SHULLSBURG – In a farm field outside of Shullsburg, you can find farmers driving tractors, planters or sprayers tending to their crop. One thing that you might have found out of the ordinary was a group of college students digging in the ground hoping to find the lost history of Gratiot’s Grove.
Students from Syracuse University, located in the heart of New York State, under the guidance of Assistant Professor Guido Pezzarossi and Cory Ritterbusch, Shullsburg’s local historian and tourism director, came to Wisconsin for a month long dig to find artifacts that trace back to the 1800s when Gratiot’s Grove was a booming mining settlement.
Gratiot’s Grove was an early settlement that was around from 1825-1844 before it was consolidated into Shullsburg. The population varied from several hundreds to 1,500 people. The only physical remnant that can be linked to Gratiot’s Grove is the Berry Tavern, built in 1840 and located on Sedgwick Lane, east of County O, north off County W. It served as the post office, school, church, hotel and tavern. This was the site of a murder in 1842. The assailant was caught and hung in Mineral Point where he is said to haunt the Walker House there.
Gratiot’s Grove was home to a smorgasbord of people. Native American tribes, French-Canadians, Fresh-speaking Swiss, Yankees, “suckers” from Southern Illinois, French from St. Louis and African-American servants all gathered in that area for a place to live during the “Lead Rush”.
The six square miles of now fields and rolling hills was once a hot spot for lead. The Winnebago tribe was actively mining the area when Henry Gratiot, part of the prominent and wealthy Gratiot family, purchased land from the tribe in 1826. That transaction made that land the first land surveyed in Wisconsin.
After Henry Gratiot died on his way back from Washington, D.C. in 1837, Gratiot’s Grove started to decline. It didn’t help that growth of the area was stunted from the wars of 1827 and 1832. Then in 1844, the post office was moved from Berry Tavern to Shullsburg, where Jesse Shull had established a smelter.
But since it’s heyday Gratiot’s Grove has basically been forgotten. It wasn’t until 2012 when Ritterbusch along with archaeologist and fellow historian Phil Millhouse purchased the Berry Tavern from the brink of extinction. They both began more research and found this once thriving place called Gratiot’s Grove. Then more people came out of the woodworks becoming more and more interested in the town.
Millhouse mentioned to Ritterbusch that his friend who was an assistant professor at Syracuse University takes students somewhere every summer to do an archaeological study for fieldwork. Pezzarossi came to Shullsburg to meet with Millhouse and Ritterbusch in January 2015 to discuss more.
They wanted to make sure this dig was going to be worthwhile so with landowner permission they did a magnetometer study, which is essentially underground sonar, to see what they could find. The magnetometer is sensitive enough that it can detect where fire pits used to be under ground, picking up the magnetic properties in the soil. With that information, they had a good idea of where downtown Gratiot’s Grove might have been.
So after finding places for the students to stay and gathering some local support, the month long dig began during the summer of 2017. They found several pieces of ceramics, pottery, glass and animal bone fragments, nails, and even a spigot for a barrel or keg. But the crowning glory was found three days before the excavation was over.
“With three days left they found a foundation. But then it had to be covered back up,” Ritterbusch explained.
In order to preserve all the hard work that was already dug up, the crew laid down plastic tarps over the exposed foundation, and then covered it back over with dirt. Then the landowner is able to farm right over it, plant crops and this year, the crew was able to dig up that plastic, expose the foundation and start where they left off.
“For the most part, there is no harvest reduction for the land owner. He is really happy and we get to do awesome work without leaving a trace. It is a really cool, clean operation,” Ritterbusch added.
Pezzarossi commented that they know the foundation was placed by hand but are unsure what it was at this point.
“We carefully go 10 centimeters at a time following the natural changes in the soil. We remove and bag all artifacts so we can reconstruct the sequence of time. If we just dug a hole and put everything together, then all those different layers from different time periods would get mixed together and you can’t tell how things changed over time,” Pezzarossi clarified.
Pezzarossi stated that the short occupation of Gratiot’s Grove would give them a very detailed window into what life was like during that time period in the 1800s. His main research is in Guatemala, working on the colonial period in the Mayan communities after the Spanish occupied the area. One of the places he has worked has 1,000 years of occupation in one place.
“At the bottom of where I am digging, its about 700-800 A.D. and by the time I’m at the top, it’s the 1700-1800s. It’s great because you can do comparative work of how life changes over time in a long time frame but it’s hard to get very detailed in one period in time but all those factors play into this ideal location to get a very detailed look at life,” he said.
All the artifacts found are bagged and labeled and categorized. Those artifacts are then taken back to Syracuse University where during the school year, students’ study the pieces, putting them back together to see what they once were.
Pezzarossi attributes his contribution into the dig to both Ritterbusch and Millhouse speaking about Gratiot’s Grove and how this multiethnic community made up of people from all over the world during that time period was economically important to the area. With Syracuse University on board with the dig, a great turn out of students and enthusiastic community support, Pezzarossi is excited for this partnership.
“All those things together is a perfect storm for things working out to do this and hopefully we will get something out of it and contribute something to all the great historical work that Cory and others in the community have done,” he adds.
To find out what the students found during this years dig, follow updates on their Facebook page at Gratiot’s Grove Archaeological Project.