Scull Shoals PIT Project Revitalizes Extinct Mill Town

Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests, Georgia, 1997–1999

by Jack Wynn, FS Archaeologist

For three hot, steamy, chigger-infested summers, 20–30 PIT volunteers lived together for a week or two at the Rock Eagle 4-H Center and labored at Scull Shoals, a 19th-century mill town on the Oconee NF in central Georgia. PIT projects were scheduled during the summer so that schoolteachers could also volunteer. Then one of the teachers commented, “You know, teachers can also get time for weekend projects.” With that, the Scull Shoals PIT weekend digs were born!

Beginning in November 1999 and continuing in January–May 2000, our loyal PIT volunteers gathered for projects one weekend (Friday–Sunday) a month. We had small crews, 6–8 on most Fridays and up to 18 on Saturdays in the field. Often, there were local archaeology professionals who volunteered as well. They loved to help, supervise, and teach the other volunteers. Then on Sundays, smaller groups gathered in a lab set up in the district work center. There, we cleaned, sorted, and counted the artifacts, and everyone got a chance to see what sorts of things were coming out of the site. Some of the items were impressive. There were 7,000–8,000-year-old spear points that had been found next to 19th-century overhaul strap clips, cut nails, late-prehistoric Lamar period decorated pottery sherds, and pieces of delicate porcelain dinnerware next to chunks of iron gears. This was an industrial “company town,” so iron machinery parts are to be found in abundance, but because the site was landscaped in the 1960s, the upper layers are well mixed.

The volunteers are mostly folks who have worked here or on other Georgia PIT projects before, but word of mouth and some local advertisement has brought in a few new ones each month. From November through May, there were more than 40 volunteers, some of whom have been returning to us for six or seven years. One or two have driven great distances to participate. Frank Grieco, who’s been with us for seven years, came back for the eighth time, driving up from deep southern Florida, and Stacy Culpepper came in from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, for a three-day weekend! They are helping to study this old mill town, home of gristmills, sawmills, a four-story textile mill, and, for a short time, the first paper mill in Georgia. A pair of entrepreneurs decided that if we could not import paper during the War of 1812, they could certainly make it there, and did!

Last summer and this year on weekends, we have worked on “downtown” Scull Shoals, guided in part by results from subsurface mapping. Dr. Ervan Garrison’s students at the nearby University of Georgia made the maps using ground-penetrating radar, proton magnetometers, soil resistivity, metal detectors, and assorted other high-tech toys. We have found at least three unexpected structures in the village, possibly mill workers’ houses, and large post molds that may be from the frontier fort, built there in 1795, when Scull Shoals was at the western boundary of the United States!

Cassandra Flowers and friend clean around an early-19th-century brick chimney base at Scull Shoals. A prehistoric fire pit (D shaped) is visible in the foreground.Trying to find support piers for a downtown house with a stone chimney base, we found two houses beneath and around it. One had a 19th-century brick chimney base with two fireplaces (see photo). Directly beneath one of the fireplaces was a 15th-century Lamar period Indian fire pit, with faunal remains, mussel shells from the Oconee River, quartz flakes, and Lamar period pottery sherds.

In March, we instituted our own version of heritage tourism, as our nonprofit partner, Friends of Scull Shoals, Inc., began to sponsor guided tours of the sites on Saturdays when the archaeologists were working. Articles in newspapers from the surrounding counties promoted the tours, and we had 30–60 visitors each weekend, each paying a small fee for the tours. The funds were used to provide facilities: a rented portable toilet and interpretive signs around the site. More-permanent facilities and signs are planned from future tour receipts, as is an educational and research center at the old mill village to benefit the local school system and the traveling public.