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Urban Archaeology: Still Plenty of Wigle Room

By Dr. Ethan Epstein, Principal Investigator at Commonwealth Heritage Group, Inc.

Recently, Commonwealth Heritage Group, Inc. (Commonwealth) conducted mechanically assisted trenching in part of Detroit’s Wigle Park. Although records indicated that development had occurred within the city block beginning in the 1870s, records also indicated that the houses and outbuildings were subsequently razed, the debris mostly removed, and the area infilled.

Staff compiled information from historic maps, United States Census records, and directories from the City of Detroit to determine that the former residents included families of Swiss, Finnish, Italian, German, Irish, Russian, Canadian, and American (at least second generation) descent. These records also indicated that residents were mainly employed in the industrial, trade, utility, retail, and general services sectors of the economy. After 1900 many of the structures went from owner-occupied to rental properties, trends consistent with expectations derived from Detroit’s general history.

Staff reviewed the 1897 Sanborn fire insurance map of the area that shows the locations of structures and alleyways within the Project Area, and then excavated three trenches that intersected residential structures and outbuildings that had paralleled the alleyways. The trenches ranged in depth from two to four feet below surface. Staff identified 42 features and several smaller concentrations of architectural debris distributed across 16 newly identified sites, which corresponded to 16 address-specific parcels. The identified feature types included a brick foundation, structural support wall remnants, cement wall footers, cement floors, a possible lavatory, a possible privy of some type or a “Pittsburgh potty” (standalone basement toilet), a wooden outbuilding floor or walkway, and an unstructured refuse concentration. The uniformity of the depth below surface of the wall features and the infilling of cellars with the resulting debris suggests that the structures were razed mostly as a single event. This is consistent with records, which indicate that these structures were demolished in the 1950s during the construction of a field house and associated ball fields that are no longer extant.

FIGURE 1: The three trenches, sites, and features overlain on the 1897 Sanborn map

FIGURE 2: The three trenches, sites, and features overlain on modern aerial imagery

FIGURE 3: View north along Trench 3, one of the three trenches that exposed brick walls and cement basement floors

Forty-five artifacts were recovered, which included four pieces of building material, a square nail, a spoon bowl, three ceramic vessel/plate fragments, a ceramic portrait tile, seven bottles/bottle fragments, three jars, a jar lid, a glass fragment, a window pane fragment, 10 mammal bones and bone fragments, and 12 bird bones and bone fragments. Although no date has been determined for the bones, the remaining artifacts reflect the period between the 1890s and mid-1930s. Due to their size and condition, species could not be assigned to the mammal bones, although nine of the bones were determined to come from a large animal and were recovered from the unstructured refuse concentration, in addition to the 12 bird bones. Unfortunately, eight of the bird bones were too fragmentary for meaningful analysis; however, four of the bones reflect goose, duck, and bittern family sizes, suggesting the supplementation of household diet with wild caught fowl. In addition, several of the ceramic pieces suggested that some modicum of household wealth was achieved.

FIGURE 4 – A.E.T. Co. portrait tile – ca. 1880 to 1935

FIGURE 5 – Base of an unknown vessel type by Bridgwood & Son – ca. 1795 to 1891

The cultural resources present on-site may, but are not likely to, contribute to further understanding the cultural milieu that was Detroit during the last two decades of the 1800s through the 1950s, from construction of the structures through their demolition. Because living spaces and outbuilding functions can no longer be identified, the artifacts cannot be associated with specific residents, and the family histories of the residents are similar to those already documented in Detroit, only general inferences can be made. Therefore, these investigations are not likely to provide significant insight into the lifeways of area residents. However, these investigations provide a reflection point that needs to be constantly, if not vigilantly considered. Often, despite a lack of historical records and what may appear to be a total loss of cultural resources in a given area, resources that remain can significantly inform the public about ethnicities, religions, and economic adaptations on both a household and community-wide basis.

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