Contact: Tom Parisi, NIU Office of Public Affairs
May 19, 2003
DeKalb, Ill.- Early this spring, Northern Illinois University archaeologist Tom Berres and his assistants trudged through a corn-stubble field near Yorkville, looking for hints of history.
They found some: nails, glass, chunks of limestone and pieces of dishware, all located in a concentrated area of the soon-to-be-developed farmland. To the untrained eye, the discoveries would seem unremarkable, but Berres knew his team was on to something bigger.
Within weeks, Berres and fellow anthropologists from NIU's Contract Archaeology Program turned a small section of the cornfield along Route 34 east of Yorkville into a dig site. They also transformed the field into an outdoor laboratory for visiting local historians, Boy Scouts and students from Yorkville and Oswego high schools.
Turns out, the commonplace cornfield once accommodated the home of one of Kendall County's early settlers and most prominent citizens of the 1800s, the wealthy Judge John C. Scofield.
"There's history right in our own back yards," Berres said. "People need to know their past before it's paved over."
When the digging began in earnest, archaeologists uncovered a cistern and two cellars hidden beneath the plow line. They also unearthed fragments of 19th century farm life: cutlery, buttons, needles, combs, shoe soles, medicine bottles, a graphite pencil, leather belt straps, a clay pipe stem, remnants of a horse harness, cow and chicken bones, broken hand-painted pottery, an 1857 Indian Head penny, a coin minted by the Sandwich Bank and pieces of slate. Each artifact is a piece to a larger puzzle.
"The slate was probably part of a roof," Berres said, stepping down into a portion of the dug-out cellar on a rainy day. "Only the wealthy could afford slate."
NIU's Contract Archaeology Program has been serving northern Illinois for more than a decade. State and federal laws mandate that areas of 20 acres or more earmarked for development must be surveyed for potential historical significance. Private developers and governmental agencies often turn to NIU, which conducts as many as 50 surveys each year.
The Contract Archaeology Program employs a full-time staff of professionals who identify, evaluate and excavate sites of interest. It also offers archaeological opportunities to students.
Over the years, NIU archaeologists have discovered everything from ancient Native American burial grounds to pioneer settlements. Significant sites must either be fully excavated or preserved. Berres said the Scofield homestead will be preserved as a park in the massive Grande Reserve development, an 1,100-acre, master-planned community. At build-out, Grande Reserve will boast 2,650 homes.
The dig site presented a rare educational opportunity for students outside of NIU. Often, developers are in a rush to get survey work done, but Naperville-based Moser Enterprises opened the site to students and community groups. Over the course of three weeks, Berres led educational tours, providing visitors with a chance to participate in the dig. Boy Scouts from Oswego made a trip to the site to earn their archaeology badges, while nearby high school students got a hands-on learning experience in local history.
Dan Hoefler, chair of the history department at Oswego High School, said his students had never been exposed to a dig. "They really didn't know how cool it was to do archaeology," he said. "When they actually got to do the sifting and were able to pick out pieces of artifacts, it made the experience more exciting. They realized how neat local history is. I even got a couple of calls from parents who actually said thanks for letting them do this."
Berres and his NIU crew taught the Scouts and students that it's important to dig into records as well. They studied 19th century plats, census data, newspaper articles and county records to learn more about Scofield and gain a glimpse into what life was like for the early settlers of Kendall County. They even tracked down some of Scofield's relatives, one in Batavia, Ill., and another in Louisiana.
Scofield was born in New York and in 1843 arrived in Kendall County, where he and his wife raised a large family. Title records indicate he owned numerous properties, which were likely rented to tenant farmers. He purchased his first farm for $6 an acre, and Berres believes the Route 34 site was that farm. For many years, Scofield served as a justice of the peace for the now defunct town of Bristol, and he served as an associate county judge.
Scofield's June 17, 1875, obituary in the Kendall County Record also indicates he was a member of the Republican party from its start, and two of his sons "were given to the Union cause," one at the Battle of Stones River in Tennessee. By 1903, the Scofield homestead had been razed.
"We emphasized to the students that it's important to do background research and to use your local historical society," Berres said. "In this way, we could bring together a story and teach them about all the facets of life in the mid-19th century--what daily life was like, what utensils were used in the kitchen, how houses were constructed."
More than 100 artifacts retrieved from the Yorkville dig were taken to NIU, where they will be cleaned, analyzed and inventoried. The Contract Archaeology Program keeps a large library of artifacts from digs across the region. Berres said he hopes to return to Yorkville to display the finds for the public.