Dig it: WSU archaeology team unearths Hamtramck history

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Hamtramck — Over there by the telephone pole? That was a bar called the Nut House.

Toward the back of the big building? That's where the Wayne State archaeology team found a bullet, and it was exciting for a minute — but then they remembered oh, yeah, that was the police department.

Sara Ybarra, 19, a sophomore archaeology major at WSU, digs with a pick ax at the location where the Hamtramck Police Station was located.

The big building was the Hamtramck village hall. It's been gone since the early '80s. The Nut House survived Prohibition — or really, ignored it — but it's gone, too, along with everything else that used to be upright in the short block along Jos. Campau.

What's left is harder to see, but in a truly groundbreaking excavation, a professor and her 15 students have spent the semester digging it out from beneath the gravel. On site every Monday in the city's first comprehensive archaeology project, Krysta Ryzewski's class is using hand tools, imagination and analysis to uncover history, mystery and modern connections.

And beer bottles.

As archaeological sites go, it's not Pompeii. It's just the short block between Grayling and Alice streets, in the shadow of a railroad viaduct built to keep Roaring '20s auto workers from getting pulverized by trains as they sprinted to punch in.

But Pompeii doesn't have Polish restaurants left over from the old days, or Bangladeshi restaurants greeting the new. Or an excited grad student from Ann Arbor named Stacy Markel earning academic credit as she trots over to show her teacher a piece of glass.

The bottle has raised lettering that says "Detroit," she points out. It might say "brewery." And like the bullet casings, it came from beneath the old cop shop.

Significant? Too soon to say. But it's interesting — and everything is a potential clue.

"It's one of the challenges for us," says Ryzewski, to take fragments from the ground, match them with what's known or what's legend or what's seen on old maps, "and learn how people built and lived in the city."

Learning how archaeologists work is simpler. The job site will hold an open house, or an open used-to-be-houses, from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday; the curious are invited to come by and peer over the students' shoulders, as long as they stay clear of pickaxes and flat-nosed shovels.

Cory Taylor, 25, a Wayne State master's program student, displays a piece of pottery that she found while digging on the site where the Hamtramck fire station was located.

Come Dec. 10, Ryzewski's Archaeology Field Methods class will present its trove of uncovered objects at the Hamtramck Historical Museum a few blocks north.

Lots of pottery, so far. Cattle bones, from when people did their own butchering. Buttons and beads. Marbles, in odd places; were children playing in the police and fire stations, or were the first responders of the 1920s just easily amused?

Half a dozen neatly cut exploration pits are scattered around the property once anchored by the village hall, proudly christened in 1914 and in hopeless disrepair six decades later. The holes are one meter wide and mostly two meters long, and they'll ultimately be one meter deep unless the digging is halted by water or concrete.

Along Jos. Campau, two women in burqas look through the chain link fence as anthropology major Julia DiLaura of Detroit shovels small portions of dark dirt into a tall orange bucket. Graduate student Cory Taylor of West Bloomfield sifts the dirt from the bucket through a wood-framed metal screen, and uncovers ...

Another marble. "We haven't got to the historic layer yet," she says.

What's now Hamtramck was mostly farmland and mostly French well into the 1800s. Next came Germans. The Dodge Main auto plant opened in 1911, and throngs of Poles arrived to work there or at more than 20 factories that emerged near it. Among them, on a site that will presumably go unexplored, was the Acme White Lead Paint Co.

By 1930, the city's two square miles were packed with 56,00 people, more than twice the current population. Change came so rapidly, says historical museum chairman Greg Kowalski, that "there were no playgrounds for kids."

Kowalski, 67, and Ryzewski, 39, have a mutual friend who teaches Polish at Wayne State. The friend introduced them, and Ryzewski suggested a dig.

Ryzewski has been overseeing projects for 15 years, one of them on the Caribbean island of Montserrat where a volcano eruption in 1995 buried the British territory's capital city in 39 feet of mud and ash.

That southern part of the island is now off limits. Ryzewski works to the north, exploring the effects of a sudden population shift.

In Hamtramck, she expected the usual red tape, roadblocks and negotiation. What she got instead was Kowalski asking, "When do we start?"

"We want to know how people adjust to new environments," she says. "We can show how the immigrants of 100 years ago connect to the immigrants of today."

Along with artifacts, Ryzewski and her crew have been collecting stories. A favorite says that at the end of their shifts, Hamtramck police officers would simply poke a hand out the window of their patrol cars and someone from the Nut House would oblige them with a beer.

"It's not a rumor," says fire lieutenant Andrew Oleksiak, 33. His dad, Dennis, worked out of the village hall fire station, and "they used to get kegs delivered to the firehouse."

Between calls, Oleksiak and his squad have parked their ladder truck alongside the lot and strolled through the gate. He's watching Ryzewski watch two students whose excavation has hit a snag.

"You have a tree root going through there, guys," she says. "Why don't you take a pickax to it?"

Another pickax is in play a few yards to the west, attacking another root. Markel, 52, the finder of the beer bottle, is digging in the former site of a stable. Or maybe it was an outhouse; the old maps and photos aren't conclusive.

There's a thwack, and then a laugh. The root is intact, but Markel has obliterated her reading glasses.

She picks up the pieces she can see. The rest will be waiting, a century from now, for someone like her to find.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn