October 22, 2002

Historical Society Begins 'Unearthing Ezra' Program

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Beginning in August 2001, a wooded site at 111 University Ave., previously owned by Ezra Cornell and his family, was excavated by the Public Archeology Facility of Binghamton University. Yesterday, Project Director Andrea Zlotucha Kozub presented the group’s findings to an audience at the Tompkins County Museum.

The Public Archeology Facility was hired by Cornell University to complete the excavation.

The program, entitled “Unearthing Ezra,” was sponsored by the Dewitt Historical Society of Tompkins County, Cornell University and Trowbridge and Wolf, Landscape Architects “in celebration of New York State’s Archeology Month,” said Matt Braun of the Dewitt Historical Society.

The plot was purchased by Ezra Cornell in 1862. Although there is no longer a house standing on the plot, Irish-Catholic immigrants, the Christopher Carney family, lived there from about 1861 to 1883.

According to Kozub, Christopher Carney was a day laborer making about $1 a day and “had a working relationship with Cornell on and off for 10 to 15 years.” However, there was no record of the house being rented to the Carney family, so it is possible that the house was part of Carney’s compensation. Though the house appears for about 20 years in city records and fire insurance documents, there is no record that the house was ever built, or ever destroyed, though it no longer exists.

Although the family lived there for two decades and Carney worked for Cornell nearly as long, there were very few records that contained information about the family.

Though it might seem surprising that so little was known about the family, it is not very unusual that extensive records of working class families do not exist. “It’s because the written histories were mainly subscription histories,” said Nina M. Versaggi, director of the Public Archeology Facility, that is, it cost money to have information recorded.

What makes the Ezra Cornell Site interesting is the relative abundance of artifacts dealing with the lives of women and children. “Women and children of these modest families are often overlooked,” Kozub said.

Among the artifacts found were marbles, slate pencils, a “Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for Teething Babies,” and a “Mellin’s Infant Food Bottle.”

There are still several mysteries about the site that have been left unsolved. The main problem concerns the house itself: ” We found no signs of any structure,” Kozub said, with the exception of several nails.

Also, though the family was not wealthy, many artifacts were found that were not essential for living that would indicate an upper-middle class family. These artifacts include a perfume bottle, expensive transfer earthenware, a decorative liquor bottle, and garters. A button from an Indiana Militia coat was found as well and cannot be explained.

The excavation itself was carried out in three phases. First reconnaissance surveys were carried out, then site examinations and evaluations of site eligibility and finally the actual data recovery was completed during this past June and July.

The project is ongoing. “We still need to complete the analysis … the report will summarize what we did and what we found,” said Versaggi.

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