Artifacts in the Arb: Survey and Excavation at the Waterford Mill

Authors: Sam Anderson, Judi Bush, Seth Eislund, Price Nicholas

Established during the late 19th century, the Waterford Mill possesses a rich, 145-year history that has transformed it into a significant archaeological site. For our final project, our group analyzed and exhibited some of the many artifacts found during our class’ excavations at the Waterford Mill. Through our analysis of these artifacts, we hope to shed light on the material culture and daily lives of the workers at the Waterford Mill, as well as the denizens of Waterford itself.

This web page will serve as a written version of our final project. In it, we will briefly outline the history of the Waterford Mill, describe the survey and excavation processes that occurred at the site, define and discuss the importance of artifacts in archaeological work, describe the artifacts we found, and finally connect the artifacts back to the broader archaeological and historical context of the mill, Waterford, and the Cannon River Valley.


A Brief History of the Waterford Mill

Fig. 1: Exterior View of the Grange Mill at Waterford, late 19th — early 20th century, Northfield Historical Society.

The Waterford Mill was built in December 1873 by the Cannon River Manufacturing Company (Neill 1881:493-494). The company was founded by local farmers as a means to represent their interests and to augment the economy and community of Waterford. An 1880 history of Dakota County, which is where Waterford is located, stated that the purpose of the mill was “to manufacture flour, to do a general milling business and to be devoted to the interests of the farmers generally” (Neill 1881:493). The Waterford Mill was extremely productive during the heyday of its operation: by 1880, it could produce 200 barrels of flour daily (Neill 1881:494). This was far greater than the output of the neighboring Granville Mills, which were located six miles down the Cannon River and could only produce 60 barrels a day (Neill 1881:494). In addition to its impressive rate of production, the Waterford Mill was profitable for the Cannon River Manufacturing Company. By 1880, the property of the company was valued at $80,000 (Neill 1881:494), which is the equivalent of over $2,000,000 in today’s money (Alioth Finance 2019). Sometime after the turn of the century, however, the Waterford Mill was abandoned, as by 1940, it was no longer operational (Stewart 1991).


Summary of Archaeological Survey and Excavations

From April 23 to May 22, 2019, our group and our classmates conducted archaeological work at the site of the Waterford Mill. We were organized into two lab sections, a Tuesday and a Wednesday lab. During our time at the Waterford Mill site, we performed two phases of archaeological work: gridded survey and excavations. During the survey phase, we cleared the area of debris, fallen trees, and established survey grids using measuring tape, pink marking tape, and metal stakes. The survey grids were established to systematize the collection of artifacts from the site’s surface. This meant that if an artifact was discovered on the ground at a specific location, it would be categorized as belonging to the grid in which it was located. Artifacts were categorized and placed into plastic bags based on their material, which included “Metal,” “Ceramic,” “Glass,” and “Plastic/other.” During the survey phase, artifacts were found according to the process of fieldwalking. Fieldwalking, according to archaeologist John F. Cherry, is “the careful search of the ground surface within a defined study area, usually by one or more teams of surveyors walking across it in a systematic manner” (Cherry 2005:249).

Fig. 4: 3D model of Trench 1 created using Agisoft MetaScanPro

After we completed our survey of the Waterford Mill site, we began the excavation phase. We established two excavation trenches at different locations: the first trench was located next to a trash pit on the exterior of the site, and the second trench was adjacent to the mill’s south wall. wall. Both trenches were 1 by 1 meters. We began digging our trenches through the process of shovel-shaving, which involved removing the topsoil and plants from the surface of the trenches with a shovel. Afterwards, we began digging deeper into the trench using trowels. We used the trowel’s sharp edges to dig around obstacles such as rocks, twigs, and wire, uncovering various types of artifacts. As for the copious amounts of dirt we excavated, we sorted through it using a sifter. The sifter we used had mesh that was ¼ of an inch wide, which enabled us to easily separate artifacts from the soil. This process yielded many small artifacts. However, before we examine the artifacts we found during our excavations at the Waterford Mill, the important role that artifacts play in archaeology must first be discussed.


Artifacts: What’s the Big Deal?

Archaeology, which is often described as the study of the human past through its material remains, is inseparable from the collection and study of artifacts. According to archaeologists Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, an artifact is “any portable object used, modified, or made by humans” (Renfrew and Bahn 2018:338). In turn, artifacts constitute the material remains of past human beings or societies: material culture (Renfrew and Bahn 2018:341). Thus, archaeology would not exist without artifacts: they serve as evidence of past human habitation, behaviors, worldviews, and practices, whether they take the form of a small fork or the ruins of a large mill. Hence, every artifact we found during our excavations at the Waterford Mill was significant. Each one had the potential to tell us about how the workers at the mill lived, as well as the inhabitants of Waterford during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And, as we would soon discover, the stories that these artifacts contained were fascinating.

