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Digging with devotion


Kneeling on a rough, dirt-covered stone floor in a dank basement, Jo Williams and Loxy Ward looked for historical remnants in a home where the Methodist Church in America began nearly 250 years ago.

They searched hours for any link to Robert Strawbridge, an 18th-century itinerant preacher who lived on the New Windsor farm that now bears his name. While sifting through dirt, the women found bits of pottery, a child's marble and then, near the doorway, a true archaeological treasure.

"I've got a button with five holes," shouted Ward, and the other diggers gathered around. The pearly button went into a vial for safekeeping.

"We can figure out later how the button was made, when, where and the price," said Kirsti E. Uunila, a preservation archaeologist with the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory, who was directing the dig at the Strawbridge Shrine in western Carroll County.

Whether Strawbridge, who made his living farming and spent most of his life preaching, would have such finery is for the archaeologists to decide.

Little is known about Strawbridge, the Irish evangelist credited with organizing the first Methodist congregation in the United States and inspiring many others throughout Central Maryland. Strawbridge kept no journals and wrote nothing about himself. Although his sermons were reportedly powerful and life-changing, none survive.

It is certain that "this farm is where Methodism started and spread," said the Rev. Charles Acker, curator of the shrine, which is open to visitors.

The body of knowledge on Strawbridge could grow through a detailed study of his homestead, said archaeologists. Relics from the man's life might be buried in the front yard or the basement of his cabin. "In those days, the trash man never came around," said Acker. "People threw it out the front door right into the yard. If something was broken inside, it usually went out the window."

All last week, 32 volunteers sifted through layers of dirt, hoping the land held sacred to Methodism would yield clues from the Strawbridge era.

"We are looking for anything that would give us evidence of life here," said the Rev. Arthur D. Thomas Jr., pastor of Messiah United Methodist Church in Taneytown and chairman of the Strawbridge Shrine Restoration Committee. "We are investigating to see if traditions are true."

Historians rely on tradition and accounts of those who knew Strawbridge, the first American Methodist circuit rider, or traveling preacher.

Strawbridge, a strong, muscular man with a pleasant voice, arrived in America about 1760 from Ireland. He soon settled into a two-story log cabin in Wakefield Valley and made a convert of his landlord, John Evans. Several years ago, Evans' log cabin was moved to the shrine site. Its stark gray-and-white interior is bare now except for a few benches but, when money is available, the cabin will be furnished with period pieces.

Strawbridge's reputation for powerful sermons grew along with the numbers of converts. By 1773, Methodists numbered 1,160 in Maryland, with nearly half of them living in areas where Strawbridge preached. He died in 1781.

"Much of what is known of him comes from the writings of his contemporaries, many of whom he baptized into his faith," said Thomas. "If volunteers can unearth anything from Strawbridge's era, it will help authenticate those accounts."

Buttons, pottery shards, bits of coal, a child's marble and a worn slate pencil came from the ground last week, all items that may provide glimpses into more than 250 years of life at the small farm. Each artifact was carefully cleaned and cataloged with a note of the exact location where it was found. The oldest artifact appears to be a piece of china from the late 18th century, years after Strawbridge died.

The preacher's home still stands and could tell more of his story. Within a white frame house that dates back 100 years is the shell of a log cabin. Research has shown the logs date to the time of Strawbridge.

"Our principal objective is to corroborate evidence for the date of the house," said Uunila. "We hope to find further clues about the way the house transformed through time and how people used its various spaces."

The earliest clues might come from the cabin's stone floor, where the women found the button and a marble. Volunteers had earlier removed layers of linoleum and thick concrete before getting down to rock. Wear patterns showed that the uneven rocks were probably the home's first floor, said Uunila.

"It is very scriptural: building a house upon a rock," said Uunila. "God put this floor here and there is nothing deeper that people left. We have signs that the stone floor was used."

In the basement, volunteers used garden trowels and dug gingerly for the tiniest relics. After Ward found the stub of a slate pencil, she searched diligently but unsuccessfully for the rest of it.

Volunteers washed, dried and cataloged windowpanes, assorted nails and an animal tooth. "They probably ate the animal, and this was left over from butchering," Uunila said.

Under her watchful eye, volunteers surveyed and plotted sites for shovel tests. They carefully laid out 5-by-5-foot grids in the basement of the house and across the front of the property. Coordinates were printed on small red flags sunk into each grid.

Dig, screen the soil and watch for anything that might help detail history - it can be tedious labor. The sacred significance was not lost in the task, however. The shrine association purchased the 32-acre property in 1973 and is preserving it as a place of prayer and study to Methodism, said Thomas.

"This is a place of pilgrimage and prayer for Methodists, a place to go back to our roots," he said. "We are redigging the wells of revival."

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