Mar 17, 2008, 12:16 PM
Bucket of tokens found among other things
Dig unearths Vienna history
Workers uncover archaeological treasures at building site along the Nanticoke River
By Brice Stump
VIENNA -- Tom Bradshaw says he's at a loss to explain how two broken millstones ended up in the Nanticoke River. The chunks were discovered during work on the town's riverwalk project between late September and mid-November of last year.
Bradshaw, director and curator of the Vienna Heritage Museum, said machinery brought up buckets of dirt and mud that also contained broken glass from the early 1800s and 1900s. There's a possibility some of the glassware may date from the 1700s.
During construction that lasted several weeks, workmen uncovered bits of the town's past, including "tokens" from the canning house that once fronted on the river. Tokens -- small metal discs that were give to workers for each bucket of tomatoes skinned at the factory -- were cashed in for money at the end of the week.
"Apparently workers brought up some mud and there was a stash of brass tokens that were given to workers for skinning a bucket of tomatoes. The tokens belonged to Dr. Isaac Houston. He had the first cannery there, before 1880, (which later became a Webb family factory)," said George Chevallier, president of the Wicomico County Historical Society and one of the Shore's top token collectors.
"It was a great find. Collectors have known the canning house was there, but no one had ever seen the tokens," Chevallier said. Each token could bring up to about $8, depending on rarity. Just how many were found is unknown.
"I understand they unearthed a bucket of them," Bradshaw said.
Over a number of weeks, the site also attracted the attention of metal detector fans who, Bradshaw said, are also believed to have found tokens and coins. Folks were also able to walk the site and find artifacts in the soil levels at the site.
The discovery of the artifacts is a first for the town, Bradshaw said. Though founded in 1706, there has never been a major archaeological discovery in the town's history. How and why people were able to take what they wanted from the chance discovery on town property is a question officials here are trying to answer.
"It was one of those finders-keepers things," he said.
Artifacts now in the possession of the museum were collected by Bruce Jones, who owns the landmark Gov. Holliday Hicks House on Water Street, just yards from the site.
"It was an archaeological dream to walk along the waterfront and pick up pieces of history. I went every day after workmen left and picked up everything I found. The workmen and I became friends and they would leave me a pile of bottles and things they found during the day. Many things were broken because of the heavy equipment used," said Jones, a woman. "Went every day, on weekends and especially when it rained and washed things out of the dirt."
She may have also made a rare discovery.
"I saw what looked like the remains of a (American Indian) fire (pit) and flint stones arranged around the area. Some of the stones were already worked (chipped). It was in the same area of the work and it's disappeared now. I gave that material to the museum, too. I also found some pieces of Colonial redware," said Jones.
Jones said she put much of what she found under a tree in her yard. "Townspeople came by and 'oohed and aaahed,' " she said.
"I think I found a good cross-section of our history for the town. I think the things found belong to our town and should be kept. I don't know if other people found anything valuable. There seemed to be no direction as to why or if anyone was saving anything (on behalf of the town). Maybe we should have thought this through. The town didn't know this would happen."
Jones found soda bottles, Depression-era glass, silver-plated pieces, pieces of dishes -- even an intact leather shoe that appears to date to the 1930s.
The site, fronting on Water Street, is within yards of the town's 1790s Customs House and right beside the old steamboat warehouse and wharf.
Archaeologist Ed Otter of Salisbury said the material found may have been part of a deliberate attempt to use millstones and discarded household wares to backfill an earlier wharf or landing. In the 1700s, the practice of building up the site or expanding into the river was common, Otter said, and it could be that 18th-century artifacts may still be undisturbed at the riverwalk site.
"Without a proper archaeological study, we don't know the answer to that question," Otter said.
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