Archaeologists unearth local history on the grounds of the Bush Tavern in Abingdon

The State Highway Administration opened its archeological dig behind the Bush Tavern in Abingdon to the public Friday. (David Anderson / BSMG)

Dr. Peter Holt, whose office in Harford County's historic Bush Tavern is decked out with historical artifacts, points to the location of the tavern building on a map of the former Bush settlement at the intersection of today's Route 7 and Route 136 in Abingdon.

The building resembles a lopsided "T" on the map, with a long top and a short bottom. The bottom part was not revealed until earlier this fall, when archaeologists with the State Highway Administration began digging behind the tavern and found the stone foundations of what could be kitchen buildings, storage facilities or even another tavern.


"My house is a straight line," Holt, a Benson resident, who has owned the building since 2008, said. He operates his rheumatology practice there. "They found the T – they found the kitchen house."

He and his wife, Kristan, were dressed in Revolutionary War-period clothing Friday as they mingled with archaeologists, who were investigating the exposed foundations and sifting through dirt, as well as members of the public invited to see a dig that has been progressing since September.


The SHA commissioned the archaeological survey and subsequent dig as agency officials prepare to make safety improvements at the heavily-used intersection of routes 7 and 136.

"Taxpayer money is going into this, and it's important to share what we're finding with the public," Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist in the Cultural Resources Section of the SHA's Environmental Planning Division, said.

Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the State Highway Administration, shows fellow archaeologist Stacy Bumback, of Seattle, stone foundations uncovered behind the historic Bush Tavern along Route 7 in Abingdon.
Julie Schablitsky, chief archaeologist for the State Highway Administration, shows fellow archaeologist Stacy Bumback, of Seattle, stone foundations uncovered behind the historic Bush Tavern along Route 7 in Abingdon. (DAVID ANDERSON | AEGIS STAFF)

The Bush settlement, also known as Harford Town, was founded in 1774 and was the Harford County seat until 1791, when it was moved to Bel Air, according to a history provided by Holt. He noted colonists had been in the area since the 1600s, trading with Native Americans.

The exact age of the Bush Tavern is unknown, but it was standing in 1781 during the Revolutionary War when French military commander Comte de Rochambeau and his forces camped in the area. The French troops, who were allied with the American Continental Army, were traveling to and from the site of the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia, according to histories provided by the SHA and Peter Holt.

Thirty-four local men signed the Bush Declaration on March 22, 1775 to express their support for the Philadelphia-based Continental Congress' push for war and independence from Great Britain. The 34 men, who made up the Harford County Committee, met in the vicinity of the Bush Tavern, but the exact site is unknown, according to Holt.

A historical marker placed along Route 7 east of the intersection with Bush Road denotes the signing.

The tavern has been a home, a courthouse, even a stagecoach stop on the Post Road connecting Baltimore and Philadelphia. The Norton family, who were African American, lived there during the 1860s. David Norton was a member of the Union's U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.

The building had been a dentist's office before the Holts acquired it eight years ago.

"The history of the tavern, in some ways, is the history of America," Peter Holt said.

Schablitsky, the SHA's chief archaeologist, said "the big question" for those working at the site is whether the stone foundations are older than the Bush Tavern.

She said that as archaeologists expanded their dig, "we found out that not only do we have one stone foundation, we had two stone foundations, and they are delineating two separate buildings during two separate time periods."

One foundation includes a square cellar portion and a rounded portion that indicates a well. Schablitsky said the artifacts found within so far date to the mid-1800s, meaning the building dates to before the Civil War.


Researchers are trying to determine if the neighboring structure dates to the 1700s and could be older than the Bush Tavern. They are using dendrochronology, or the study of tree rings, to determine the age of wooden beams found on the site, according to the SHA history.

A slew of artifacts "that are related to every aspect of daily life," have been found, Aaron Levinthal, an SHA archaeologist and lab director, said. They include food remains, such as animal bones, table ware, cookware, construction items, wine bottles, thimbles, buttons, pieces of tobacco pipes, pieces of pens, even slate pencils.

They date from the late 1700s to the present day, according to Levinthal.

"Here and there, we're finding pieces that were [made] earlier and are wondering when they're from," he said. "We're wondering if there is an earlier tavern in this area."

Holly Baldwin, an SHA archaeologist, and Jason Shellenhamer, an archaeologist with RK&K, a Baltimore engineering and consulting firm, showed visitors items that have been found on site, including coins and ceramic fragments.

"Ceramics are really helpful, because they're really easily datable," Baldwin said, noting they can be traced to a specific period based on the style and how they were manufactured.

Shellenhamer said his firm works with the SHA on archaeological projects by providing equipment, hiring specialists, conducting analyses and helping write reports.

The project even attracted longtime colleagues of the archaeologists. Stacy Bumback, who works as an archaeologist with a Seattle engineering firm, said she has known Schablitsky for 20 years. They have kept up with each other as their careers have taken them to different states, and Bumback decided to pay Schablitsky a visit Friday since she was in Maryland working for a client of her firm.

"It's really great to come out and take a look," Bumback said. "It's so exciting."

Harford County’s “Choose Civility” campaign kicked off with a breakfast event at the Water’s Edge Events Center in Belcamp on Wednesday.

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