Artifacts at the Waterford Mill: Origin, Function, Purpose

During our excavations at the Waterford Mill site, we uncovered a staggering number of artifacts. While they varied in shape, size, substance, color, and texture, they all told unique stories about the mill’s history and that of the surrounding community. The artifacts we found consisted largely of metal scraps, nails, and shards of pottery, many of which were unidentifiable. There were some, however, with histories of their own, stories that pertained to the artifacts’ origins, the history of the mill, and the history of the Waterford community. For the display, we selected various items with intriguing pasts. They are listed below, each with an image and a description.

Artifact 1: Red Wing Pottery Sherd

The first artifact is a stoneware shard of pottery with a red wing and the number 3 painted on the front. We identified the painted wing as the logo of Red Wing Union Stoneware Company, a pottery company established in 1877 in Red Wing, Minnesota, which still in business today. After some research, we found that it is a shard of a 3-gallon crock pot that was probably used to hold cured foods. Red Wing pottery products were valued because of their durability: they were regarded as the “Tupperware of their day” (City of Rogers, Arkansas 2003). It was most likely produced during the 1910s, which is when the company started emblazoning its signature, large red wing on its pottery (City of Rogers, Arkansas 2003). The red wing pattern itself was adopted around 1906 and was used by the company until 1967 (Red Wing Collectors Society 2019).

Artifact 2: Shard of a Homer Laughlin Plate

This is a shard of a plate from the Homer Laughlin China Company, a well known china manufacturer. The word “Republic,” which is featured on the shard, refers to a model of dinnerware plates which debuted in 1915 until it was discontinued in the 1960s (Laurel Hollow Park 2017a). A guide to Homer Laughlin backstamps reveals that the “49L” means the plate was made in April 1919, in East Liverpool, Ohio (Laurel Hollow Park 2017b). Homer Laughlin chinaware products were mass-produced and made for the consumption of the American public. One advertisement from 1915 stated self-deprecatingly that the “Republic” lineup of Homer Laughlin chinaware had “been produced in obedience to popular demand. Excepting the hollowware, we do not claim it for any degree of originality” (Laurel Hollow Park 2017a).

Artifact 3: Royal Bonn Stoneware Sherd

This is a sherd of a stoneware plate, jar, jug or vase with part of the manufacturer logo on it. The logo is most likely for the Royal Bonn Company in the 19th and 20th century, based on a plate with the same mark (In The Vintage Kitchen Shop 2019). According to an antique site, Royal Bonn was the name used by the Franz Anton Mehlem Earthenware Factory, which made pottery from 1836 to 1931 in Bonn, Germany (Internet Antique Gazette 2019). The company’s greatest period of productivity was from 1880 to 1921, during which it was known for making less-expensive replicas of Royal Worcester porcelain ceramics. Since this sherd was produced in Germany, it bears the significance of being an imported object, thereby showing that the Waterford Mill and the surrounding community had contact with international trade.

Artifact 4: Brunt Porcelain Nail Knob Components

These pieces of porcelain were components of “nail knobs,” which were commonly used to insulate household electrical wires (R-Infinity 2019) during the early 20th century (Insulator Research 2004). Nail knobs were made up of two parts: a cap and a base. The two components were joined with a nail and placed over the electrical wire. As electricity became a more popular feature of American homes around the turn of the century, numerous companies entered the nail knob market in order to fulfill the massive demand for electrified homes (Insulator Research 2004). The nail knobs we discovered were made by the G.F. Brunt Porcelain Company, which was founded in East Liverpool, Ohio, in 1895 (Watts 2005). The company produced porcelain cleats, tubes, and knobs, selling under the name Brunt & Thompson. In 1898, the company changed its name to the G.F. Brunt Porcelain Company, and it moved to Worthington, Ohio in 1912 (Watts 2005). The business was abandoned and sold in 1925. From the presence of this item at the site, it can be inferred that at one point in its life, the Waterford Mill partially or fully utilized electricity.

Artifact 5: Lavoris Chemical Company Bottle Base

This is the lower half of a glass bottle with the words “Lavoris Chemical Company” inscribed on the bottom. The Lavoris Chemical Company was founded in Minneapolis in 1902 by Charles E. Leigh and William H. Levings (City of Minneapolis Community Planning & Economic Development (CPED) Planning Division 2009). The company manufactured mouthwash, which seems like a reasonable thing for a bottle of this size to hold. Advertising on the back of one intact bottle described the product as follows: “Lavoris as a mouth wash for daily use is eminently beneficial, it is healing and hardens the gums, purifies the breath and tones the entire oral cavity” (National Museum of American History: Behring Center 2010). The company was renamed in the 1930s, which means that this bottle was produced between 1902 and the 1930s.

