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Archaeologists dig up the past in Sandwich Notch

Alaina Duchin and Zoe Frentress use a sieve to sift out any small clues to what life was like on the Colonel Lewis B. Smith site. Sarah Schmidt. (click for larger version)
July 22, 2009
SANDWICH — For perhaps over 100 years, a sleigh bell lay silently beneath the soil in Sandwich Notch. Last week, several pairs of young hands unearthed that bell in an archaeological dig and haven't stopped ringing it since.

The sleigh bell was one of many finds discovered by the Sandwich Junior Historical Program at the Colonel Lewis B. Smith Site in Sandwich Notch. Starting with research in the state archives, the students, led by Strawberry Banke Archaeologist Sheila Charles and Sandwich Historical Society member John Perkins, moved up to the more physical part of their research, excavations on the site.

"There used to be junior historians at the society," said Perkins. "It was inactive for a while, so we set up an educational committee and decided to come up with something for them to do."

The program actually started last summer, when the first group of students came through to do some initial research, clear vegetation, map the area, and do some initial surface collection of artifacts. A large part of this was clearing up the cemetery on the property, where several veterans of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars were buried. Students cleared leaves away from the site and cut down small trees that had grown up in the cemetery.

"It's cleaner, very different," said 11-year-old Zoe Frentress, who returned to the site after helping to clean it up last year. "It was a lot of work, but I like being able to excavate."

Frentress, along with 11-year-olds Alaina Duchin, Rowan Heard, and Bridie O'Connell, clambered up a steep hill along the road to the Beede Falls trailhead, led by Charles, Perkins, and SHS volunteer Sue Greene. Once there, they got to work uncovering and methodically digging out their test pits outside the foundation of what was once the Smith house. After researching the records about the house and examining the stone foundation, they tried to place pits near the entrances of the home, by the woodshed - and by the privy.

Going down centimeter by centimeter, slapping mosquitoes every few minutes, Duchin scooped earth into a bucket, while Frentress made sure that whatever they found stayed positioned, in order to document it with a photography. Once the bucket was filled, they lugged it together toward a sieve. Duchin energetically pushed the sieve back and forth to clear out the fine dirt. Once done, the two girls sifted through what was left, trying to pick out bits of brick and charcoal.

"This redware is for pottery, maybe from the kitchen," said Duchin. "This place is close to the kitchen. We chose the spot because we found a piece of pottery around here. This is way more fun than digging in a sandbox."

Nearby, O'Connell and Heard sweated hard to dig out the earth near what they believe might be the front stoop of the Smith house. Heard used pruners to try and cut away roots to unearth the front steps.

"(It's fun), depending on what you find," said O'Connell. "Sometimes it's just brick and roots, but over here, we've got glass and pottery."

During the week in which the student archaeologists began excavating at the Smith site, they unearthed buttons, bits of brick, and layers of charcoal. The big find, according to Perkins, is still the sleigh bell, though they've found several eras of nails - both machine-made and handmade. The students also found many shards of china - pearlware that they are attempting to identify, on which designs like fences and grass can still be seen.

Frentress and Duchin found the top of a glass bottle as they worked and brought it over to Charles for inspection. Noting its shape and glass type, Charles said she believed it might be the top of an apothecary's bottle.

As they worked, two more archaeologists came upon the site - Sarah Jordan, the archaeologist for the White Mountain National Forest, and Karl Roenke, the retired Forest Service archaeologist. Alerted to the site by Charles, they wanted to take a look for themselves. Roenke entertained the kids during their lunch break with stories of his past digs.

"You can't have people (on a dig) who don't like bugs and history," said Charles. "I love it - they (the kids) are the stewards of the past and the future, and they will make the decision about protecting it."

The goal, according to Charles, is to gather as much history and data about the site as possible, in order to fully map the site. After that, she said, they will be able to help the town manage the site over time, and to protect it.

According to research done by the students and archaeologists, the site was occupied by three generations of the Smith family from the late 18th to late 19th century, beginning with Colonel Jacob Smith, an early settler in Sandwich. Prosperous, it produced maple sugar, wool, charcoal, and vegetables. On the site, the foundations of a large two-story barn and a two and a half story house remain. In the center of the house's foundation are the remains of a large chimney, with bricks scattered around.

Colonel Jacob Smith's grandson, Colonel Lewis B. Smith, was the character the site was most famous for. Experimenting with different crops like coffee and silkworms, he made the farm prosperous. He served as a selectman in Sandwich, and was a delegate to the National Democratic presidential convention of 1852, supporting his friend, Franklin Pierce.

The day he died in 1874, Smith was nominated to serve as a state senator. He was later buried in the graveyard behind the Sandwich Baptist Church.

The Sandwich Historical Society asks that if visitors find the site, that they don't disturb it, dig in it, or take away any artifacts they find, since the site is on town property and is listed as an official archaeological site with the state.

Varney Smith
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