By Derrick Perkins (File photo)
Workers dismantled the remnants of a likely 19th-century slaughterhouse to make way for the new Jefferson-Houston School earlier in the summer, but not before local archaeologists gleaned everything they could from the site.
Experts unearthed the remains — a brick foundation and well — while scouring the site of the future Cameron Street school ahead of construction in the fall and winter. The surprise discovery thrilled local historians, who spent the intervening months combing over the find for clues to its purpose.
Early work by a URS Corp. team indicated that the best bet was a slaughterhouse. Records indicated that the land served as a cattle-run long before becoming home to the school and adjacent Durant Arts Center.
Adding to the thesis, researchers discovered the former property owners had ties to the butchery industry.
Though construction work put an end to archaeologists’ exploration of the ruin, their dogged examination of the find yielded more evidence supporting the building’s use as a slaughterhouse. Perhaps most noticeable, the foundation was thicker by several brick-widths at the top compared to the bottom.
Garrett Fesler, a city archeologist, thinks the design may have helped keep freshly butchered meat from spoiling while in storage.
“We believe the basement was where the cuts of meat were going to be temporarily stored, and therefore, they really needed to keep that basement environment as cool and cold as possible,” he said. “We believe there was a way to put ice, blocks of ice, in one area of the basement in order to make it as cool as possible.”
Then there are the animal bones. The species remain unidentified, but the odds are good that they come from either cattle or pigs. And they show signs of having been expertly butchered.
Fesler expected to find more bones at the site of a full-scale butchering operation but said the land’s history might explain the discrepancy. The property changed hands a few years before the building went up in flames in the 1880s. Fesler believes the butchery may have closed down before the fire.
Other evidence includes chunks of machinery. Several iron plates found on the site may have been used to keep animals in place while butchered, and Fesler thinks a recovered axle may have been part of a machine that removed the hide from the carcass.
Even as all signs point toward the foundation once supporting a slaughterhouse, more study is needed before Fesler is willing to say so with certainty.
“That’s our educated guess; we haven’t found a comparable building that we could kind of compare this with at this point,” he said. “But it’s definitely something that we’re going to need to follow up with and talk to architectural historians and look at other resources and put some meat on the bones of our guess.”
Fesler was at the site when construction workers disassembled the foundation and buried the well beneath Bluestone, a material that will help preserve the 100-plus-year-old structure. Though they initially hoped to incorporate the foundation into the school, engineers worried the ruin would structurally weaken the new building.
When a new school is needed decades from now, Fesler hopes future archaeologists will have another chance to examine at least the well.
“In an ideal world, it would have been nice to preserve it, of course. That’s always our No. 1 hope, but in this case, we had to listen to the engineers,” Fesler said. “I felt really good about the well being preserved in the ground, and that will be a gift we give future archaeologists.”