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Northwest Side archaelogical dig seeks ancient schoolhouse

DePaul University anthropology students Christie Batkfrom left  Magdalyne Christakis AlessandrDechancie Chloe Cucinottremove dirt as MonicSchuman top screens dirt from

DePaul University anthropology students Christie Batka, from left, Magdalyne Christakis, Alessandra Dechancie and Chloe Cucinotta remove dirt as Monica Schuman, top, screens dirt from an archaeological dig at the 1846 One Room Schoolhouse, 5900 N. Leader Ave., Friday, June 3, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 24, 2011 12:23AM

As a car pulled up to the boarded-up Northwest Side house Friday, the driver called out to a group of young women brandishing trowels as they leaned into a small square hole cut into the front yard.

“What are you looking for?” the driver asked.

“There was an old schoolhouse here — ” one of the women replied.

The driver sped off without waiting for her to finish.

DePaul University Associate Professor Jane Eva Baxter and her team of 25 students get that quite lot — disappointment that the archeological dig they began in April on the edge of the Billy Caldwell golf course doesn’t offer a sexier promise.

But the rusty nails, the shards of red brick, the occasional child’s toy — all sifted from the dirt — are helping the team recreate a sense of life at the one-room schoolhouse that stood here in the 1840s.

A local group — The Old Edgebrook Historical Society — is hoping to convert the current dilapidated clapboard structure into a museum that would, among other things, house many of the archeologists’ findings.

“I care deeply about local history and I care deeply about the history of ordinary, everyday people,” says Baxter, explaining her interest in the project.

Ordinary farmers likely pooled their funds in the 1840s to build the schoolhouse on what was then Jefferson Township, a small settlement outside the city, Baxter said.

Where golf carts now glide between manicured greens, farmland once stretched as far as the eye could see, she said.

Baxter and her students have found pieces of “writing slates,” which were re-usable and cheaper than paper. On Friday, one student found a decorative black bead.

“People often think of pioneer families as living very simple lives,” Baxter said. “But this isn’t from a simple outfit. So they would have had some finery, they would have had some nicer clothes.”

The beauty of archeology, Baxter said, is that the earth doesn’t lie.

“You can write whatever you want in your diary ...,” Baxter explained. “But the stuff we throw away is actually indicative of what we have and used and what our lives were like.”

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