I knew I wanted to be an archeologist when I was six years old, but somehow Egypt and Greece seemed too far off, and I really wasn't interested in arrowheads. Nonetheless, I had a misspent youth because when I got my driver's license, I spent weekends exploring the many abandoned farmsteads on Crowley's Ridge north of my home in Jonesboro in northeast Arkansas. I was intrigued by all the effort of so many families who ended up leaving their marks behind in the form of farmhouses, outbuildings, and fields that were disappearing under scrubby vegetation. I came to understand how many North Americans had lived and worked on farmsteads such as these. The house I had grown up in, a “ranch house” in the suburbs, was actually the odd case. What seemed normal to me was a recent occurrence, the end result of people abandoning their farms and moving to towns. Eventually they or their children moved to the suburbs where I grew up.
By the late 1960s archaeologists were doing historical archaeology, and though they often focused on military sites or the homes of the rich and famous, they also recognized that the powerful integration of documents, archaeology, and other data sources such as old photos and old memories could be brought to bear on understanding “ordinary” farmsteads in North America. These farmsteads were created by English and Germans and French and Hispanics and Africans and others who built the North America we know through farming. Historical archaeologists also recognized that they couldn't really find out everything they wanted to know about all those farm families just from finds at flea markets, or even in memoirs or contemporary descriptions by visitors to the countryside. What is the value, after all, of someone claiming to describe a “typical farmstead” in New England or the South or the Midwest, when in fact we don't know precisely what all those farmsteads looked like because so many had been abandoned and transformed into archaeological sites? At those sites we can find evidence of what those many farm families thought and desired and needed and used, but not if we dismiss that evidence, and their lives, as irrelevant.
At the Arkansas Archeological Survey, we’ve discovered just how much we can learn by doing archaeology at Ozark farmsteads. In 1983, we excavated the Moser Farmstead Site for the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department and the Federal Highway Administration prior to construction of a new interstate through northwestern Arkansas. We discovered rich deposits of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century artifacts in a number of farmstead features including a cellar under what had been a log smokehouse, a cellar under what had been a kitchen ell, a cistern that had been under the kitchen porch, and a storm cellar out in the backyard. Extensive oral history from people who knew the farmstead well helped us to reconstruct the farmstead plan in detail, including where the house, barn, privy, chicken houses, smokehouse, and wagon shed had stood. They also gave us a more thorough understanding of how the artifacts we found fitted into the lifeways of the Moser inhabitants.
Consider, for example, the smokehouse. Say that "everybody had a smoke house" and this is true, but what does this say about the place of smoked meat on the family farm in the centuries before refrigeration? At the Moser site, we found that the log smokehouse had the only door on the entire place that had a lock, and that lock also protected the contents of a storage cellar underneath the smokehouse. And into that cellar, when the farmstead was abandoned and demolished and the place cleaned up about 1920, were thrown fragments of glass canning jars, British and United States-made ceramic dishes for the dining table, and even a crosscut saw that the Moser occupants had used in the previous four decades. What was that? Imported tablewares and glass canning jars and other products of the Industrial World being used by isolated Ozark hill people? Yes, people who were independent, but not isolated, who used the goods generated in the increasingly alienating world of cities and factories to construct a way of life that celebrated family and community sufficiency and strength. A useful thing to learn today, for a boy who grew up in suburbia wanting to be an archaeologist.