Dig of the Week: Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum Garden Dig

By Carla Charter

*See More books by Carla Charter*

STAUNTON, VA. – The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum holds many artifacts telling the story of the life and Presidency of Woodrow Wilson.  A new archeological dig at his birthplace, known as the Manse, has now uncovered artifacts that tell the story of the home where he lived as well.

The Manse was built by the Presbyterian Church of Staunton in 1846. Wilson was born in the house in in 1856. Wilson’s father was pastor at the church from 1855 to 1858. The Manse continued serving as the rectory until the 1920’s, according to Andrew R. Phillips, Curator

of the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum

When the Wilsons lived at the Manse there were gardens and a small urban farm including a chicken house, smoke house behind the home. The previous pastor had also constructed what he called a Roman bath, a type of sauna, to help remedy his gout.

The Manse, along with housing the minister’s family, also had a number of enslaved people, who were leased not owned by the church, working there. When the Wilsons lived there, there were three enslaved people, a cook, a young woman who served as a maid and caretaker for the children and a young man who tended the yard and gardens.

The Manse became a museum in the 1930’s.  An elegant English style garden with English Boxwood was created at the request of Wilson’s widow, Edith Wilson.  At that time, a lot of original features of the backyard were removed and the garden was terraced.


More recently, the Boxwood were infected with Boxwood Blight, a type of fungus which attacks the bushes.  “We had to remove the boxwood and decided we would take advantage of the bare ground and dig before we decided how to reinterpret the garden,” said Phillips.

“One of the concerns when an archeological dig was begun last summer was that the terraced part of the garden had been created by removing soil. We thankfully learned that they had used fill dirt to create the terraced garden in the 1930’s, so below that, the soil was untouched,” he continued.

During the dig, a group of 25 volunteers, with archeologist and James Madison University professor, Dr. Dennis Blanton supervising, uncovered a number of items, including pieces of window glass, nails, and brick fragments from the 1800’s to more modern times. There was also a collection of pig and a few chicken bones. The artifacts uncovered went back to the University where students analyzed them and prepared a report.

Among the more unique items uncovered was a porcelain doll face. “We discovered a doll arm and then the doll face. Based on the size of the face it did not match the arm.”

A number of pieces of porcelain were also found. “Unlike other excavations in the Shenandoah Valley 14% of the shards found here were porcelain.  In other wealthy areas of the valley only 1 to 4 % of shards uncovered are porcelain. This is due to the fact that the property was owned by the church, and thus a prominent home with many prominent people visiting.“

Another dig is planned for the summer of 2019 and is expected to last three to six weeks. “We are hoping to locate some of the out buildings. We are pretty sure of where the stable was and we will be digging there.  I would like to find the Roman Bath. We have an idea of where the Midden, the garbage from the house, was placed,” Phillips said.

The cost of the second dig is expected to be $15,000.  The library and museum are applying for several grants to help cover the cost of the dig. They have also set up a gofundme page to help with the cost of the dig at https://www.gofundme.com/help-fund-phase-2-of-our-archaeological-evaluation

Items discovered during the first dig at the house will be on display at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum through March 17.  The display will be put up again along with the items uncovered during the second dig, after that dig is completed.

More information on the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Museum can be found at www.woodrowwilson.org