Students dig into Witt history

Project at former sorority house gives students solid grounding in campus, community and history itself.

Reading history is one thing.

Discovering and writing it is another.

South Charleston resident William Hennigan learned the difference in May while involved in a brief archaeological dig on the Wittenberg University campus.

“It was just very neat to feel like a historian,” said Hennigan, “to dig into stuff and discover things many people had forgotten.”

Of all the goals Assistant Professor of History Darlene Brooks Hedstrom had for the four students in her Maymester archaeology course and dig on the grounds of the old Alpha Xi Delta Sorority House, what Hennigan felt was at the top.

“That’s real learning,” said Brooks Hedstrom, an archaeologist who is inspired by the same feeling.

Although the research Hennigan and his fellow students did on Springfield residents and Wittenberg students didn’t exactly bring them back from the dead, Brooks Hedstrom said that through their reports, those people “exist now in a way they didn’t before.”

Clearly the class breathed life into the students’ appreciation for their subject.

“I like to know the history behind things. And getting to see it frozen in time is what really draws me in,” said Tecumseh High School graduate and history major Caitlyn Lobl.

One tidbit she unearthed was the discovery that one of the young women connected with Alpha Xi Delta sorority the 1890s was studying zoology.

“It was kind of like a treasure hunt,” said Deanna Iwanyckyj, a junior from Long Island, N.Y., who has designed her own anthropology major.

The process of learning how to plan and carry out the delicate work of a dig, becoming more connected with Wittenberg history and discovering the university’s connections with Springfield “was the coolest thing ever,” she said.

The same might be said of a picture taken of the array of 19th and 20th century nails the students found at the lot at Ferncliff Place and Wittenberg Avenue.

The nails not only connected the 1936 conversion of the house from a Victorian cottage to a Georgian style but provided evidence of how nail-making technology advanced from the 19th and 20th centuries.

In addition to getting their hands dirty in the dig, Brooks Hedstrom said the students put on white gloves to handle primary historical sources at the Heritage Center of Clark County and Wittenberg Archives, and went looking for information in the alumni office, the Clark County Recorder’s office, and from articles in long ago editions of Wittenberg’s student newspaper, The Torch.

The professor who is accustomed to archaeology digs in Egypt said the Wittenberg dig taught her to feel more at home on the land she walks every day.

“It helped me get a sense of grounding in this space,” she said.

Among the local people the course unearthed was world-renowned violinist Francis MacMillen, whose parents owned the later sorority house from 1898-1905.

As the Web report of the dig ( says: “The family moved here so Francis could take violin lessons.”

Similarly, Iwanyckyj discovered the life of Ollie Abbot, who helped Springfield make the transition to use of natural gas early in the century, a connection not only to advancing technology but to the business community of the era.

Brooks Hedstrom said one advantage of campus archeology is having a cooperative land owner — the university — that is willing to provide a dig site.

A university also provides other natural advantages: archives with research material and pictures of its people and buildings; students motivated by a natural sense of interest in their school; and nearby cemeteries where the subjects of the research are buried.

For Hennigan, a Southeastern assistant football coach working on a teaching certificate, all those resources combined to give him sense of connection with Michael Wolf Hamma, whose family funded the school of divinity Wittenberg once housed.

Hennigan was able not only to track Hamma’s wandering career as a minister and gain a sense of his importance in the larger Lutheran church but read in Hamma’s own hand a poem he wrote after seeing the Sphinx in Egypt.

With all that in hand and head, “I went over and visited his grave,” Hennigan said.

And that was the kind of experience that left him and his fellow students hungering to dig deeper into history.

Said Hennigan, “I felt I was just scraping the surface.”

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