Milbar Special Analysis
Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota, 1996
by Tim Cowan, District Archaeologist
The first day is always busy with moving in and settling the volunteers into the camp area. Inevitably we have a few no-shows, and I usually am apprehensive about the adequacy of my preparations, the camp area itself, and the ability of the project to generate enough excitement among volunteers to last the week. As I make the rounds of new arrivals and familiar faces I gain a project perspective based on the expectations of this year’s crew. About one-half of the folks are returnees. Some of them are very experienced. The kids are usually the first to come to me with questions. I enjoy the kids because of their unpredictable queries and fresh ideas. They make the process new for me each time, even though many things don’t change from year to year. On the other hand, it’s possible to involve the kids as full-fledged team members because the returning veterans provide the guidance and solid attention to detail necessary to maintain control. The porta-potties were three hours late, but the weather was beautiful, and to my great relief everyone liked the camping spot. We were lucky enough to have a fire permit, and our first evening was pleasantly spent visiting around the campfire and gaining an initial orientation toward the site.
The site consists of a group of heavily deteriorated cabin and outbuilding features situated near the top of one gulch, in the divide, and down the opposite gulch. We believe that five residences are represented among the 23 features. The remainder of the features are sheds, mine exploration trenches or collapsed tunnels, and old wagon road beds. These features are spread out over a little more than a half mile, so the first thing we did was have a general tour of the site to allow folks to decide which area they might like to work in. I had received an application from one young lady and her father, who had both suffered fairly drastic physical problems since they participated with us in 1994. The father had been kicked by a horse and was on crutches, and his daughter had become paraplegic as a result of a viral infection. In spite of their situation, they had decided to come, so we became an accessible project without batting an eye. I have always maintained that we can be as accessible as necessary to both kids and wheelchairs. We would have built a bridge if we hadn’t had enough strong bearers to carry our friend. It is usually the person in the chair who requires the least convincing that access is possible and sufficient. Once seated comfortably on the ground next to a unit, Bobbie was our most proficient mapper and recorder.
Our historian came after lunch on the second day and spoke to the group, and by the end of the first day of work at the site we completed an extensive metal-detector scan of a recently located area of the site, and laid out two 10-x-10-foot units in two different areas of the site and were well into their excavation. The evening fire became a ritual, and entertainment included an episode of The Shadow or a segment of War of the Worlds.
The richness of buried deposits in both excavation areas turned out to be exceptional, and as we documented more and more domestic items for men, women, and children we could fairly hear a mother calling her husband from the mine and her children from the yard at supper time. They had ink wells, tea strainers, coasters and flat irons; shovels, drawknives, files, cross-cut saws, and axes; horse shoes and harness; blasting cap cans, shotguns, rifles, and tobacco; marbles, dominos, and alarm clocks; fancy glassware, buckets, and buttons; suspenders, overalls, and vests; windows, wire, nails (cut and wire), bolts, and brackets; jars, jugs, bottles, and skimmers; and cans from baking powder, condensed milk, meat, beans, fruits, vegetables, crackers, syrup, and lard. All these things and more had been acquired, used, and discarded by a family who had lived in the gulch more than 100 years before we were there. If we consider the members of our own party and the items they had with them in their motor homes or campers and tents, and if we threw the contents of the campers out the door and then cataloged them, the material culture would be a virtual mirror of 1896 and would have reflected very similar demographics in the group structure present. In 1996, we had internal combustion engines and in some cases gas refrigeration, but the main technological similarity between the Milbar camp in 1896 and our own was the lack of electricity. We might expect to have seen additional similarity between the assemblages had the elements not removed some of the more perishable stuff from the 1896 deposits. It would also be nice to have seen the books and letters and photographs on the shelves and some of those things that people set on their window sills and hang on the walls to make a house a home, but then they went with their people and may still be radiating the same warmth into the home of a grandchild or great grandchild that they once lent to the small cabins in Chipmunk Gulch.
This was a mining camp, but it was also home to families. When the garter belt first came to light, there was speculation. This was a fancy item with stamped designs and turquoise-colored enamel inlays in the clasps. Some cried that the artifact must have belonged to a “prostitute” associated with the mining camp, but I think that there’s fancy underwear among the private things of many a respectable housewife. I can hear the squeals of children and the gruff call of a father to his son for some help across the gulch at the mine. I can also hear an occasional argument between a wife and her husband and imagine their reconciliation. This “give and take” in the rhythms of life contributed to the success of another human society in the Black Hills.
The site maintained the excited attention of our whole crew for the entire week. A certain feeling of respect for the camp’s prior inhabitants was generated from excavating the rotted duff piles of cabins that were once their homes and the associated trash dumps. The artifacts recovered were linked to the lives of people who remain obscure and unnamed. Their achievements or those of their descendants are not known except in the diaries and letters and photographs stored in boxes in attics across the country. They were not wealthy or famous, but they were powerful, for without them and the thousands of others like them the achievements of historic names in politics, industry, and society would never have been recorded.