McAuley classes dig history: Students get their hands dirty in Portland's Baxter Woods

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PORTLAND — Students at Catherine McAuley High School have paired with a local archaeologist to unearth the past in their own backyard.

Norm Buttrick, of Deering Center, brought students into Baxter Woods behind McAuley for an archaeological dig at the site of the Francis O.J. Smith Estate.

Buttrick said the hope was to find copper wire, since Smith was friends with Samuel Morse, who tested an early version of his telegraph at the estate.

So far, no copper wire has been found.

“But we’re finding 19th century bottles and a lot of hand-cut nails and sometimes ceramics,” Buttrick said.

The Smith Estate was built in the 1830s. It was purchased by the Baxter family in the late 1880s, and was demolished a few years later.

Now, two sophomore history classes taught by Eric Jorgensen are going into the woods twice a week for about 45 minutes each. Just under 30 students are participating, and each group has a specific dig site.

The first group works where the estate’s library once stood, and the other group works at the site of the main house. The students have been digging for three weeks, and will continue until the weather stops them.

Students dig in team, until they find part of the foundation wall, or get beyond the topsoil. Jorgensen said the goal is not only to find artifacts, he said, but to see what life was like at that time.

“They either come down on part of the structure, or find natural soil,” Jorgensen said.

Jim Leamon, another archaeologist assisting the dig, said after students get out and set up they only have 30 minutes to actually dig before they have to pack up again.

But despite the timing and other challenges, like intermixed debris, it’s wonderful for the students to have the site so close.

“The students don’t have to trouble with busing and that sort of thing, they can just walk back,” Leamon said. “So it’s a great opportunity for them.”

“If we can get them down digging vigorously below the topsoil, we may be able to find some artifacts, and that would be tremendously exciting,” he said.

Sophomore Maddy Beaulieu said it’s an exciting opportunity.

“It’s a lot different from staying in the classroom,” Beaulieu said. “We’ve just learned how cool archaeology is and it just seems really real when you’re out here, rather than just reading about it.”

The project was funded by a $5,500 grant from the Maine Humanities Council. Any artifacts the students find will be cleaned and cataloged, and then will go into the school. The students will do a final report on everything they’ve done and found, before the artifacts are shipped off.

“There’s two choices (where the artifacts will go),” Buttrick said. “They could go to the Maine State Museum, if the site’s important enough. Otherwise we try to have a local historical society that’s interested in them.”

Buttrick said the students have found “a moderate” amount of artifacts, the most notable being a piece of a cast-iron stove.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Sidebar Elements

Archaeologist Norm Buttrick, center leads Catherine McAuley High School students Maddie Beaulieu, left, and Meredith Wheeler at a dig site in Baxter Woods. Buttrick and two history classes at the school have been working at the site where the Smith House once stood.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or