Next Thursday, 15 May 2014, Tom Trombley and I will be presenting “A Vacant Lot Reveals a Sense of Place: An Archaeological Dig Reveals the Story of Saginaw’s Great Fire” at the Michigan Historic Preservation Network’s 34th Annual Conference in Jackson, Michigan. The conference theme is “Michigan Places Matter: Discovering how your community’s cultural resources can make placemaking unique.”
Our presentation will describe the Castle Museum’s award winning “Project 1893: Unearthing Saginaw’s Great Fire” in which we used historical and archaeological methods to find, excavate and interpret the remains of a house destroyed in Saginaw’s Great Fire of 1893. We sought to view this tragic event through the lens of a single family, thus personalizing the story and making it more compelling for today’s community. We invited the public to observe the excavation in progress, share stories about the neighborhood and discuss the project with the archaeologists. In this way, our results were presented as an ongoing dialogue rather than simply a lecture.
From the excavated artifacts, we were able to partially reconstruct the house’s appearance and learn about the family who lived there. Many of the artifacts we recovered were the personal belongings of the family members who endured through the tragedy. These items are important conduits between individuals and communities past and present. It becomes easy to put ourselves in the shoes of those who experienced the fire when we literally see the charred remains of their footwear.
Our analysis of the site formation processes also yielded unexpected insight into the nature of the community’s response to and recovery from this tragic event. In subsequent years, newspaper and other accounts describe the community as pulling itself up by the bootstraps and quickly rebuilding after the fire. Although recovery did eventually occur, the rebuilding process may not have been as rapid or complete as portrayed. In this case, it appears that scars from the fire blighted the neighborhood for years, perhaps as long as a decade. The partially rubble-filled basement of this structure likely remained an open pit until it was finally covered when a new house was constructed on the lot c. 1913.
The main takeaways from our presentation will be: 1) engaging the public in the archaeological and historical research process can help foster a sense of connection and continuity between past and present communities and events thereby strengthening the present community’s sense of place; and 2) even in the absence of an extant historic structure, or perhaps even after an effort to preserve a structure has failed, a vacant lot may have much of importatnce to reveal about the past.
The 34th Annual Conference of the Michigan Historic Preservation Network will be held May 15-17, 2014 in Jackson. If you are attending the conference, our presentation will be from 4-5 p.m. on Thursday the 15th at the Commonwealth Commerce Center in downtown Jackson. Please stop by and say hello!