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Archaeologists' evidence helps explain
the story of Gay City
November 2, 1998
Looking at the wooded areas that make up most of Gay City, it's hard to figure out how the state park got its name..
But participants in a recent tour sponsored by the State Museum of Natural History learned from state archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni how archaeologists are piecing together a picture of the thriving city that once existed in what is now primarily a recreational area.
Despite drenching rain, the group listened attentively as Bellantoni, an adjunct professor of archaeology, went from site to site, describing how archaeology can provide clues to the community that once existed.
He said the city's ebbs, flows and final decline mirrored those of the rest of America. "If you look at American history, you can see a microcosm of that in Gay City," he said, as he began the tour.
Gay City, now in Hebron, was a city of Methodists cast out by neighboring Congregational Church communities, he said, but its economy and culture were affected just as much as any other region by events in American history..
The Civil War and Revolutionary War offered opportunities for business that generated growth in the city. And after its demise, its metal remnants were used for scrap iron during the two world wars, as happened in many other communities throughout the country.
It is not certain how the area came to be known as Gay City in the 20th century, said Bellantoni. The Gays were a family who used to live in the area, but other more prominent families - such as the Strongs, Posts and Sumners - were much more influential in the region's history.
In 1879, a large portion of the area's industry was destroyed when a paper mill owned by the Sumner family burned to the ground. With its destruction came the decline of Gay City, and residents began to leave what was once a thriving city. The area is now engulfed by vegetation.
The state obtained property rights to the area in 1943 and later named it a state park. In the early 1970s, a team of researchers from UConn, including archaeologist Robert Gradie III, and Eastern Connecticut State University began excavations in several areas of the park.
Many artifacts in the region were found with relative ease, said Bellantoni. Because the community was deserted less than a century ago - relatively recent in archaeological terms - only a few inches of sediment had formed over its remains and many of the artifacts were just below the surface.
Bellantoni brought the group to a restored cemetery, and then through the woods to see where the mill received its water supply and then to the brick foundation of a home.
One of the main things he tries to teach his students, Bellantoni told the group, is how much archaeologists can learn about people from the few objects they have left behind.
"I don't have Charles Sumner to talk to any more, but I have his stuff," said Bellantoni, standing beside the foundation of a home that once belonged to Sumner's family. "And that's what we try to get to."
In class, Bellantoni said, one of the ways he teaches this to his students is by having them scavenge through another student's dorm room. After going through the room the student has to describe what kind of person lives there, based on the various objects found.
Bellantoni also spoke extensively on the excavation process and the technology that archaeologists use today, including computer databases, aerial photographs of a site, and infrared imagery that can locate artifacts.
Bellantoni has taken part in many excavations in Connecticut, including one of Noah Webster's home in Hartford. He also has been involved in efforts to preserve historic sites, including a project to keep the state's cemeteries from being destroyed.
Another important part of his role as state archaeologist is public education. "I do a lot of public speaking to generate awareness," he said.
On November 1, he gave a slide-talk about evidence suggesting that colonial New Englanders believed in the existence of vampires, during the Museum of Natural History's Archaeology Family Day on the Storrs campus.