It all started with a simple question: Where did historical visitors to Compass Inn Museum’s stagecoach inn go to the bathroom?
The Ligonier Valley Historical Society, in the hopes of finding an answer to this and other questions, used funding from the Allegheny Foundation and the Rita M. McGinley Foundation to hire Markosky Engineering Group, Inc. to perform a geophysical survey and ground-truthing excavations on the museum property, located on Route 30 in Laughlintown, east of Ligonier.
While there may not yet be a definitive answer as to where privies (outhouses) were located at the site, the project did uncover some clues, and it has provided a lot of new information that will help the historical society piece together a more complete picture of Compass Inn’s past.
“A lot of this work is to take us from being just a little house museum to being a historical site,” said Theresa Gay Rohall, executive director of the historical society. “Not many people think of house museums as being as culturally rich as they are, but we’re hoping this work we’re doing will make people more aware and make them want to come and learn more.”
During the geophysical survey earlier this summer, a Markosky team scanned the site using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and magnetometry and resistivity (electrical conductivity) tests, in order to determine where previously undiscovered archaeological features may be hiding.
The specific locations where the survey turned up unusual or unexpected results — known as anomalies — are now being excavated in a process known as ground-truthing, in order to determine how the data from the survey matches up with the actual physical features buried underground at the site.
“We had so much to look at, so many places we could dig and find something,” said Jessica Schumer, leader of the Markosky archaeology group and manager for the Compass Inn Museum project.
That search has already turned up some interesting findings.
In one spot near the southeastern corner of the museum’s restored cookhouse, Markosky’s team found evidence of a huge chimney and fireplace which may indicate the original cookhouse was located in a different location than previously thought, or that there was another building there.
“It was so big, apparently, that it was said you could roast an ox in it,” Schumer said of the fireplace. “I think you probably could.”
The fireplace was designated in records from excavations performed by amateurs with limited equipment in the 1960s and 1970s, but it doesn’t appear to be situated quite the same way the records indicated.
“We have a couple areas we’ve opened up from previous excavations,” Schumer said. “But we’re not sure we agree with some of the interpretations they had then. Some yes, some no. We’re fitting more pieces together then they were able to do back then.”
Rohall said that her discovery of an envelope that contained some photocopies of records from the earlier excavations helped Markosky fill in some of the blanks and decide where to focus its efforts, and in turn she said that the team’s discoveries are helping the historical society to revise the information it compiles for museum visitors.
“One of the things we are finding is that our script for the tour says, ‘This is on the site of an actual old cookhouse,’ but now we’re starting to see that maybe the cookhouse was over here, so a better word would be to say it was in the vicinity of the cookhouse. I’ve always thought the cookhouse is a little small, and this is sort of proving my theory that there had to be more than this,” she said.
“We’ve got more questions now than we had, but this is physical proof to us that something physical stood here.”
Another spot off the northeastern tip of the restored cookhouse may also be a remnant of another former chimney and fireplace, which could indicate that there may have been another, earlier cookhouse at the site, or perhaps some other type of building. But more investigation needs to be done to determine whether there was actually a structure there or if the remnants found there are simply from backfill from the earlier excavations or the reconstruction of the current cookhouse, Schumer said.
“We’re going to be expanding this a little bit more, to see if we do have anything that looks like the base of a fireplace, chimney or foundation,” she said.
Meanwhile, another excavated site south of the restored cookhouse which revealed some water relatively close to the surface and features a drain suggests that spot could have housed a privy or a springhouse — a small building situated over a spring and used for cool storage of things like dairy products or meat.
“A lot of this area we have open right now was also opened in 1970, and at the time they called it a possible well. But there appears to be a bit of a drain going downhill, so we don’t think it was a well,” Schumer said. “It possibly could be a privy or a springhouse. The layout looks similar to other springhouses.”
Not every anomaly leads to a historical discovery — the group discovered that one anomaly that showed up in the survey was simply the buried electrical conduit for the restored cookhouse — but most at least offer clues as to the layout of the structures that once stood on the museum grounds.
One excavated trench west of the potential springhouse site revealed an accumulation of rocks which seems a bit unusual and may indicate a building stood there at one time, a previously unknown possibility.
“We caught just the edge of something. We’re trying to determine how far north or south it goes before digging more to the east. Originally we thought it was just a really small building or a privy, but we’ll have to excavate further. There appears to be rubble from a foundation. We had no knowledge of a building here, so that’s pretty interesting,” Schumer said, noting that the spot was not one previously excavated in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Near the western edge of the museum grounds, an excavation of a site that was occupied by a modern building until it was torn down just this past January revealed what appears to be a stone foundation that suggests something else may have stood at that spot at one point, so the group is probing the area.
“Clearly there was something that stood here earlier,” Schumer said.
Along with all of the discoveries about the historical layout of the property, the group has also unearthed numerous artifacts — things like ceramic pieces and nails — which will be catalogued and stored away, likely for inclusion in a museum exhibit at some point in the future.
“We hope to put the artifacts on display. Hopefully someday we’ll have some sort of facility where we can highlight them, and we can include the ones from the earlier digs,” Rohall said.
The Markosky team still has more excavations to complete before it wraps up the project on Sept. 21, including an investigation of the area across the stream from the cookhouse, where an early barn purportedly stood at one time, and a dig under a tree to check out another anomaly.
Ultimately, the historical society hopes to be able to use the findings from the current project to pursue funding for additional investigations, in order to uncover more of Compass Inn’s history.
“Hopefully this a project that will be ongoing for several years,” Rohall said.
Schumer said she, too, hopes the team can return later in the hopes of learning more.
“That’s the hardest thing, really, is that there’s always more that you can do,” she said.
“It really begins to create a rich picture of what people were doing. There was really a lot that happened here everyday. It’s an exciting piece of history, and an interesting project to try to tie it all together.”
“All of this will go into a new interpretive plan,” Rohall said, noting that the museum sees approximately 6,000 visitors every year and hopes the new findings will help draw more attention to Compass Inn as a historical site.
“We’re still finding things, finding more of the story.”
Visitors are welcome to get a closer look at the excavations during regular museum hours until Markosky finishes up its project later this month, Rohall said. The museum is open daily through October, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.