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Millis archeological dig casts new light on local history

President of the Millis Historical Society Paul LaCroix recently finished a four year archaeological excavation of George Fairbanks’ Stone House at Bogastowe Farms in Millis. Cuff links, green glass set in copper setting, ca. 1690.

President of the Millis Historical Society Paul LaCroix recently finished a four year archaeological excavation of George Fairbanks’ Stone House at Bogastowe Farms in Millis. Cuff links, green glass set in copper setting, ca. 1690.

For three years, Paul LaCroix searched for the remains of an old stone house erected in Millis as a garrison during Colonial times and torn down in the late 1800s.

This is arguably the finest example of ceramics found at the site, discovered at cellar floor level, four feet below grade. It is an ale flagon about six inches high made of Westerwald stoneware, ca. late 17th - early 18th century.

This is arguably the finest example of ceramics found at the site, discovered at cellar floor level, four feet below grade. It is an ale flagon about six inches high made of Westerwald stoneware, ca. late 17th - early 18th century.

Using antique maps and historical descriptions, the president of the Millis Historical Society developed an idea of the general area. But it wasn’t until he was putting in a signpost in late 2008 that he accidentally unearthed wrought iron nails, brick fragments and slag, which is waste left over from smelting iron.

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“I came up out of the ground with physical evidence of the fort,” LaCroix proudly recalls. “I went from being about 90 percent certain to 100 percent in one fell swoop. So I knew we had something.”

They were remnants of a structure built by early settler George Fairbanks roughly 370 years ago, when the area was known as Bogastowe Farms, a find that would cast the early history of Millis in a new light.

LaCroix spent the next four years surveying the property, digging, and identifying artifacts. With the help of family members, community volunteers and the expertise of local archaeologists and surveyors, he sifted through mounds of earth at the site and surrounding areas extending into Sherborn. He found shards of Colonial pottery, silver and bronze jewelry, Native American arrowheads, iron, and other long-buried artifacts.

A bloomery slag, nail rods and other wrought iron items probably manufactured on site.

A bloomery slag, nail rods and other wrought iron items probably manufactured on site.

The site “is where the new meets the old, and I do mean old,” LaCroix said. “Some of these artifacts are among the oldest to ever come out of the ground in Norfolk County.”

LaCroix gave a detailed talk about his adventures this month at the Millis Public Library, where many of the artifacts are on display.

‘Some of these artifacts are among the oldest to ever come out of the ground in Norfolk County.’

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LaCroix’s evidence suggests a different interpretation of Native American and Colonial activity in Millis and nearby communities during the 1600s.

“This is amazing. It’s blowing Millis out of the water,” said Nancy Sitta, president of the Friends of the Millis Public Library, of the excavation and its findings.

“It was very satisfying,” said Betsy Johnson, a volunteer digger and a Sherborn Historical Society curator. “Finding something related to both towns is very significant,” she said.

“We had no idea the magnitude of this site when we started.” said Cheryl O’Malley, another volunteer.

A history buff since childhood, LaCroix said his initial interest in the Fairbanks Stone House stemmed from family ties to Millis and a drive to puzzle out details of 17th-century Colonial activity.

George Fairbanks was the first Colonial settler in Millis, and the son of Jonathan Fairbanks; the family’s homestead in Dedham is the oldest surviving timber-framed house in North America. Town records indicated that the Stone House, built in the 1640s as a garrison during a Native American uprising, was torn down in the late 1800s but its exact location was undocumented.

LaCroix initially investigated the estates surrounding the Stone House, including the area of the Millis Earthworks. The earthworks are man-made banks built of earth and natural materials, and have long been studied, notably in 1912 by the archeologists of the Peabody Museum at Harvard.

While the earthworks were previously attributed to Native Americans, LaCroix’s research suggests that some of the mounds may have instead been constructed by early settlers to fence in livestock and mark property. He found the banks are similar to the ditch-fences described in documents by the Colonists, who used them in a time when the price of wood was high and there were few other fencing options.

“I wasn’t looking for it,” said LaCroix, “but this is what I stumbled upon.”

More significantly, iron findings from the excavation indicate the Stone House may have been the first permanent small-scale iron manufacturing site in North America.

LaCroix found large amounts of slag in addition to the 3-by-3-foot stone foundation of a “bloomery,” the type of furnace used in the 17th century for smelting iron. British policy at that time did not allow the independent manufacturing of products, requiring that all raw resources be exported from the Colonies.

Yet the sheer amount of iron found and the absence of any other iron works in the area indicate that the Stone House bloomery was open from as early as 1643 to as late as 1760, when the property became uninhabited. The first official integrated iron-production operation in North America, the Saugus Iron Works in Saugus, was in operation from 1646 to 1688. The existence of this bloomery in Millis is significant in understanding Colonial industrial activity.

“There are few if any properly documented bloomery sites in the country,” LaCroix said. Now, he said, “we not only know approximately where this site was, we know exactly where it was. The stone foundation is still there.”

A wedding band engraved with names and the date July 3, 1895, was another particularly exciting find, and launched a small investigation to discover the couple’s lineage. The Millis Historical Society was able to trace the ring to an only son, who died in the 1920s in Milford without any remaining family members. The ring is among the artifacts on exhibit at the library.

In addition, LaCroix’s replication of the layout of the Stone House shows a resemblance to the Fairbanks House in Dedham. This confirms not only George’s lineage, LaCroix said, but also his move from Dedham to Millis in the early 1640s.

“The Stone House at Bogastow Farm is almost an exact interior replica of the Fairbanks House in Dedham,” LaCroix said. “It shows that George definitely lived there,” even if only as a boy.

Having worked full time during the excavation, LaCroix said he is tremendously grateful for the amount of support he received from community members, and their personal commitment to the investigation. He shared his experiences first with Millis, but wants to take his presentation to other communities, and hopes to release a full report in 12 to 18 months .

As for future projects, he said he has nothing else planned. The Stone House is capped for now, protected in case digging is to be continued. He would love to carry on his archeological work.

“I’m not an archaeologist, I’m a history buff,” LaCroix said. “But I learned the hard way, and now I’m a fair hand at it.”

Rebecca Kagle can be reached at rkagle13@gmail.com.
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