When we say we are at a crossroads, it usually means there is a choice to be made. For Crossroads at Big Creek, a 200-acre nature preserve in Sturgeon Bay, they celebrate the dynamic intersection that is the crossroads itself, a place that brings together the young and old, experts and learners, researchers and policy makers. The three properties managed by the nonprofit offer a window into the past and the future. They are a meeting place where residents and visitors in Door County cross paths.
Wisconsin Humanities is proud to have supported their ongoing work through our grant program, including a Major Grant in 2022 to help fund an archaeological dig that provided both educational opportunities and research that resulted in a new map of the preserve. We were excited to learn that this project had a profound impact on the organization.
As a result of all that was learned, Crossroads at Big Creek has written and adopted a new board resolution that recognizes the historical significance of the land under its stewardship. This includes three state-registered archaeological sites where archaeological research has been conducted since 2004. The digs have contributed research to the greater body of knowledge about First Nations Peoples, native plants and animals, and global climate change.
We caught up with project director Coggin Heeringa to chat about this important and exciting work.
WH: What do you want people to know about the work you are doing at Crossroads?
Coggin: Well, what I'm most excited about right now is that Crossroads at Big Creek is the steward of three archaeological sites. In other words, we are the ones taking care of this land at this point in history. And so in order to make good, sound management decisions, we should know how the land was handled in the past by our ancestors. In many cases, especially since European settlement, land management decisions that were good in the short-term proved to have unintended, negative long-term consequences. A lot of our land restoration work is trying to undo some of the things that were done.
Probably people had good intentions when they drained the swamp and straightened the creek and sprayed the orchards, but those actions ended up degrading our property. When we acquired our main campus, it could have been the poster child for degraded land. It was a derelict orchard. The creek was straightened. It was just bad. We've spent 25 years now trying to restore it. In the last two or three years, we have received a number of government grants and we are really making a concerted effort not just to restore our land, but to be a showcase for other people wishing to improve their degraded lands. We want to show that yes, you can learn from the past, you can correct mistakes, you can make your land sustainable. So I guess that's what makes me really excited.
WH: How is this important to the community?
Coggin: People in Door County are very history-minded, and we have many local historical clubs, societies and so forth. People have a deep need to understand their history. It turns out many people have always had archaeology on their bucket list, and participating in a dig can be an emotional experience. I've had people with tears in their eyes say, "I've always wanted to do this. I can't believe I'm actually doing it."
Our most important way of teaching is with school field trips. And by extension then, the students get their parents excited about it.
WH: For kids and teachers coming to Crossroads on field trips this spring, what can they expect to do?
Coggin: We do what we call experimental archaeology. The kids do the things that First Nations People may have done to sort of understand it. One group learns how to throw spears. And then I usually lead a group on a resource hike and take them through the woods. We have one station where the kids find clay and mix it with sand to make medallions. They use string to replicate the twine people used to mark ceramics.
We have fewer than six kids working in a dig site at one time, and there is an archaeologist helping them. When they're looking for the artifacts, the kids know what they're looking for. Sometimes we'll find ceramics with a thumb mark, and the archeologist will say, "You're the first human to hold this piece of thing for the last 1200 years." The student might say, "That's so creepy." But do you think they remember it forever? Yeah! They do!
And then the second day the class comes out, we have them inside sorting artifacts and doing the analytical things. And if they find anything that looks really suspect, our archaeologist inspects it under the big microscope and sends it off to be studied. But the kids do the actual sorting and analyzing. It's humanities, but it's also science. They have research questions. They are collecting data. They're recording data. They're mapping. They're sorting the artifacts and classifying.
WH: What did funding from WH allow you to do?
Coggin: The funding allowed us to pay for the archaeologists' hotel rooms and per diems. And for the Ida Bay Preserve, we created a map. One side has the history, the other side has icons of different historical uses of places on the map.
And all of our trails are marked. So we have Lumberjack Trail where it was logged. Orchard Trail where it was an orchard. We have Resort Trail where there were cabins and where the farming and butchering area was. So now all of our trails are named for historical uses of the land, with images on the map so people can imagine the ways in which people used the land in the past.
How can people support your work?
Coggin: We always, always appreciate donations. Our mission is to inspire environmental stewardship. And we believe humanities is one of the pathways to doing that.
But the other thing is we do invite people to come out and dig after the buses drive away, and people can spend 45 minutes and volunteer to help dig. And then afterward, they can come and help us clean and sort and go through pounds and pounds and pounds of artifacts and find the things that look interesting enough for the professionals to really examine. People are welcome to contact Crossroads at Big Creek to find out more.
Read more from Coggin Heeringa in this Love Wisconsin feature story
Photo credits: Corey Batson courtesy of Crossroads at Big Creek