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Archaeologists find toys, bottles and debris of daily life at former Fargo brothel

North Dakota State University professors Kristen Fellows and Angela Smith shovel and place dirt in the screens for students Anna Munns, Mandy Sauvageau and Izzy Krum Saturday, Oct.8, 2016, at the Fargo compost site on Seventh Avenue. David Samson / The Forum1 / 4
Items found in the dirt from the former brothel site are collected Saturday, Oct.8, 2016, at the Fargo compost site on Seventh Avenue. David Samson / The Forum2 / 4
North Dakota State University professor Kristen Fellows shovels through the dirt pile as co-worker Angela Smith readies for the next bucket with students Anna Munns, Mandy Sauvageau and Izzy Krum Saturday, Oct.8, 2016, at the Fargo compost site on Seventh Avenue. David Samson / The Forum3 / 4
Mandy Sauvageau displays a key found in the soil Saturday, Oct.8, 2016, at the Fargo compost site on Seventh Avenue. David Samson / The Forum4 / 4

FARGO — Animal figurines and marbles that might have belonged to a child were found in a pile of debris recently excavated from the former site of a famous downtown brothel.

North Dakota State University archaeologist Kristen Fellows said she and her colleague Angela Smith, along with their students, unearthed these and other artifacts as they sifted through mounds of dirt dug up by workers building Fargo's new city hall.

Fellows said it's not surprising that toys were found at the brothel because they've been found at other brothel digs around the country.

"These women who worked at brothels, some of them had kids, and some of the kids would actually live in the brothel with them," she said. "They would be kept out of view during business hours."

The group also found medicine bottles, pieces of old shoes, tin cans and a wheel that might have been part of a serving cart. But, so far, they've found nothing illicit such as weapons or drug paraphernalia.

Fellows and Smith are using old dumps on the brothel's grounds to better understand what life was like at the Crystal Palace, the best known of several "houses of ill repute" in the city's red light district around the turn of the 20th century.

One of their biggest challenges is figuring out the age of each artifact. Hasty excavation driven by an urgent construction schedule meant all of the historical debris is jumbled together.

Layers of time

For archaeologists, the layers of earth and other material beneath our feet are layers of time. The deeper an artifact is buried, the older it usually is.

The Crystal Palace dig focused on privy shafts, the hole under the outhouse that also served as a dump, Fellows said. As the holes fill, they document the lifestyle of the building's occupants through what they throw away. New holes were likely dug as old holes filled up. Fortunately for archaeologists, any human waste would have dissolved long ago.

In a normal archaeological dig, each layer of material is carefully removed, sifted and whatever is found is documented. This helps in dating because if they know the date of one artifact — say they find a bottle that's in a style popular in a certain decade — they can deduce that other artifacts in the same layer are from the same period.

This is important for the Crystal Palace because the building was a brothel for only about a decade and a half. The owner, an African-American woman named Malvina Massey, bought the house at 201 3rd St. N. in 1891 and ran a brothel there until at least 1905. Authorities eventually stopped looking the other way and she was forced into other work, mainly cleaning houses and serving as a hotel chamber maid until her death of old age in 1911. The building was likely converted to apartments and remained that way until the 1950s when it was demolished to make way for the current City Hall-Civic Center complex.

Fellows and Smith wanted to spend two weeks excavating but the building architect, Terry Stroh, said it would be too dangerous in an active construction site and because workers were behind schedule with winter fast approaching. So workers used a backhoe to remove all the dirt from the privy shafts, mixing up all the layers in the process.

"Because we weren't able to do controlled excavations, we don't have a great sense of when the material is coming from," Fellows said.

So, while it's possible the marbles belonged to the child of a sex worker, it's also possible the child belonged to a renter who came along later.

Lifestyle questions

The immediate task is to sift through the dirt for artifacts, which presents its own challenge because the excavators produced more dirt than the little group of students and professors can process in a reasonable time. Fellows said they will just have to sift as much as they can. After that, she said, she'll work with students to clean the artifacts, catalog them and then analyze them.

"A large part of that will be doing studies of the bottles we've collected," she said. "That can tell us stuff from what people were drinking to what sort of medicine they might have been using."

They'll also look at ceramic pieces, she said. "Were they buying only the most affordable, cheapest stuff or were they trying to emulate a higher-class household by occasionally buying pieces of pricier ceramics to put on display. Because we know this area was low lying. It's known as The Hollow, it's not necessarily the nicest part of town, but are they still buying nice stuff?"

After the analysis is done, the artifacts will be given to students in Smith's museum class, who will design an exhibit.

Fellows said having the brothel dig in town provided her archaeology students with hands-on experience in their own backyard. Other digs that students have participated in were usually far away, she said, such as at ancient American Indian campsites in western North Dakota and in Wisconsin.

Tu-Uyen Tran
Tran is an enterprise reporter with the Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began his newspaper career in 1999 as a reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, now owned by Forum Communications. He began working for the Forum in September 2014. Tran grew up in Seattle and graduated from the University of Washington.
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