Pieces of History?

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Are city officials throwing $13,000 down the toilet? Well, a former toilet?

Archeologists don't think so.

Since workers digging a hole found tiny fragments of old glass, ceramics and adobe bricks--a contemporary Budweiser bottle was the only thing still intact--the city's plans to put its new Christmas tree at the Historic Town Center Park have been stuck on hold while archeologists document the discovery.

The City Council this week earmarked as much as $13,000 to excavate the site and record its findings because, city officials say, state laws require them to do so if they want to place the tree at that preferred location.

But the city's expenditure amuses longtime resident Dick Mendelson, 87, who says the site is no rich architectural find but a 19th century cesspool.

"My friend," Mendelson told someone who accompanied him to the location, "you are in the cesspool. Just a minute. Yep, you are in the cesspool."

His family bought a hotel there in 1865 for $800 in gold, he recounted. They also built two toilets, one with the city's only bathtub, connected to the cesspool, which over the years collected some pieces of everyday life.

The site later was filled in with rocks, he said. The adobe bricks, he figured, probably are remnants from a shelter used by the hotel to store oil and kerosene.

But the archeologists who plan to study the site don't care. They say that's the way they study past cultures, through their trash.

"We as archeologists look for people's trash," said Benjamin Vargas, field director for Macko Inc., the firm the city is hiring to explore the pit. "That's how you learn about people in that day."

Vargas said the ceramics could be fragments of dishes used at the Mendelson Hotel. But he said the excavation also could uncover foundations or artifacts from previous settlements.

Mendelson said this isn't the first time the site has been studied. Several years ago, a group of college students stumbled upon a collection of bones they thought were of historical significance.

Back in the late 1920s, he said, he and his brothers were forced to kill and bury about 25 diseased hogs in back of the hotel.

Then he laughed.

"They come across these bones and thought they had an Indian burial ground," he said. "They found this and they found that. . . . If they had dug about 25 feet over, they would have found an old horse too."

City Manager George Scarborough described the findings as "relatively important" and "deserving of significant attention."

"It's worth it in the long run to mitigate the impacts so we can have a Christmas tree in that location for the next 30 or 40 years," Scarborough said.

City Councilwoman Collene Campbell said she agreed to spend money for the excavation because she believes the site is the best place for residents to view the tree.

Mechelle Lawrence, the city's economic development administrator, said about $2,800 was raised to buy and plant the tree because the previous location for the traditional tree-lighting ceremonies became too small for growing crowds. This year's event will be Dec. 6.

Mayor David M. Swerdlin believes spending money for archeological exploration is worthwhile.

"A lot of our archeology is significant to the Mission [San Juan Capistrano], so we have to make sure it is properly mitigated," Swerdlin said. "We will document the finds and treat them properly."

Mike Macko, whose archeological firm is heading up the excavation, said it will take about three weeks to figure out for certain what the site holds.

"The foundations there relate to buildings that [could be] the old Mendelson inn." he said. "There are also mystery adobes that no one knows anything about that we may be coming upon. We don't want to destroy the foundations."

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