Finding history with a shovel

Susan Varno Originally Published February 3, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated February 1, 2013 at 10:28 a.m.
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Susan Varno

Sue McCluskey, a former archeological technician in the Sylamore Ranger District, is shown with the Ozark National Forest and Sugarloaf Mountain in the background.

Sue McCluskey retired Jan. 1 as the only full-time archeological technician in the Sylamore Ranger District. The district covers the Ozark National Forest in Stone and Baxter counties, an area of about 300 square miles. Her job was to look for evidence of “human occupation” on U.S. Forest Service land.

“What did I enjoy most about my job? Oh, that moment of discovery,” McCluskey said. “I’d yell to my partner, ‘I found something. Over here, over here!’ But almost as exciting was doing background research in courthouse records and old books and asking locals what they knew about the people who lived at the sites we found.”

The National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act require that a heritage program be conducted on all federal land.

“We would be assigned to do a Heritage Resource Evaluation of a certain area,” McCluskey said. “Usually, it was when a private company had a contract to harvest timber, or the [Forest Service] was planning a controlled burn. Once in a while, it might be for a new building or a trail.”

First, McCluskey would study the 1937 U.S. Geological Survey aerial photographs for open fields or buildings in the area. Sometimes, she checked Forest Service acquisition records, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, to find out who had originally owned the property.

“Out in the woods, we looked for high-probability areas — flatter terrain, places near creeks, rivers or springs,” McCluskey said. “Mostly, we found old house places — a chimney base or foundation stones — or vegetation like spreading oak trees, japonica bushes or bridal wreath.”

For the past few years, her partner has been part-timer Carol Gillihan. When they located a site, McCluskey did a “standard shovel test.”

“I’d dig up a shovelful of dirt, and we’d sift it through a screen,” McCluskey said. “Mostly we found wire nails and broken glass. If we found melted glass, we knew the house had burned down.”

To determine the site boundaries, they did more “shovel tests” 5 meters out in four directions. They kept sifting dirt until they got two “negative” shovel tests.

“I made a sketch of the site layout and marked it on the map,” McCluskey said. “Then we flagged the site with white survey tape so timber workers or forestry employees knew not to go within that range.”

McCluskey’s father was raised near Mountain View, and she moved there in 1981. While working as a ticket agent at Blanchard Springs Caverns in 1992, she signed up for the Forest Service’s Heritage Resource Training Program. The next year, she was hired part time to conduct Heritage evaluations. She learned archeology on the job from then Heritage Program Manager Gary Knudsen and his assistant, Michael “Smoke” Pfeiffer.

“We do evaluations in the winter,” McCluskey said. “Without leaves on the undergrowth, you can see what’s there. For several years, I was still working at the caverns in the summer. When I went to full time, I was given the title archeological technician.”

Besides house places, she also found moonshine stills, cow-dipping vats and cemeteries.

“Some fellow out walking his dogs told us where to find a still,” McCluskey said. “We found it under a rock overhang. It was no longer in use, but it was pristine. Usually we only find still hearth stones or some barrel hoops.”

Cow-dipping was required by federal law from 1907 to 1943 to eradicate cattle-tick fever. Each vat had a ramp in and out of the arsenic- or DDT-laced water. McCluskey found most of the vats along creeks and riverbanks.

She located most of the cemeteries by using old maps or talking to local people.

“You can read the names on some of the gravestones,” McCluskey said. “Every one I’ve found, I posted on and”

Her favorite heritage site is the African-American settlement at the bottom of Sugarloaf Mountain. John Quincy Wolfe’s book Life in the Leatherwoods supplied a great deal of information about the little town.

“When we did that evaluation, it seemed every time we stepped out of the truck we found something: house places, arrowheads, stills, springs, root cellars, barns, even a sorghum cooking hearth,” McCluskey said. “At Sugarloaf Cemetery, we found two markers, but we knew four people were buried there. Going through census and courthouse records, I came up with names of who they might be.”

Asked what she liked least about her job, McCluskey replied, “Bears and snakes. We did have one bear encounter. We were at Table Rock Cemetery. My partner Carol whispered, “Bear, bear, bear.” I looked over and saw the bear lumbering down the slope. It weighed maybe 150 pounds and was headed away from us, but it had us scared. We tried to climb the cemetery fence, but we couldn’t, so we had to go all the way around. We jumped into the truck and locked the doors, like the bear was going to open the doors. When we got over being all shaky, we started laughing out loud.”

During the summer, McCluskey did more research and prepared reports on each site evaluation.

“Sometimes, I found information about the people who lived in the house places,” McCluskey said. “There was the bear hunter who decided to go hunting by himself until he got into a bad situation, and then he didn’t go bear hunting alone anymore. And the hermit who lived in Birmingham Cave — we found that cave.”

The past several years, she sent her reports to Heritage Program Manager David Jurney in Russellville. His jurisdiction includes the Ozark and St. Francis national forests. Besides personally visiting each new site McCluskey found, he edited her reports. He sent each site report to the Arkansas State Historic Preservation Office with a recommendation as being eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, not eligible or status undetermined. Jurney said that each year, the Sylamore Ranger District produces three or four major reports and 12 to 24 smaller project reports.

“The district has about 20 important heritage sites,” Jurney said. “The area is especially important because it is on the White River and has so many caves, springs and rock formations.”

For more information about the Ozark National Forest, visit and click on “Land Management” and “Resource Management.” Contact the Sylamore Ranger District at 1001 E. Main St., Mountain View, Ark., 72650; or (870) 269-3228.

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