and the loud hum of the steamboats on Lake George; periodically, we were treated to snippets of calliope music.
It was raining Tuesday morning, so we spent the first half of the day in “the lab” — an old icehouse converted into a modest workstation — washing artifacts. This entailed filling plastic bins with water, placing dirt-encrusted artifacts in the water to rinse, then scrubbing each artifact clean with a toothbrush.
Initially, washing artifacts struck me as a pretty boring activity — I’d much rather be outside. But I soon discovered it’s a surprisingly interesting and absorbing way to pass the time. For one thing, we were only washing glass and ceramic artifacts, and although some of the items were fairly nondescript, I found many of them intriguing, even beautiful.
My first bag of artifacts yielded a trove of pretty objects: thin, blue shards, fingernail-like slivers of glass, remnants of an amber-colored bottle. On a glimmering green piece of glass, I discovered small but legible words: “Superfine Bordeaux.” Springate told me the words refer to a type of French olive oil.
I didn’t see all of the artifacts retrieved from Wiawaka’s grounds. Springate told me diggers also found buttons, beads of glass, straight pins, shoe leather, parts of cans, dishes and toiletries such as hand cream bottles.
“This is a very intimate look at women’s lives,” Springate said.
By Tuesday afternoon, the rain had stopped and we headed back to the dig site. I returned to the fire hole to scrape away dirt. Springate told me to be on the lookout for subtle changes in soil color and features such as pits and walls — the brick lining of the privy, uncovered earlier this summer, is one example.
Technically, I was below the fire line, and although I turned up the occasional burnt nail or melted piece of glass, artifacts were few and far between. However, I soon hit an unfamiliar white object in the northeast corner: I tapped it with the trowel, expecting it to chip and flake like mortar, but it was as hard as a brick. I kept digging, and it became clear that I’d found something. I got out of the hole, and Springate got in to investigate.
Jenks, who has looked at old photos of the Crosbyside, said, “I wonder if it was one of the columns. The hotel had columns.” Meanwhile, Zarzynski joked it might be part of the hotel’s dance pavilion.
“It’s a thing, that’s for sure,” Springate said. “It’s a foundation or footing.” Whatever it was, it was made of cut stone and mortar.
With the dig wrapping up at the end of the week, Springate said 11th hour discoveries are quite common in archaeology.
“We’re just getting started,” she said.
Springate has already taken 26 boxes of artifacts back to a lab at the University of Maryland and will leave Monday with another five. She plans to return for four weeks next summer to continue the dig.
I left Wiawaka on Tuesday afternoon after a quick swim, but I continue to monitor the dig’s project via social media, and I’m excited to see that continued digging has uncovered more hotel foundation stones.
What else is down there? I have no idea. But it will be interesting to find out.