My Week Digging At John Brown Farm

John Brown Farmhouse. Photo by Fred Mecoy
John Brown Farmhouse. Photo by Fred Mecoy


I spent the week of July 17, 2017 digging with archeology students from SUNY Potsdam College at the John Brown Farm in North Elba, NY. a State Historic Site, located 2 miles from downtown Lake Placid, NY in the beautiful Adirondack Mountains. My Great-Great-Great Grandfather’s family lived in North Elba from 1855 to 1863, when Mary and her surviving children moved to Iowa and then to California.

Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, the Associate Professor of Archeology overseeing the field class, invited me to participate in the archeology dig at the John Brown Farm. She invited me to attend the dig and participate at any level that I was comfortable. I surprised her when I told her I wanted to spend a week getting dirty and actually dig beside the students.

How could I say no to this once in a lifetime opportunity to be “Indiana Jones” and participate in an archaeological dig in the remote mountains of New York? The dig examined the ground around the small farmhouse where Mary Brown and her youngest children struggled to eke out a life.

Fred and I joined the group of 12 students during the fourth and last week of the field class, but there was still plenty of work for me to assist with.  I spent the first few hours on Monday with Hadley visiting each of the active dig plots located around the farmhouse to review the work completed to date, and see some of the items that the students had released from the soil.

I examined pieces of glass from window panes, bottles, candle chimneys, and dishes.  Held and marveled at shards of blue, white and brown crockery. Some of the pieces so small you could barely see them while others were the size of a deck of cards.  There were nails, some modern mass-produced and others handmade years ago, all encased in layers of rust and dirt. Other items uncovered where a skeleton key with an open loop handle and my favorite item, a pair of Stork sewing scissors, just like my grandmother and great grandmother used for quilting, sewing and other crafts.

The students had been digging for 3 weeks and some of the dig sites were already 2 or 3 feet deep. The various strata were visible on the walls of these sites. The John Brown Farm has under gone many changes over the last one hundred and fifty plus years. The strata layers here are top soil, layers of lighter colored sand used to level the ground around the house, darker layers of soil from the time of the farm caretakers sometimes more sand or fill, more layers of darker soil, and finally you reach the sterile unadulterated soil.  The artifacts are located in the dark soil layers.

I checked out a trowel and learned how to scrape, dig, clean up, and remove dirt in the dig site out front of the farmhouse. I learned how to measure the depth with a level and tape measure, how to keep the never-ending records for each layer, each dig site, each rock, each depth. The paperwork includes identifying the color and makeup of the soil, the stratum layer, the plotting of rocks and various color variations in the soil exposed, and counting of artifacts found in each stratum.  Then you duplicate the information on secondary sheets, and in your daily dig journal. Indiana Jones never taught us about the massive amounts of photos and paperwork needed for each step of the dig.

Digging at the front of the farmhouse. Photo by Fred Mecoy
Digging at the front of farmhouse. Photo by Fred Mecoy

For 4 days I dug, scraped, removed soil, drew plots, measured, identified soil colors and textures, counted artifacts, screened soil to find the missed artifacts, filled in reports, set up info boards for photographs while Fred took photographs, conversed with the students and had a relaxing week.  I asked a billion questions, and the students all took time to answer my questions and explain to me what happens next and demonstrate the numerous steps.  Each night I returned to the hotel sore and very tired, but so excited. I had such a great time.

An intern at the local paper came by on Tuesday to interview Hadley and the students. She also interviewed me. I am so happy for her that her first big article for the local paper was front page top of fold.  How exciting for her. Fred drove to Saranac Lake and purchased copies of the paper for all of the students.  Here is the link to the article

Hadley explained that this 4-week archeological dig at the John Brown Farm is only the first step in the researching my family’s life at North Elba. Next spring there will be a class at Suny Potsdam were students will process the items found this summer.  I told her I would love to audit that class. I love puzzles and the cleaning, itemizing and reassembling the artifacts sounds very exciting to me.

I really cannot explain how amazing it was to participate in this archeological dig at the home of my ancestors. North Elba always fills me with awe knowing that John, Mary, Annie, Martha and countless others I have stories about once stood where I now stand. I close my eyes and envision the family at work, at play, performing daily rituals. The closeness I feel to my family here inspires me.

View My Week Digging at John Brown Farm

2 thoughts on “My Week Digging At John Brown Farm

  1. Claudia Norton Blackler says:

    I am presently working on my family’s connection to John Brown… I would like to be able to connect through this site…Claudia Norton Blackler

    • says:

      let me know your family surnames and potential connections. I will be happy to compare to the full genealogy I have from Owen Brown (John Brown’s father) all the way down to a recently born 5x grandson of John Brown. I have all of JBs children’s lines through current. Looking forward to hearing from you

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