Published August 1, 2013
UB archaeologists who have been digging to find the remains of the oldest grist mill in Erie County say that it may not be where everyone thought it was.
Excavation director Douglas Perrelli, director of the UB Archaeological Survey, says they now have evidence that the circa 1803 mill built in Clarence by Asa Ransom may have been located at a different site than the two grist mills that replaced it.
They derived this hypothesis from a brief summer excavation behind the Asa Ransom House on Main Street in Clarence that was initiated by Perrelli and archaeologist Joseph McGreevy, a member of the faculty of Clarence Senior High School and a member of the board of directors of the Clarence Historical Society and the Clarence Historic Preservation Commission.
The project was funded by a 2012 E & W G Foundation grant awarded to the Clarence Historical Society that is administered by the SUNY Research Foundation.
The effort resulted in a two-day public demonstration excavation earlier this month in which workers, including trained community members and students from Clarence Senior High School, looked for evidence of the early mill. Information about the site’s history and the archaeological process was shared with visitors.
“We wanted those living here to realize the history and its artifacts beneath their feet and to appreciate the accomplishments of the town’s earliest settlers, despite the difficulties they faced,” McGreevy says.
McGreevy understands those difficulties, having written one of the most accurate and detailed histories of this site. He points out that in 1799, the Holland Land Company, which owned vast tracts of forested wilderness here, offered 10 acres of land in Clarence to “any proper man who would build and operate a tavern upon it.”
Asa Ransom, a 36-year-old Buffalo silversmith, originally from Massachusetts, was one of the first to sign up.
“True to his word, in 1801 he built a large log house and tavern that could accommodate travelers along the main east-west route through that isolated part of Erie County. The house/tavern was followed by a saw mill in 1802 and then the grist mill,” McGreevy says.
He explains that the original small, water-powered grist mill could not grind much grain because it was located on a stream that offered insufficient water power.
“After the deaths of Asa Ransom (1825) and his wife (1837), the property was sold, and in the 1840s the old mill was replaced—possibly on a different site, we think—by a bigger grist mill powered by a stream whose flow was strengthened through the use of a large mill pond, now part of Clarence Town Park. A third mill built in 1895-97 burned down in the 1920s,” McGreevy says.
“We’ve found artifacts associated with the two later mills,” says Perrelli, “including building materials, parts of tools, pieces of pottery, glass, bottles and other material that survived more than 150 years of weather, fire and burial.
“Then, on the last day of the excavation,” he says, “we did some shovel testing in another area behind the Asa Ransom House and found preliminary evidence that the earliest mill was located higher on the hill, closer to the (later) mill pond and on the opposite side of the stream from the later mills,” he says. Archaeologists hope to raise funds to investigate this site.
McGreevy points out that in addition to building a second, and then a third grist mill, later owners razed the original Ransom house and tavern, and in 1853 built a large brick house on the site. This building was expanded in 1975 and 1993, and today is operated as an inn known as the Asa Ransom House, although Ransom died long before the house was a twinkle in its builder’s eye.
The Clarence dig is just one of several in Western New York that Perrelli is overseeing. He also is overseeing Archaeological Survey excavations in the neighborhood adjoining the old Erie Canal terminus in downtown Buffalo led by UB archaeological research analyst Nathan Montague, and the Warren Hull House outbuilding excavation on Genesee Street in Lancaster led by UB archaeologist Ryan Austin, as well as surveys in the towns of Concord and Ashford.
He specializes in lithic analysis, gender archaeology, Iroquoian studies, the archaeology of the Northeastern United States, cultural resource management and historic preservation.
McGreevy is a professional archaeologist who works for the UB Archaeological Survey and was involved in work at the “Nursery Site,” locus of a prehistoric palisaded village once situated close to the Tops Markets’ warehouse on Genesee Street.
He also has worked in dozens of other excavation projects in and around Clarence, including Hull House, where he conducts a summer history camp that teaches archeological field techniques, and on Mayan and Aztec excavations in Belize and Mexico.