History in the digging

McCluer North High School students excavating historic site
Sunday, May 17, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

FLORISSANT — As 17-year-old Gabi Mink scraped away in the dirt, a glint caught her eye.

She dug a bit more and pulled out a tiny, clear glass bottle. "PARIS" it said, then the name of a perfume company.

It wouldn't be such a big deal except for where they found it — at the former site of a girls' dormitory at the Old St. Ferdinand Shrine in old town Florissant.

Mink and her classmates from the McCluer North High School honors humanities class are staging an archaeological dig there to find out more about the site and to learn to dream big.

"You're holding that perfume bottle that wasn't touched in 100 years," said Rob Huitt, one of the teachers who leads the class. "And the last person who held it was some little schoolgirl that was trying to smell nice for whatever reason. But you find those little artifacts, and it's fascinating."

The 45 seniors in the humanities class have been digging at the site, home to one of the oldest settlements in Missouri, since the end of March.

It's a very real experience compared to past humanities classes. For several years, the classes would create their own archaeological dig sites. They'd dream up their own civilization, come up with their own customs and language, and bury "artifacts" from the civilization at a dig site on the school grounds. Then their classmates would have to excavate the site.

Bill Bray is the president of the board of directors of the shrine. He lives near the school and was driving by one day last year and noticed one of the archaeological "sites." He contacted the school and asked if the students would be interested in digging at a real site.

"It's exciting for us, too. From our point of view, it's an archaeological dig that's not costing us anything," he said. "I don't know what all they'll find. That's the part that's fun for all of us."

He said he hopes the students will grow to appreciate the shrine and play a part in preserving it in the future.

The area is home to one of the oldest settlements in Missouri, and might have been settled around the mid-1700s. Its first civil government was formed in 1786, and the next year's census showed there were 40 people and seven plantations at the site. Father Pierre De Smet was ordained there, and Sacagawea's daughter went to a school there.

The cornerstone for the present-day brick church was laid in 1821, and St. Rose Phillipine Duchesne lived in the convent for several years. The convent still stands, as well as a school building and a rectory, which was built in 1840.

But it's the buildings that no longer exist that interest the McCluer North students. There was a dormitory, slave quarters, a chicken coop, even a 20-seat outhouse.

"There's several sites, there's definitely years of work to go," said Huitt, who has a background in archaeology and has worked on digs in Athens, Greece. Art teacher Dorothy Morris and English teacher Tim Ryan also teach the class, which also involves students drawing pictures of their findings and writing papers.

So far, the students have found lots of construction debris, plate shards, a horseshoe, a spur, bed rails, liquor bottles, a shoe sole and a bunch of pig's teeth. That was pretty exciting until they figured out the Knights of Columbus used to host pig roasts at the site and dump the remains behind the buildings.

They found an old metal steam pipe with the name "RUDISILL" on it. This came as a particular surprise to student Jenn Rudisill, 17.

"If the name was Smith, it would be such a different story," said Rudisill, who is pretty sure she's not a pipe manufacturing company heiress.

When students find the more interesting objects, they carefully measure and record where they found them. The objects get washed, cleaned and sorted. If they figure something is significant, they tag it. Artifacts will then go on display at the high school and eventually in a museum at the shrine.

The students are already spreading the word about the site; many of them didn't even know it existed until they took this class.

Patrice Jones, 18, grew up in Florissant, and because of this class her mother visited the shrine during the recent Valley of Flowers town festival.

"Every day when we come here, we never know what we're going to find," Jones said. "It's an adventure. Every day, it's 'What if?'"



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