Artifact 6: Ford Model T Muffler

This is a large metal cylindrical object that appears to be completely rusted over. It has an opening on both ends and a tube that goes through the inside. This is an exhaust muffler from a Ford Model T, which was the first commercially available brand of automobile. Exhaust mufflers serve the  function of reducing the noise pollution generated by cars. This muffler is likely from the 1910s, since it resembles mufflers that were used in 1917 and 1918 (Model T Ford Club of America 2016).

Artifact 7: Kerosene Road Flare

This artifact is made out of metal and is globe-shaped with an opening on top and a rim above. It could be the the bottom part of an old kerosene road flare, which were used to warn drivers about obstacles such as construction. These flares were round, kerosene-burning torches, and often “look like cartoon bombs,” according to the Lovettsville Historical Society (Lovettsville Historical Society & Museum 2018). The flares were manufactured from 1929 until they were succeeded by the pink flaming flares that are now widely used. The presence of this artifact at this site is indicative of past road construction in the area.


The Historical, Archaeological, and Artifactual Contexts of The Waterford Mill

The artifacts we found at the Waterford Mill site strengthen the archaeological and historical contexts of the Waterford Mill, the town of Waterford itself, and the Cannon River Valley. They demonstrate that the area around Waterford was part of an intricate social, cultural, and economic network that flourished from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. The Red Wing Pottery sherd shows that the Waterford area, like other locations in the Cannon River Valley, was influenced by the development and manufacture of pottery from the nearby town of Red Wing. Such pottery was extremely durable and had many culinary uses, and therefore it must have been a popular household item among the residents of Waterford and the employees at the mill. Other artifacts that reveal the social and cultural trends of the Waterford area are the Brunt nail knob components and the Lavoris Chemical Company bottle base. The nail knob components demonstrate that the Waterford Mill was following the same socio-cultural trend as other American buildings around the turn of the century by adopting electrical wiring and insulation. Additionally, the presence of Lavoris mouthwash at the Waterford Mill suggests that oral hygiene and cleanliness was an important concern for some of the workers at the mill, as well as the residents of Waterford.

In addition to displaying the social and cultural dimensions of the Waterford area’s past, some of the artifacts we discovered revealed the economic aspects of life in and around the Waterford Mill. For instance, the shard of the Homer Laughlin plate indicates that the workers at the mill and the inhabitants of Waterfield were, to some extent, economical. Since Homer Laughlin products were mass-produced, they were less expensive than other ceramic products and thus could be easily purchased. Another artifact that displays the economic connections of the Waterford area is the Royal Bonn stoneware sherd. It proves that Waterford was not disconnected from the outside world from the 19th to the 20th centuries, even though it was located in rural Minnesota. The existence of German-made pottery at the Waterford Mill is a remarkable find, one which demonstrates the community’s international economic links. Lastly, the automobile muffler and kerosene road flare suggest that the Waterford area was motorized. The muffler would have been used in some sort of motorized vehicle, and the flare would have been used to alert motorized vehicles of potential threats, such as the construction of roads. Thus, these artifacts indicate that the rural Waterford, just like so many other small towns across the United States, gradually adopted modern, motorized technology and the infrastructure related to such technology.

With regard to the artifactual contexts of the items we uncovered, Excavation Trench 1 yielded the majority of the artifacts in our exhibition. In fact, all of the artifacts featured in the exhibition, except for the Brunt porcelain nail knobs, were found in Trench 1. According to the artifact notes compiled after the excavation phase, most of the artifacts excavated from Trench 1 were various pieces of ceramic artifacts, glass, components of bottles and jugs, and metal cans. In contrast, most of the artifacts uncovered from Trench 2 were small pieces of porcelain, nails, screws, nail knobs, wires, and insulation for wiring and power lines. The different types of artifacts found in Trench 1 versus Trench 2 can be explained by the purposes and locations of the respective trenches. Trench 1 was a trash pit, and was therefore used by people in the Waterford area to dispose of waste such as bowls, plates, cups, and cans that they no longer needed. Trench 2, however, was located directly inside the mill, and therefore possessed artifacts that tell us how the mill was constructed. For instance, the high concentration of nail knobs, wires, and the insulation for wires and power lines tells us that at some point in its history, the Waterford Mill relied heavily on electricity. The electric wiring, nail knobs, and other associated devices inside the mill were most likely used for powering lights, but they also could have played a role in powering the mill itself. Therefore, Trenches 1 and 2 reveal two different artifact typologies: household artifacts and technological artifacts. The household artifacts consist of dishware, foodware, and other objects that were discarded either by mill workers or by residents of Waterford, and ultimately give us less information about how the mill itself was constructed. Conversely, the technological artifacts were components of the mill during its operation, and they provide great insight as to how the mill functioned and what it looked like.

Ultimately, as shown through the archaeological record, the Waterford Mill site displays an impressive degree of social, cultural, and economic complexity in a rural Minnesotan historical context. It allows us to visualize the evolution of a community for nearly a century, revealing the habits, attitudes, and lifestyles of the people who lived there.


Works Cited

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