To the uninformed it was merely trash -- broken bottles, crumbled bricks, pieces of old wood and rusty bent nails. But to a group of enthusiastic fifth and sixth graders who had been studying archeology, the trash provided clues to the past uncovered in Catholic University's front yard.
"Of course in the back of our minds we are all hoping to find a chest of jewels," said 12-year-old Sara Hennigan, a sixth grader at Hearst Elementary School. "But the garbage we find tells us all kinds of things," she said, using a trowel to scrape dirt carefully from a small plot of land.
Sara was among 28 students from Hearst Elementary at 37th and Tilden Streets NW who, with their teachers, spent an afternoon last week with shovels, buckets, trowels and gloves panning for relics at the site of what was one of the earliest houses in Northeast Washington and the summer residence of one of the city's most prominent citizens.
The site, now grass-covered and located in the center of the university's campus along Michigan Avenue, was once the property of Samuel Harrison Smith, a friend of Thomas Jefferson. Smith built a summer house there in 1803 for himself and his wife.
"You can tell where the foundation of the building was by the color of the grass," explained 10-year-old Benjamin Daugherty, pointing to an area where the grass looked dried and discolored.
"The roots couldn't grow because the foundation was there and the roots couldn't get enough water," he explained.
This archeological dig was part of a special science class started in 1981 at Hearst by anthropologist David Clark.
The Parent-Teacher Association hired Clark to teach kindergarten through sixth grade for two hours one day a week for six weeks each semester.
"Practical application is the best method to teach science to children," said Clark, who also teaches archeology at Catholic University. "They learn biology, geology and physical science . . . . It teaches both historic and prehistoric cultures." he said. "They will learn and remember more today than they could from any book."
"It's really interesting to learn how people lived so long ago," said 11-year-old Ayana Stokes, sifting dirt over a large screen. "This is a very special old nail . . . . They don't use these kind any more," she said holding up a rusty nail with a square head. The students collected, labeled and classified the artifacts they found.
Clark said he and university colleagues researched the site and found that at the turn of the 19th century this section of Northeast was outside the city boundaries and rural.
Smith left Philadelphia and followed his friend Jefferson to Washington, the new capital of the United States, in 1800. He founded one of the city's first newspapers, the National Intelligencer, then sold the paper nine years later. Smith also served as a bank president and was a member of the city's first board of education for free public education.
According to archeologist Bob Verrey, who was also at the student dig, Smith and his wife, Margaret Bayard Smith, saw their summer house, which they called Sydney, as a retreat where they would escape the city's summers. Their permanent home was a block from the Capitol on New Jersey Avenue SE.
"The District was a terrible place to live in the summer," said Verrey, "The smell and the stench from the garbage made it unbearable."
During the 19th century, what is now Constitution Avenue was the site of a canal where people threw garbage. It was more popularly known as an open sewer.
"It was so bad that Congress would quit during the summer and leave town," Verrey explained.
The Smiths used their 2 1/2-story house until they sold it to the Middleton family in 1835. The house and the surrounding 65 acres were purchased in 1886 by Catholic University, which used the house as a lodging for resident priests. Two wings and a new center were added to the building in later years, and in 1917 the building became a dormitory.
Verrey said that after it failed to meet fire inspections in 1970, the building was torn down.
"Yahoo," yelled Patrick McKenna, 11, his head buried low in the ground. "This is amazing. I think I found a hole. I found the basement," he yelled, and dug deeper and deeper. His classmates gathered around and watched as he began pulling big bricks from the opening, revealing more bits of information in their quest for clues to history.