Those who are familiar with the Nelson History website will know that Rick Church is responsible for most of the articles having to do with cellar holes. Last week I had the opportunity to go on an expedition with him, also accompanied by Bill Dunn, who has not only a good knowledge of history pertaining to artifacts, but a couple of metal detectors as well.
We were exploring a couple of foundations that Rick had become aware of on the property of Al Guida, in the northwest corner of Nelson, in the area of Ellis Reservoir. Bill suggested that the best places to look for metal was between the house and both the well and the outhouse (which hopefully would not be too adjacent).
One is apt to think that if you discover something, you know more. But as I learned, discoveries can sometimes lead to feeling that we actually know less. The foundation was typical of early homes – L- shaped, and presumably under only a portion of the building. Our first discovery was what seemed to be an ash shovel. A more substantial find came in the form of a hatchet head – something that might have been used for splitting kindling. Neither of these provided a clue as to their age, since those functions were not limited to the early days.
Bill digs while Rick and Al supervise.
We then found some wire strapping, and in the same vicinity, little chunks of cement. Their shape suggested that they were mortar remnants from brickwork, but we did not find any bricks (they could have been “harvested” for use elsewhere). Then larger junks of cement were found, casting doubt on our theory. Finally, we found a junction box for an electrical outlet. This really intensified the mystery, since we were in a remote section of forest, and it seemed impossible that there had ever been electricity provided there.
We then went to a barn foundation, which was at least a hundred yards from the house, suggesting that it was not just for animal housing. More mystery ensued. Within the foundation perimeter there were three pits – seemingly designed to hold water or something else, that would be used in some sequential manner. We also found a large rectangular rock that had clearly been cut, and a couple of smaller rocks with tops sufficiently flat to suggest they had some purpose, although the location did not appear to be where there would have been steps.
Abandoning the frustration of not having an “ah-hah!” moment, we went to visit “the Island”, a wooded knoll. Al remembers as a child experiencing the island surrounded by water, and fishing (with great success) in Ellis Reservoir, a body of water that had been created by damming up the outlet of a stream (which eventually flows into Otter Brook). At some point the Army Corps of Engineers decided that too much water was being held back, and the dam was dismantled, returning the reservoir to its more swampish state.
The mysterious block at the barn foundation
One could easily imagine that whoever lived in the house would have had quite a nice view of the Reservoir (to the west), as the land would have been cleared. And one can imagine that this area might have been a little nexus for industry (the dam would have facilitated a mill of some kind, though not directly related to the barn site we explored).
We had gotten to the site courtesy of Al’s ATV, but as I had to leave early, my return trip was on foot. As I was making the 20-minute walk (mostly uphill) back to my car at the end of Old Towne Road, I reflected on how little we knew about what must have been a settlement of (probably) several homes, barns, businesses, networked by roads – all now reverted to woods.
The researching of places like this requires not just site visits, but exploring Town archives and the registry of deeds, something which Rick does with equal passion. Periodically he’ll make a discovery that instantly alters the perspective we have on a particular situation. To me, this is the exciting part: while the past does not change, our understanding of it is subject to perpetual refreshment and revision.
Up Next Week: The Sequel, in which Rick Church and Janet Yardley revisit the site, and come up with exactly what we’re talking about – new information that sheds more light and mystery on this site!