Historic mysteryThe firehouse in Superior’s East End neighborhood once had three stalls. Now the home of the Old Firehouse & Police Museum, it only has two. The fate of that third stall was under scrutiny last week by University of Wisconsin-Superior students.
By: Maria Lockwood, Superior Telegram
The firehouse in Superior’s East End neighborhood once had three stalls. Now the home of the Old Firehouse & Police Museum, it only has two. The fate of that third stall was under scrutiny last week by University of Wisconsin-Superior students.
“There are conflicting stories of where it went, but no documented evidence,” said Jess McCullough, the Student Support Services cultural and educational activities coordinator who led the class. Some say it burned; others that it was torn down; perhaps it was partially burned, then torn down.
“We don’t know what happened to the third bay,” said Maggie Scheibe, collections for Superior Public Museums, which maintains the old firehouse. “They’re starting to find answers for us.”
Students dug 20 centimeters into the space the stall used to occupy, hoping to find out the truth. Friday, they cleaned their clues in buckets of water … nails, pieces of sandstone, coal, wood flakes and melted metal.
“We don’t have enough evidence to say that the fire hall burned, but in that corner where we were there’s evidence of some fairly significant heat,” McCullough said.
For two UWS students, the project unearthed something new.
“Most people look at these rocks and they’ll be like, that’s it,” said Dara Fillmore of Lake Nebagamon. “But for us, especially for me, I’m learning the whole process of doing archaeology.” That included plenty of paperwork, measuring and working with the metric system.
“Learning the whole process, connecting things, recreating it for future reference has been really interesting,” said Fillmore, a UWS senior majoring in public history.
“It’s exciting,” said Kyle Bianconi of Chisholm, who just graduated with a sociology major and anthropology/social studies minor. “You don’t realize how fun it is to pick up a nail until … (you) piece together something that’s been gone out of the city’s history.”
Each item unearthed could be a significant clue to solving the mystery surrounding why that third bay disappeared in the 1920s.
“To be able to contribute to that is just an awesome feeling,” Bianconi said.
Rounding out the crew was archeologist Sue Mulholland with the Duluth Archeology Center. To dig on public lands a permit is needed. Mulholland was tapped to provide both the permit and her expertise.
“They hornswoggled me,” she said. “In a moment of weakness, I said yes.” But she said it was fun to work with such enthusiastic students.
The dig was selected as a summer course for Student Support Services students this year. McCullough is studying archaeology himself, and has worked with Superior Public Museums in the past. All three museum sites, the old firehouse, Fairlawn Museum and the SS Meteor, were built in the 1890s when Superior was a boom town. They form a unique time capsule of the period, McCullough said.
Superior Public Museums approved the dig.
“This site chosen because, No. 1, they had a research question: ‘What happened to the third stall?’ There are a couple of stories but nobody seems to have really confirmed it,” he said. “And two, the ground here is less disturbed than it is at the other sites.”
The team dug one up a one-meter square, but there were more than 90 metal detector hits in the stall area. This inaugural dig just scratched the surface.
“There’s always more to find,” McCullough said. “Hopefully we can make it a yearly thing or some sort of regular occurrence. But this is uncharted territory.”
“History is a mystery,” Scheibe said. “Each time you do something you get a little closer to putting the puzzle together.”
The paperwork isn’t over for the students yet. They will co-author a report and submit it to the Wisconsin Historical Society, Superior Public Museums and UWS.
The entire process gave Bianconi a greater appreciation of archeologists who suffer through bad weather at large excavation sites. For most of their local week-long dig, the students had to contend with rain and wind. After their pieces are cleaned, they will be given to SPM.
Anyone wishing to visit the Old Firehouse & Police Museum this summer can do so for free. There is no admission cost for touring the museum at 402 23rd Ave. E.
The firehouse is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday for self-guided tours. Donations are accepted and there is a gift shop located at the site. McCullough encouraged anyone with old photos of the fire house, floor plans of the building or items like that to contact Superior Public Museums to add those pieces to the puzzle.