Nicole Grinbarg credits a Forest Park history tour for turning her life around. She was unhappy in the theater program she had enrolled in, and that tour opened her eyes to local history. She decided to enroll in DePaul University to pursue degrees in Anthropology and Archaeology. This led her and her classmates to participate in a dig at 216 S. 10th Ave. in Maywood.

We don’t usually associate Maywood with archaeology, but students don’t have to travel to Egypt to discover interesting artifacts. The farmhouse at 216 S. 10th Ave. is 125 years old. It sits on the former site of Warnecke’s Poultry Yards and also located in a formerly segregated area known as Ebonyville.

When Maywood was founded, a section was set aside for African Americans and Jews. The section ran from 10th to 14th avenues and from Madison Street to St. Charles Road. It is believed the chicken farm was operated by a Jewish family from Germany. The 1½-story cottage has a terra cotta foundation, clapboard siding and plaster walls. Today, it is badly in need of restoration. 

The house was donated to the village of Maywood but wasn’t useable by the Housing Authority. Park board member Dawn Rone advocated for the Maywood Park District to take ownership of the house. Under the park’s auspices, the house will be used as a training site for archaeologists and restorationists. 

“We’re going to restore it to its original condition,” Rone said. “It’s a great teaching tool. It will become an architectural foundation.”

The house sits on a double lot and its grounds also provide a valuable learning experience. DePaul Professor Michael Gregory has been using the property as a training area for his anthropology students for three years. When Dr. Gregory originally set his sights on digging up Maywood’s past, he had a different site in mind.

Ten Mile House, a station on the Underground Railroad, once stood at what is now First Avenue and Lake Street. It is believed the house had a tunnel running down to the Des Plaines River to provide passage for escaped slaves. Unfortunately, the site is now occupied by a McDonald’s Restaurant. Dr. Gregory does not intend to have his students dig there but will bring out ground-penetrating radar to see if they can find the tunnel.

Seeking another significant site, Dr. Gregory started a dig at a structure near 6th & Randolph. It was the home of Zebina Eastman, a noted abolitionist. Eastman published the Western Citizen newspaper. He was friends with Abraham Lincoln, who later rewarded him with an ambassadorship. This property could yield some significant artifacts, but Dr. Gregory also found himself drawn to the house in Maywood’s restricted area. 

On a recent Friday, Dr. Gregory had a crew of students digging at 216 S. 10th. They were using shovels, buckets and shaker screens. “We’ve found boots, doll parts and bones,” Gregory said, “We’re mapping and profiling the animals buried on the property.” This would include a headless bird, presumably a chicken. “There could even be some prehistoric items here.”

The students mark out rectangular sections. They dig and dump the soil into buckets. Then they pour the soil through the sifter, to see if it contains any artifacts. It’s a painstaking process, but students like Grinbarg love the mystery and detective work. Mercedes Johnson is a senior who intends to go to nursing school but is nonetheless drawn to archaeology. 

“We’re looking for evidence of how people lived here in the 1880s,” she explained. “It’s fun to study different cultures.” 

Marina Labarthe has anthropology in her blood. 

“My great-aunt is an anthropologist in Peru,” said Labarthe, who grew up in Peru and came to the U.S. in 2006. The first friend she met in her new country was Stephanie Guthrie. 

“Stephanie told me about studying anthropology and it sounded good,” she recalled. After she graduates, Labarthe plans to return to Peru to assist her great-aunt in her work. She also plans to do some archaeological work there.

Her friend Guthrie is also a junior at DePaul. 

“I’m excited about doing archaeology that’s more recent,” she said. “The 1800s are not that far away. It’s humanizing to find out how people lived back then.” 

Emily Steinhauer was excited to find wrappers and milk cartons. 

“We might find evidence of the Great Migration,” she said, referring to the movement of African Americans from Southern states to the North. 

Katie Mumma summed up the archaeological experience in a simpler fashion. 

“I’m having a good time with a good group of people.”

Grinbarg not only digs Maywood history; she’s also involved in an archeological project on the South Side of Chicago. It’s the former site of the Civil War prison, Camp Douglas. They are digging where the prison barracks were located, on the grounds of Pershing Elementary School, near 33rd and Giles. Camp Douglas was created in September 1861 and became notorious as a place of disease and death. Of the 25,000 Confederate prisoners housed there, over 7,000 died.

Grinbarg knows the prison’s history, having read the book her professor, David L. Keller, wrote about Camp Douglas. She noted that many Confederates were captured on Southern battlefields and were not adequately dressed to survive Chicago winters. The prison was only 400 yards from Lake Michigan and the prisoners endured its icy breezes. Their situation was so pitiful, the women of Chicago collected clothing, bedding and food for them.

Aside from exposure to harsh weather, the prisoners died from diseases like smallpox and scurvy. More than a few died from gunshot wounds if they strayed past the “Dead Line” close to the fence. The men were housed in rough barracks, which is the area where Grinbarg and her classmates toil.

Keller and his crew of 20 students are digging from Oct. 8 to 15, from 8 a.m. to sundown. So far, they have found Union brass buttons, bearing the figure of an eagle, and fragments of dishware. Grinbarg was thrilled to find the shard of a plate, embossed with the manufacture’s name. After such finds, she does a great deal of detective work to identify the company. 

“I love history and science,” Grinbarg said, “and archeology combines both. My dream is to travel to Egypt.” 

For now, however, digging closer to home is very satisfying. As Professor Keller put it when he inscribed a copy of his book to her: “To Nicole, I know you dig it.”

John Rice

John Rice is a columnist/novelist who has seen his family thrive in Forest Park. He has published two books set in the village: The Ghost of Cleopatra and The Doll with the Sad Face.