A month to uncover the things of the past

Yes, October is officially West Virginia Archaeology Month. If you’ve been following this column for some time, then you’re aware that I’m particularly intrigued by artifacts of the past that lie buried and forgotten just under the field soil or forest humus or that stand quiet and vine-covered in our fencerows.

I find February and March to be better months to search out these treasures, as there is still some possibility of snake, animal and insect encounters this time of year. Moreover, archaeological interests may conflict with those of hunters. But — you can’t fight city hall.

For me, archaeology, apart from being a small part of my day job, means finding a mysterious part of a machine or other artifact in an overgrown field or collapsing barn, then following its path into the past. These adventures can take on a life of their own and become very rewarding.

However, my hat is off to the late Harold Ottaway, a collector and restorer of antique farm tractors, as an example of an archaeologist in my category. To some collectors, the objective is to simply buy the desired machines. Like Harold, some of us recognize that the real adventure lies in tracking down obscure leads and learning the history of the machine.

Here’s how Antique Power Magazine says the story goes:

Around 1990, stopping at a small rural roadside restaurant in some unnamed, windswept prairie state, Harold noticed a huge crankshaft being used as part of the curb of the parking lot. Of course, he instantly recognized it as that of a 1911 Emerson-Bratingham Big Four tractor. The Big Four was one of the “Prairie Giants,” a brief generation of huge tractors used to plow up the tough virgin prairie sod and bring about the Dust Bowl.

Harold bought the crankshaft and proceeded to ask around the community as to where the rest of the tractor might be. His inquiries led to a riverbank. When the prairie sod was all broken, these tractors became obsolete in favor of smaller, more versatile machines. This particular Big Four was acquired by the county to pull a road scraper. (Harold was able to procure photos of the tractor doing just that.) For some reason, while the engine was torn down for a rebuild (parts availability maybe?) the project was abandoned and the tractor buried as fill to shore up the road that ran close to a river. That was in 1930.

In 1943, a flood uncovered the Big Four and it was exposed just long enough for patriotic locals to knock parts off of it for the wartime scrap drives. It was buried again until Harold found it with just a small part protruding from the fill. The Big Four was excavated from the bank and, after much labor, parts fabrication and expense, the tractor is now running and detailed right down to the pinstripes.

Sometimes, my type of archaeology does not involve manmade objects but rather the remnants of past activity evident in the land. I’ve always been amazed at the elaborate network of drainage swales in the New Jersey farm fields. Carved out in antiquity, possibly as early as the 1600s, these swales are virtually invisible. With the arrival of a storm, however, the grass in these swales lies flat under torrents of clear water. It’s like watching a machine.

Locally, the remnants of ditches, ponds, millraces, sluiceways and swales at North River Mills are still fairly discernible in wet weather. Standing in a certain spot on the old Granville Moreland place, one gets the impression that the water in a small ditch running through the place is actually running uphill. Of course, it isn’t but the lay of the land fools the eye. (Another example of this can be observed near the intersection of U.S. 50 and Magic Mountain Road in Frederick County, Va.) When we lived in North River Mills in 1982 to 1984, I brought this to the attention of the local storekeeper, Bruce Miller.

Having grown up just a few yards away from the place, he was familiar with this effect. His reply though was, “Those old timers could make water run uphill.” He was referring, I would presume, to the skill and precision of the Revolutionary era engineers. I doubt that he was entirely serious but remembering those New Jersey drainage swales, one may tend to wonder.

Though not on the scale of the Ottaway Find, my archaeology does turn up some interesting artifacts. While pawing through the contents of a collapsing smokehouse near Berryville, Va., I happened to find a rusty old Long Tom 12-gauge shotgun. The breech wouldn’t open but probing with a stick seemed to indicate that there was something in the chamber.

I held the gun over the top of my head with the palm of one hand against the stock. With the other hand, I cocked the hammer. Daughter Jessie, who happened to be along, took several steps already dialing 9-1 … on her cellphone. Nothing happened when I pulled the trigger.

Since the Long Tom wasn’t functional, the owner of the farm simply gave me the old gun along with a brief story. The gun had belonged to a poacher and had been confiscated by former Clarke County Sheriff W.W. “Cap” Smallwood during the 1940s or ‘50s. The late sheriff was the farm’s former owner.

I worked on the gun, got it functioning and even half decent looking. I had fun showing the gun around, telling its story and listening to other people’s Long Tom tales. I also became acquainted with the Long Tom’s legendary recoil kick. As one Hampshire County farmer put it, “A Long Tom kills in front and cripples in the back. Shoot a mess of squirrels with that thing and you’ll be too sore to skin ‘em.”

I somehow didn’t inherit the collector gene (this is a guy with five antique trucks talking), so I generally don’t hang on to these finds. The Long Tom wound up with a gun collector in Purcellville, Va.

Well, that’s what archaeology means to me and I may have thus played fast and loose with the definition. I’ll probably never sift sand in Egypt. So, what will be the next artifact and what adventures might accompany it? There’s a huge old iron gear at the North River Mills shop. I recall first noticing it about 40 years ago, half buried outside the shop. I brought it inside and cleaned it up. The gear has a square center, which is made to move over a shaft of the same shape and be locked in place with wedges — that’s how the gear could be engaged and disengaged. Many of us have always just shrugged it off as being part of an old mill; after all, a round millstone leans against a foundation nearby. But weren’t water-powered mills usually equipped with wooden cogs, lantern wheels and such? (Check out the restored workings of the Burwell/Morgan mill in Millwood, Va.)

This gear appears to be from the steam era. Judging by the gear’s size, its companion gear must be enormous in diameter — say, 5 or 6 feet at least in order to achieve any appreciable gear reduction. Being so large and heavy it would be even less likely to have been removed from the site so it’s probably sunken into the ground around there somewhere. Here we go again — more on that later.

Have a happy and prosperous Archaeology Month — and be careful: yellow jackets get extra grouchy in October.

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