Students excavate 19th century farm field outside of Lake Placid
By Chloe Bennett
Emily Willis got goosebumps thinking about the people who once lived near Heaven Hill in what is now the town of North Elba, which contains the community of Lake Placid.
“It’s really exciting to be a part of something that also speaks to multiple people from multiple facets of life and all these intersecting identities living in this beautiful area, working together,” she said.
Willis, a teaching assistant, was helping archaeology students from the State University of New York at Potsdam as they dug for clues about the lives of former residents. The excavation was led by Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, department chair and professor of anthropology at the college.
The 13 students huddled over several square holes in an area that could have been used as a waste site for previous residents of Heaven Hill Farm. The ongoing excavation is a four-week-long fieldwork class for the students and the last requirement for most before they earn their bachelor’s degrees. The area was chosen by Kruczek-Aaron, who has studied a short-lived Black farming settlement known as Timbuctoo since 2009. Timbuctoo was also located in North Elba. Findings from the dig could illuminate information forgotten about the mid-1800s homestead sites.
“Those things that they leave behind are our bread and butter,” she said. “They become our data set that we use to help tell the stories of the past peoples who lived here.”
The settlement was founded in 1846 after abolitionist Gerrit Smith granted 120,000 acres to Black families from around the state. Smith’s intention was to secure voting rights for freedmen under a Jim Crow-era law that required home ownership or $250 in real estate. But the project ended by 1855 after residents were faced with barriers like taxes, harsh winters and infertile land.
The only family that stayed permanently was that of Lyman Epps. Kruczek-Aaron said she excavated a site associated with their property in 2009, 2011 and 2013 but did not find enough evidence to confirm that it belonged to them.
Some of the objects unearthed at Heaven Hill so far include the base of a Putnam brand jar, a nail, ceramic tableware and animal bones. Kruczek-Aaron said the dishes are likely from Anna Newman, a wealthy single woman who lived at Heaven Hill Farm after most residents of Timbuctoo moved away. But the students hope to dig further into the past.
Alex Wilson, who is planning to graduate next year, said the history and proximity of Timbuctoo made the dig feel significant.
“I’m hoping, fingers crossed, that we’ll find something from that era to maybe give us an idea of what their sort of living styles were like,” he said.
For many of the students, the excavation class is their first field experience. Cipher Gallagher, who graduated in May, said it’s helped determine his potential career.
“I just wanted to have a chance to get hands-on experience, to know exactly what I wanted to do in archaeology because I have had a lot of different ideas of what I like and this is really helping me figure out that I do love fieldwork,” he said.
Gallagher was operating a small machine connected to a total station, which helps calculate specific digging points. He said he felt unsure of what he wanted to study before being introduced to archaeology by a professor at his community college.
“It just kind of clicked for me, which was really hard for me because of my mental disabilities,” he said. Gallagher, who has long enjoyed learning about history and cultures, said he has Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD. Although some of his other family members are interested in the study, he said he is the first to pursue it.
The students will showcase their findings in an open house on July 2 and complete the dig on July 8. In the meantime, Kruczek-Aaron and her students will open up larger units, or holes, in search of more clues.
Finding objects is what drives students like Cristina Rivas, a recent graduate who has wanted to practice fieldwork since she was a child. She said it makes her feel like a part of history.
“Some days I don’t find anything. And then like yesterday we had a great day,” she said. “We found everything and that makes me feel like, okay, this is why I chose to do it.”
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