By DAVID WILLIAMSON
UNC-CH News Services
CHAPEL HILL -- Digging in the dirt unearthed remains of a mysterious building on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus in late June, and digging through dusty records in Hillsborough in late July solved the mystery of the building's purpose.
The structure housed UNC students between roughly the 1830s and 1850s as a privately owned dormitory. Young residents dubbed their home-away-from-home "the Poor House."
"At 120 feet long and 18 feet wide, the building was both unusually shaped and twice as big as we thought," said Dr. Stephen Davis, an archaeologist with Research Laboratories of Archaeology. "Because we could find no mention of it at first in university records, we became very curious."
As part of the eight-week excavation, undertaken by UNC-CH staff and students to investigate the site of a new building, graduate student Tricia Samford pored through university archives and deeds in Hillsborough, Davis said.
"Tricia turned up several pieces of information that mostly solved the riddle," he said. "The first was a deed dated 1882 when the property, which is near Franklin Street, was sold by Jones Watson to Abner Roberson. In the deed it says Charles Deems sold the same land to Watson in 1847 and mentions a row of brick offices on part of it that appear to have been gone, or at least dilapidated, by 1882."
The next year, the property changed hands again, and the new deed mentioned the offices and called them "the Poor House," in quotes.
"We then started wondering was this really a house for poor people right next to campus?" Davis said. "We thought that was unlikely, and Tricia found there already was an Orange County poorhouse on 400 acres near Hillsborough. I then found in Kemp Plummer Battle's "History of the University of North Carolina" that there was such a severe housing shortage in the 1840s and 1850s, a number of local residents built buildings in their back yards and rented them out to students.
Students gave these buildings quaint names such as "Pandemonium," "Bat Hall," "Crystal Palace," "Opossum Quarter" and "the Poor House."
Finally, Samford discovered a letter from a student named Thomas Brown to his sister in 1853 describing how he had just arrived in Chapel Hill, probably as a freshman. Brown reported finding housing in a quiet brick row building in front of the campus where the Poor House stood.
While digging, the archaeologists and students, led by Dr. Tom Maher, discovered plow scars indicating farmers plowed and planted the land, probably by the early 1800s. Higher up they found many fragments of broken stoneware jugs, clay pipes, dishes and other objects dating as far back as about 1830. A curious copper artifact shaped like a fan and dating before the Civil War appears to have been a ground for a lightning rod attached to a chimney.
Closer to the surface, they unearthed horse and mule shoes, nails, window glass, shotgun shells and intact bottles dating to the turn of the century when the Phi Delta Theta fraternity house stood on the site.
"We think this was an extremely worthwhile endeavor and that what we learned far exceeded our expectations," Davis said. "We also have been fortunate that Gordon Rutherford, director of facilities planning and design, and others at the university have recognized the importance of doing this research.
"If not for their concern, the site would have been destroyed by excavations for the new Institute for Arts and Humanities building that will go up, and we would have added nothing to the university and the town's history."
The private dormitory ran east and west from McCorkle Place to the University United Methodist Church and just behind the current Pettigrew Building.
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Note: Davis can be reached at (919) 962-3845 (w) or 942-0467 (h).
Contact: David Williamson