This latest round of research aims to add to the story of the Arcadia Mill Homestead, with a focus on the enslaved people who worked and lived there.
In the final days of the 2018 UWF Archaeology Field School at Arcadia, UWF archaeologist and site manager Adrianne Walker and her team spent time in an excavation pit at the site of the old Simpson plantation house that once sat on a hill overlooking the industrial complex.
“One of my big goals this summer was to identify the south boundary and try to find that southern-most row of brick piers,” said Walker of their efforts. “We’ve never uncovered a brick pier yet; we’ve only found brick walls and so I don’t even know what they look like.”
But, as archaeology students screen and scrape away the soil around a pile of brick rubble, Walker is hoping that one of the home’s large brick support piers is still intact underneath. She’s encouraged by faint evidence water deposits in an adjacent shovel test unit.
“It means that water at some point affected it and continued to rain on it, pour on it. We find it at the bases of chimneys a lot because of the water trickling in, and it makes this swirly effect in the soil,” Walker said.
She believes this could be the drip line for the house, prior to installation of a gutter system around the turn of the century.
Arcadia Mill owner Ezekiel Simpson built the antebellum home in 1835. It burned down in 1935.
“It stood for 100 years, and actually survived a very short confederate occupation,” said Walker of the home’s long history. “Confederate soldiers were using this house as an outpost. And, it’s interesting, we found a civil war bullet. So, it’s kind of a neat tie to that Civil War history that we have.”
Thanks to previous excavations, historical documents and a couple of 20th-century photos, there’s a lot of information about the old Arcadia Mill homestead and the Simpson family.
This summer Walker set out to find the old home’s southern boundary. But, she says the story of Arcadia really won’t be complete until more is known about the slaves who once lived in nearby quarters on the site.
“One of the goals was to uncover the full chimney that was part of the slave cabin,” she said. “We could see one row of bricks on the surface, but in recent years, we’ve had publications say that it was a single chimney and another that it was a double chimney.”
With the mixed information, Walker wanted to confirm what was there. Excavations proved that the cabin did have a double chimney, suggesting that two families occupied the structure, probably one on each side.
Slave families actually begin to appear after the 1845 purchase of 40 female slaves to work in Arcadia’s textile mill.
Records suggest there was once a nursery for enslaved mothers on the property, possibly in the slave cabin.
So far, there’s no archaeological evidence of a nursery. But, during the recent dig, the UWF team did find the remains of a root cellar or sub floor pit as they were working in the area of the cabin’s chimney.
“And, in excavating it, we found a big iron concretion, about fist size, with turtle shell fragments sitting on top of it,” said Walker, noting that they had the iron X-rayed in the UWF lab. “It looks like it’s a perfectly circular item, about 2 and a quarter inches wide in diameter.”
Walker believes the metal object could be associated with ritual or religious activity by the slaves. They expect to have a better idea in a few weeks, after conservation and cleaning in the electrolysis tank.
Like the big house, the nearby slave cabin was built on brick piers, as confirmed by the only existing early 1900’s-era photo of the structure. The building stood for nearly two centuries until it was carefully dismantled in the early 2000s.
Looking around the Arcadia Homestead today, modern bricks now outline the cabin’s chimney. Bricks also delineate the big house basement. Additionally, there are large photo boards that depict and provide orientation of previously discovered structural features of both buildings.
According to Walker, it’s all part of an exciting new chapter for the historic site.
“We are working on developing this property to open to the public early 2019. We’re thinking March, but that is very tentative,” Walker said of plans to interpret the 8-acre property for the public as part of Arcadia Mill.
The project will include every facet of the site, including the period when it functioned as a farm.
The plan will center on the restoration of the existing Simpson House, which was constructed in 1935, immediately after the original Antebellum home burned down. To date, they’ve refinished some of the hardwood floors, applied a new coat of paint, and completed some cosmetic updates to the house.
“People will be able to come to the house as sort of the orientation spot; they’ll be able to walk around it, hear things, smell things, feel things,” said Walker of the multi-sensory, immersive experience being planned.
“They can see some of the furniture that was saved from the burning plantation house, which still is around. We’ve got some lovely early 1800’s furniture that came with the donation (from the Simpson family).”
Meantime, an exhibit entitled Time at “The Place”: Daily Life for the Enslaved at Arcadia Mill will go on display next month in the Destination Archaeology Resource Center at the Florida Public Archaeology Network, 207 E. Main St., downtown Pensacola. Eventually, FPAN will donate the exhibit for display at the restored Simpson House.
Walker and her team wrapped up this summer’s excavations at the Arcadia Mill Homestead on Friday. During the five weeks on site, they found more evidence of daily life there. Artifacts include small pieces of fabric, several furniture tacks, a variety of ceramics, and a skeleton key.
However, their efforts to pinpoint the southern boundary of the big house were unsuccessful and will have to wait until next year.