When it comes to finding those elusive and coveted cellar holes, apparently there is some formula to it that folks like myself, just aren’t privy to. Oh, and you can forget about asking Todd Hiltz & Dave Wise, their lips are pretty much closed on the subject. But, even if they told me, I wouldn’t go running my mouth off about it anyway.
I don’t blame them for keeping their methods to themselves. They spend countless hours researching to find old home sites and colonial settlements, and they deserve to reap the rewards that come from it.
So, from my own research, and experience, I’m going to share some of what I’ve learned, to help you find those sites in your area. Some of you may know all this already, and that’s cool, ‘cause this is for the people who don’t.
Being from Connecticut, this is based on the Northeast. I have no idea about the terrain or flora and fauna in your area. It may be the same, or not, but this is only a guide.
To start, when I’m hunting an area, whether I’m there because it’s an old area I’ve researched, or a random spot that just looks good to me, I’m pretty successful at pulling a few cool old finds out of the ground. This is because I look at the area, and the terrain, usually wooded, and sometimes densely. I try to envision what it would have looked like a few hundred years ago, and without all the trees and such. I take my cue’s from the landscape and common sense.
If you’re new to detecting, it may take a while to figure out if it’s a good spot or not. Don’t get discouraged—patience is key in this hobby.
Sites are obviously much easier to visually scout out in winter, when the trees and ground are bare, so when you’re driving around in winter, anxiously awaiting the thaw, stop at those interesting spots on the side of the road, take a look around, and make notes. Seriously, take notes, because when you suddenly get the opportunity to hunt again, you won’t remember. Trust me on that.
If you’ve done any research on stone walls or farms, you’ll know that a few hundred years ago, trees were not a dominant part of the landscape. Most of New England was cleared for farming, and grazing. The wooded areas you see all around you probably didn’t exist then; and with the help of the mighty Ox, the fields were cleared of their rocks, hence creating our great and abundant stone walls.
These stone walls served as property lines, animal enclosures , lined roadways, and as hiding places for money & valuables (especially in times of war), although to date, I haven’t found any of those hidden treasures.
So when taking in an area, notice how many stone walls there are, and if there fresh water nearby? Is the area next to and old road? Is there a hill or a slope that would have made for a good homesite? Drainage was an issue back then, and homes sometimes were built on higher land, even if it was further back from the road. These are things people needed to function successfully at that time. Think about what you would need, if you had none of the modern conveniences of today.
Look for breaks in the stone walls. Clean breaks, not those hastily made by loggers, or Boy Scout trail blazing projects. Look for old town roads that have rock walls on each side of them. These roads were usually three rods wide, but I’ve also seen mentioned that they were two rods wide (a rod is 16.5 feet).
When you find these roads, look for a break in the wall, on the uphill side of the road. If there is a cellar hole around, it will usually be close to the road and through that break in the wall. Not always, but usually.
If you don’t find an obvious rock foundation, don’t get discouraged. Look around for a mound of dirt leftover from when they dug the cellar hole, and you may, or may not be able to spot some of the original foundation stones. Use your intuition. It could have been an old cabin site, without a foundation, and not all homes had cellar holes, so swing around a bit and see if you pull up any iron or nails, a sure sign that some type of building was there.
If you find what you think is a cellar hole, and it seems to be in an odd spot, it could be the remains of a root cellar, or some other type of random farm building.
And don’t forget about Farm Plans–Farms were laid out on a four field system, with the house and barn located near the road.
The area that was used for growing crops, was the area that required the most attention, so that area would be located nearest the barn. Then came the fields for growing hay, because obviously that needed to be near the barn as well. Then came the pasture area, and cattle would be driven to pasture daily.
Wood lots were the furthest away from the house, and it may not make sense, since wood is so heavy, but the wood lots were not used as frequently, and wood could always be transported via wagon, or sled in winter.
Most homes also had wells, as close to the house as possible, and some houses had wells inside them or attached, so look around, but carefully, sometimes they are covered by brush, and not so obvious.
If you do manage to find an old homesite, look around and try to figure out which side used to be the front yard. The front yard usually contains the least amount of metal. Sometimes it will be obvious by the placement of large rectangular stone steps, but again, not always.
Many homes were built facing the road, as they are today, but some were built facing the South, to take advantage of the sun. Hunt around a bit, and if you find spoons or pieces of old harmonicas, you’re probably in the spot they spent most of their time hanging out outside. This is usually on one side or in the rear of the house.
At the last cellar hole I hunted, I used this information and was quite pleased. I determined the front of the house fairly easily, as there was a huge ledge of stone behind the house, (so much for having a back yard). I moved to the left side of the cellar hole, figuring that would be where I would hang out, and immediately found a very old coin silver spoon. A few minutes later, harmonica pieces and a flat button, and then a large cent, just like that—it was a textbook kind of site.
Of course, not all sites are textbook, and even back then you had your share of strange folk, who built against the grain, or thought their way was better, or for reasons we’ll never know, just didn’t follow the norm. So keep in mind that not everyone followed the tried and true building methods—I’ve found some sites that defy all logic.
Other things to look for when searching out cellar holes are Lilacs, open areas, Roses, periwinkle, morning glories, old apple trees or old-looking trees in general; Day Lillies, Hydrangea, Sugar Maples, and let’s not forget the briars. Pricker bushes were planted to keep the deer away, and to keep children out of certain areas (like garbage dumps).
Also, many old homes didn’t have cellars, and are just depressions in the ground. Most cellar holes are square or rectangular. Barn foundations will be wider and taller, being built from large stones and slabs of granite, and some cellar holes will seem circular in shape, because over time, the side walls have caved in.
For help in finding old homesites, you can also use old Beers maps of your town or the area. Compare old and new maps. Find major rivers and roads and compare the two. You can also do an image overlay on Google Earth. You can search for instructions on the web on how to do this. (Note: If you’re using Google Earth and you have an ipad, the Google Earth app does not allow you to get historical imagery, you’ll have to use a regular PC for that).
And remember, there are a lot of egos and opinions when it comes to determining where to hunt with your buddies. I’ve had a lot of people dismiss my observations, telling me a site is no good, or there’s nothing there; and not always, but most of the time, I’ve gone to these sites anyway, alone, and come out with some pretty awesome finds.
Maybe there wasn’t an obvious cellar hole, but my intuition told me there was something there. Don’t always listen to other people. If your instinct is telling you something is there, go with it, you can’t find anything if you don’t search.