After almost 80 years of operation, the Campbell House Museum is still learning about its history.
A team of archaeologists from the Archaeological Research Center of St. Louis began digging in what used to be a parking lot next to the museum. So far, the team has unearthed dozens of relics of the past: pottery, horseradish and Clorox bottles, crockery and bones (animal bones — don’t get too excited). They estimate the items came from over a span of decades — from the construction of the house in 1851 to the early 20th century.
The family of Robert Campbell, a renowned fur trader and entrepreneur, lived in the house from 1854 to 1938. The house, in a once-elegant neighborhood of St. Louis, now serves as a museum containing hundreds of pieces of the family’s original possessions.
Campbell House Museum Executive Director Andy Hahn says even after his 17 years at the museum, he still learns new stories about the Campbells.
“We’re always learning new bits of information,” Hahn says. “Even after all this time, we’re still finding things out.”
Joe Harl, a cultural resource specialist at ARC, has done many digs in St. Louis. He says remnants of the city’s past are far from gone.
“People used to assume anything in St. Louis city was destroyed by new developments ..., but really they just tend to get buried,” Harl says.
Harl’s team hopes to uncover what the Campbells discarded long ago — trash. The Campbells kept two cisterns in the yard to collect rainwater for cleaning. In some cases, families used cisterns to discard trash. But because the Campbells were so wealthy, Hahn says, they could afford to have their garbage hauled away. They discovered the cisterns were mostly filled with ash.
The dig site includes what was once a servants’ hall. Archaeologists uncovered the foundation of the building.
Finding the foundation and other objects enliven the history of the Campbells, according to Hahn. The objects are part of a story that historically the museum hasn’t paid a lot of attention to.
“In the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, people were mostly interested in the glamorous opulence of the Gilded Age,” Hahn says. “However, beginning probably 30 years ago, we began to ask more questions about the people who lived and worked behind the scenes.”
What the archaeologists find in the dig tell more about the history of everyday life than any old book or movie could, according to Harl.
“No Hollywood writer could come up with this stuff,” he says.
The ash long buried in the cisterns shows the Campbells’ wealth: Rich people used wood even though coal cost less. Oyster shells the team pulled from the mud reveal the family’s expensive diet.
After nearly a decade of planning, the museum began last month its first expansion project in 50 years. Where the archaeologists are currently digging, Campbell House will have a new street-level entrance and lobby along with an elevator.
Many of Campbell House’s visitors and volunteers have mobility issues, according to Hahn. The museum’s 120 total stairs and 10 entrance steps make it difficult for them to navigate the building. Most volunteers have to retire when they can’t do the stairs anymore, Hahn says.
The expansion will include two education spaces that allow kids to interact with history through a variety of programs.
Once the $1.8 million project is done, the museum will display objects from the dig so people can learn more about the house’s history.
Items like those found in the dig have a way of making their way back to the house, Hahn says. He attributes valuables’ return to spirits in the house.
”There are undeniably spirits here,” Hahn says. “They don’t haunt us, but sometimes things come back in just the craziest of ways.”
Monica Obradovic • 314-340-8249
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