Day of Archaeology at a Great Lakes Lumber Camp

As an associate professor of Anthropology at Central Michigan University, I run an Archaeological Field School every other summer.  This summer, field school students studied and documented the ruins of lumber camp in north-central Michigan. In Michigan’s northern woods, the remnants of a once extensive lumbering industry can be found in the form of lumber camp ruins, defunct railroad grades, and mill ghost towns.  The Anthropology program at CMU has a strong focus on public and community-engaged archaeology, so as a part of the field school experience I opened the site to the public on our Day of Archaeology (which was actually on June 8th).  Students in the field school shared with the visiting public about the process of site documentation from start to finish.

Michigan’s lumbering history is a complex part of industrial and colonial expansion of the rural landscape of the state.  Timber cutting expanded in predictable patterns, linked to the technological means for transporting timber from the wilderness to mills and on to the industrial centers of Chicago and Detroit.  The industrial expansion moved swiftly and methodically into places like Clare County, where between roughly 1870-1900 the entire county saw the development of cities, railroads, and mills as timber was cut.

   Historic Photograph of unnamed lumber camp with railroad near Farwell, Clare County.

Lumber camps were short-lived neighborhoods in the lumber extraction process, but also integral to the industry as dynamic labor communities.  These self-sufficient communities were often comprised of ethnically and cultural diverse populations.  As archaeological sites, they represent short, but intensive, occupations that are spatially organized into recognizable task areas: barracks for workers, blacksmith and farrier sheds, cook’s kitchen and mess hall, foremen’s office, and more.

Historic industrial archaeology may not seem like an important topic, especially when the sites you are studying are only about 100 years old.  I mean, how much can you learn from the recent past that has photos and documents associated with it?  The reality is that there is much to be gained from studying the small residues of everyday life from even the recent past.  This is especially the case when it comes to lumber camps, which often have little to no historic documentation.  Think about it.  Before cell phone selfies, how many people documented their daily lives with photographs?  Before social media, how many average people had their stories told in official historic documents?  This is where archaeology can fill in the gaps.  By excavating lumber camp sites, we can see how everyday people lived, worked, ate, played, and slept about 100 years ago.

We started fieldwork by conducting survey (identifying any visible structural foundations) and geophysical prospection with a magnetic susceptibility meter.  Students learned how to navigate through the woods and identify building berms and cellar pits.  Magnetic susceptibility is a useful geoprospection technique that senses enrichments to the soil that increase magnetic properties.  This results in “hot-spots” that are organic or iron rich thanks to stuff left behind by people – in other words, places we might like to dig. These steps helped us identify former structures and chose locations for excavation.

Magnetic Susceptibility Geoprospection in action, with Teaching Assistant, Greg Swallow, supervising graduate students Kara McDonald (using meter) and Jeremy Cunningham (recording data). Greg is standing on the berm remnant of a building, these were earthen foundations for the temporary buildings of the lumber camp.

This lumber camp had at least seven distinct buildings (identified by foundation berms or cellars) and the remnants of a road.  Our primary goal was to identify what activities were conducted in each building, so excavation units were placed in several buildings to provide a snapshot of what people were doing in these areas.

Site Plan Map made using a Total Data Station and GIS software.

On our Day of Archaeology, we had excavations at four buildings open.  At Building 1, students discovered a huge stockpile of cut and hand-wrought nails, as well as other metal tools. So far, this building is our best candidate for the blacksmith’s shop.

Student sketch map of Building 1 excavation unit, showing density of nail fragments.

At Building 2, students found part of the building itself – which appeared as burnt planks of wood with nails.  They also found a number of clay smoking pipe fragments.  Based on the size and placement of this building, as well as its contents, it may have been the foreman’s office.

Photograph of one of the many clay pipe fragments found in Building 2.

Just outside the door of Building 4, students were astonished to find a pile of saw cut beef bone. Based on the density of animal bone, this building was most likely the cook’s kitchen – it also has a large cellar and is located next to a second cellar (both would have been necessary for storing the camp’s food).  The presence of beef is surprising, because it represents the most expensive cuts of meat, compared to the more commonly purchased mutton or hunted venison.

Photograph of Building 4 excavation unit showing butchered beef bones in place.

Building 7 was only detected by the geoprospection methods and was not readily visible as a berm, so our excavations at this building were aimed at determining whether a berm wall once existed in the area detected by the magnetic susceptibility meter.  While we did not find many artifacts at this excavation unit, we did find soil changes indicative of the berm structure and also a wooden beam left in place.  Therefore, we now know that Building 7 was a structure. Based on its location adjacent to the kitchen, it might have been the mess hall.

Photograph of Level-3 plan at Building 7 excavation unit, showing soil staining and wood plank associated with structure foundation.

In addition to the excavations, we also set up a field lab so that visitors could see how artifacts were cleaned, documented, and prepared for curation. Laboratory work, while not as exciting as fieldwork, is extremely important to the process of archaeology.  Analysis of the artifacts often takes two to three times as long as the fieldwork.  But, it can be just as fun to “rediscover” the artifacts in the lab and begin to tell the story of the site.

Graduate student, Mandy Kramar, talking with site visitor, Mariane Eyer, about artifacts found at site and process of cleaning and curation.

 All in all, we had a very fruitful first field season at the lumber camp.  Our public Day of Archaeology was also a success, with a couple dozen visitors (pretty good numbers for a remote location in rural Michigan) stopping by.  Most visitors spent hour or more touring the site and asking questions. More investigations are planned in October of 2017, coinciding with Michigan’s Archaeology Month.

Dr. Sarah Surface-Evans is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Central Michigan University who specializes in community-based archaeology.