The Real Scoop on Why Station Terrace Housed a Shovel

The Real Scoop on Why Station Terrace Housed a Shovel
High School volunteer Spencer holding the shovel blade from Station Terrace
High School volunteer Spencer holding the shovel blade from Station Terrace

While archaeologists are trained in a number of different skills and techniques, there is one thing that all archaeologists know and love: shovels. Shovels are just as much a part of archaeology as the ubiquitous trowel, and even lend their name to the title of hard working archaeologists who dig for their supper, shovel bums. Every archaeologist can recognize many types of shovels, and we all know what situations they are best for during excavation. So, it is always fun when we get to use a shovel to dig one up.

During CAP’s 2017 field school at Station Terrace, just such an event occurred. In Unit F, placed within the interior of the building, a large shovel blade was recovered by students (Bright 2017). At about 14 inches wide, 17 inches long, and 4.5 inches deep (give or take a quarter of an inch or so of rust), this was a large metal shovel that, based on its deep well, was designed for scooping (McLeod n.d.). Due to its scoop appearance, this shovel may have been a large-scale mover of things, such as coal, grain, gravel, mulch, etc. But this begs the question: why was this type of shovel in Station Terrace?

Station Terrace in the winter, date unknown.  Note the walkways cleared of snow around the building
Station Terrace in the winter, date unknown.  Note the walkways cleared of snow around the building. Image source

Station Terrace, which stood on campus from the early 1890’s until 1924, served many functions during its relatively short life as part of MSU. Early on, it was used as housing for visiting researchers and then for unmarried male instructors, during which it received the great nickname of “the Bull Pen.” From 1903 to 1923, Station Terrace was used as the East Lansing Post Office, while a front room served as a trolley car waiting room. In 1921, the waiting room was turned into a small café, known as the Flower Pot Tea Room (Bright 2016; Michael 2017). Thanks to a house fire in 1903, exterior photographs and the one existing photograph of one of the bedrooms, we know that the building had at least one chimney pre-1910 and two post 1910 expansion(Bright 2016); indicating it had fire places and possibly some other source of internal heating, but there is no mention of a large coal-burning stove that would have required a large shovel for moving coal. It also does not appear that any of the buildings many functions would have required the movement of large amounts of scoop-able materials, unless the post office moved letters and packages by shovel.

Photo of the room of F.B. Mumford c. 1894. Image courtesy of MSU Archives & Historical Collections.

So why was this shovel kept in Station Terrace? To me, the mystery of how objects were used in the past can be just as much fun as uncovering tidbits of history that have been lost for thousands of years. Humans are an amazingly creative bunch, meaning that we use objects in many different ways. For example, my wife uses a high-ball glass not for drinking, but for cutting dough to make pierogis. We rarely use this glass for anything else at home; it is reserved for a purpose that many people would not expect. I think the Station Terrace shovel was used in a similar manner. While it may have at one point served to shovel coal, grain, or other materials, I think it was used as a snow shovel at Station Terrace. Being located in Michigan, MSU gets a lot of snow. As Station Terrace served as a post office and trolley stop, moving vehicles, people, and mail carts would have regularly needed access to the building. Snow and ice would have impeded this accessibility, so snow removal was, and still is, essential. As this blog by Tim Heffernan attests, old coal shovels make great snow removal devices thanks to their weight and their metal blades. In the end, it is very difficult to know exactly how this object was used, but context clues suggest that it might have completed a number of jobs in its life, some that are easier to imagine, others that will continue to be a mystery.

Author: Jeff Painter

References Cited

Bright, Lisa
2016   “Station Terrace: A Building with Many Identities.” Campus Archaeology Blog.

2017   “2017 Field School Recap: Station Terrace.” Campus Archaeology Blog.

McLeod, Danielle
n.d.   “Types of Shovels: Your Complete Guide to What Works Best Where.”

Michael, Amy
2017   “The Flower Pot Tea Room: A Female-Run Student Business on the Early Campus.” Campus Archaeology Blog.

2 thoughts on “The Real Scoop on Why Station Terrace Housed a Shovel”

  • The article mentions a trolley car service. Was there a track switch in the area? During snow, switches had to be cleared or they would freeze shut and become inoperable. Being of high quality, these shovels often have a goose-neck handle and the pan neck might reflect yhis shape. Railroad-used shovels are often marked with initials of the company.

  • Hi Al! That is definitely a possibility! A street car line ran along the campus section of Grand River from the late 1800s-1920s. We assume that there was a track switch in that area of the Abbott Road entrance, or at least an informal platform, as there was a waiting room in that location. Unfortunately, the shovel is heavily rusted and its outer surfaces are no longer visible, so we are not able to see any initials or marks that may have been present.

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