Harvesting history


PETERSBURG - Menard County farmer Bob Sampson is harvesting history along with corn and soybeans this fall.

A recent archaeological excavation of an old corn crib on Sampson's property has provided information about the building's historical significance and its ties to Abraham Lincoln.

"My father bought this property in the '30s," Sampson said. "I helped convert this building into an ear-corn crib. It sat that way as long as I can remember.

"About 20 years ago, someone told me that the building had quite a history. It just sat there as camouflaged treasure all these years."

Through his research, Sampson discovered that his corn crib had been built around the remnants of a house originally constructed in 1825 for the Rev. John Berry, a circuit-riding preacher. Berry's son, William, grew up to be Abraham Lincoln's partner in the Berry-Lincoln stores in New Salem. Lincoln visited the Berry family home on several occasions.

Sampson contacted the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency about the discovery of walls and foundation of the original house. For state historian Dr. Thomas Schwartz, the find was not just about a Lincoln connection, but another way to glimpse into life of that time period.

According to Robert Mazrim of the Sangamo Archaeological Center, the home was of timber frame construction, as opposed to the more common horizontal log dwellings of the frontier period. It was constructed of walnut planking and milled oak trim with a whitewashed cellar.

"It was a formal house," said Mazrim, who called the basement the finest one he's ever excavated. "It said, 'I'm cultured. I'm civilized. '"

The house "was a very fine one," Schwartz agreed. "It is far more stately than anything you would find in New Salem. It even rivaled what you would find in Springfield at that time, and it poses some interesting questions."

Finding answers as well as asking interesting questions is part of the joy of doing historic archaeology for Mazrim. The newly formed Sangamo Archaeological Center enables privately owned sites to be excavated for investigation and salvage. The Berry excavation was the pilot project for the center.

"Most private sites fall outside the state mandate," said Mazrim. "It doesn't have to be as expensive as it has become - there is a way to fund it through private means. We follow the same practices and meet the same standards. We employ the use of volunteers and private donations to make sure these private sites can have an appropriate archaeological investigation.

"Even though the investigations are done on a small scale, they still can yield important findings."

Schwartz said conventional wisdom about the frontier often falls apart when archaeologists take a close look.

"The archaeology Mazrim is doing is important to help us take a closer look and rethink this whole era of the frontier," he said.

"We're able to learn more about the area. Why did some areas take root and succeed and why have others disappeared? We're able to learn more about the economic and the kinship patterns. These small communities weren't isolated. This helps us to be able to recapture a sense of the landscape. We have a better sense of why some things succeeded and why some failed."

The project's crew included Mazrim and two other professional archaeologists, who handled the delicate technical work of the investigation. Schwartz was one of the volunteers on the four-day excavation of the house's remnants.

"We had a 12-year-old who was there from the start of the day through dusk," Schwartz said. "I brought my 9-year-old son on Sunday. At first, he thought we'd be finding dinosaur bones. After I explained what we were looking for, he was soon finding pottery shards and bringing them to Bob Mazrim wondering what they were and where they'd come from."

A full technical report of the excavations will be available next summer.

A four-foot section of the 176-year-old house, notable for its original wood and mud and straw insulation, is being considered for inclusion in the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum being built in Springfield.

Additional wood and timbers were salvaged by Sampson to make commemorative gavels and striker plates to be used as fundraising items for Central Presbyterian Church in Petersburg and the Menard County Historical Society.

"We're going to make 100 gavels. It's the first time the public has had the opportunity to purchase a piece of history directly associated with a former president," said Sampson.

"It was a different feeling walking through that doorway knowing that Lincoln had walked through it many times."

Carol Woodrum can be reached through the Metro Desk at 788-1519.

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