Thursday, May 9, 2024

The Danville Adventure, Part 1

Spending the week helping to close out a two-month field project on a big development site near Danville, Virginia. This area all used to be tobacco farms, down into the 1960s, but then that faded away and this country went to timber. Scattered through these hills are the remnants of homes where the tobacco farmers lived. Before the civil war, a majority were slaves; after it, some were sharecroppers, then cash tenants. Right now historians are devoting a huge amount of attention to Reconstruction and the transition from slavery to tenancy, so there is a lot of interest in these sites.

The ruin in the top photo is a collapsed tobacco barn, likely built in the early 20th century. Besides the general shape and size, we know this is a tobacco barn because of the small brick hearth for heating the barn to help the tobacco dry in damp, cool autumns. 

Here is an interesting house. The core is a one-room log house made with ax-shaped logs, possible as old as 1840, definitely before 1880. But the core is almost completely surrounded by more recent frame additions in various stages of collapse. A squatter was living here as recently as a decade ago.

Nearby tire dump. One problem with digging on these sites is that many of them were used as dump sites at some point after they were abandoned. We have found bottle dumps, tire dumps, a refrigerator dump, and a pile of personal computers from the 1980s. Computers are easy to identify but when it comes to bottle glass it can be hard to tell the 1870s from last month.

Our location has been logged at least twice since tobacco farming ceased. The loggers have mostly stayed away from the house sites but the rest of the landscape has been, um, changed. Here is a typical stretch of forest now, just pines and young sweetgums.

And it is being logged right now, so a lot of it looks like this. The impact of this kind of logging is not just on the surface; if you tried to walk across this expanse, as I did, you would discover that under all that wood trash is just one deep rut after another, the soil churned up and nothing left that resembles topsoil. It makes for a bit of a surreal experience, hiking across these huge clear-cuts to little islands of trees where we step back in time a century or more.

But nature, you know, is pretty tough, and within a few weeks of what looks like devastation new life is emerging.

Areas that were logged last year have been taken over by wildflowers.

Including moth mullein, one of my favorites.

Plus, where the surface is bare we can find things like this stone scraper, undatable but surely more than a thousand years old. More to come!

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