A DAY ON THE DIG
A DAY ON THE DIG is coming Saturday, August 27th at the Lee House. Mark your calendars for this exciting new program. For adults and children 10 year olds and up. Each digger will be charged $10.00 to participate. Limited to 24 participants. More details will be coming next month, but we will be needing volunteers to help in many capacities.
Saturday and Sunday, September 3rd and 4th
9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
It's our last Flea Market of the season! The grounds of the Thomas Lee House Museum will be filled with all kinds of vendors, selling all kinds of goodies. We look forward to seeing you there!
The purposes and objectives of the Society shall be:
1. To engage in educational, archival, research and exploration activities and to support such activities that will increase knowledge of and engender appreciation of the history of the Town of East Lyme and its heritage.
2. To encourage the preservation and restoration of the town’s historical assets, such as houses, structures, burying grounds, early artifacts and other things associated with the town’s origin and history.
3. To determine and develop year round historical programs and implementation of same. These programs and activities shall include the period of colonial history and may include all periods of American history and other history.
4. To cooperate and participate with other organizations for similar purposes and objectives, both within and without the town.
5. To establish the Thomas Lee House Preservation Committee to ensure the protection and preservation of the Thomas Lee House as an American heritage, wherein books, documents, pictures, furniture, tools, implements, artifacts and other articles associated with the history of the Thomas Lee House and the family are housed.
The Thomas Lee House (c. 1660) is one of the oldest wood frame houses in Connecticut still in its primitive state. The Lee House is listed on the National Register of Historic Houses, and is open for tours during the summer months. Learn more about the Lee House at
Several of our volunteers work to maintain the East Lyme Archives, a collection of documents and photographs in the East Lyme Room of the East Lyme Public Library. If you would like to know more about this program, you can read about it at
The first record of a school in the area of the Lee House dates to at least 1734. The present building was erected on land donated by Elisha Lee. In use until 1922, the building was eventually moved to its present location, next to the Lee House. It was donated to the East Lyme Historical Society in 1926. Learn more about the Little Boston School House at
Anthropology students from East Lyme and Ledyard High Schools, under the direction of James Littlefield and Dr. John Pfeiffer, conducted an archaeological study of the site of the original Little Boston School House. Their results can be found at:
Since conducting a limited dig last summer in the Lee house cellar and then experiencing the difficulty of trying to accurately identify the recovered artifacts, I’m beginning to acquire an understanding of just what professional archaeologists have to deal with on a much larger scale.
Consider item 1. Even though a layman like me could see it’s a button, I really didn’t know when it was made or what it was made from. It certainly looked old and the thread holes had an asymmetrical, handmade appearance, but was it a genuine 18th century Lee family artifact or a 20th century workman’s drop? Was it made from bone, horn, or an early type of plastic? It seemed very polished for bone and what about those circular marks on each side? From my machinist days, I know they look very similar to the tool marks left by engine lathes during an operation known as “facing”.
I initially guessed the button was made from bone and constructed a mental picture of an 18th century Lee ancestor losing it off his shirt while toiling at cellar chores via lantern or candlelight. I then started with some internet research. Based on the photos I saw of items made of early plastics like bakelite, casein, or catalin, I began to suspect the button was made from one of those materials and was therefore, relatively modern. I also saw that a comprehensive reference book was priced significantly beyond my budget.
I was then fortunate enough to meet George and Gretchen Gauthier, noted button collectors (experts in my humble opinion) and board members of Groton’s Avery-Copp House Museum. The Gauthiers graciously invited me to their home for what turned into a 2 hour crash course on buttons. George examined the button with a jeweler’s loupe and stated it was definitely made from bone. He pointed out the a series of darker spots randomly scattered on the generally lighter base material and identified them as “canalicular” marks, which are the remains of the blood vessels that run through live bone. He looked at the aforementioned circular marks and identified them as machine made. He told me the marks indicated the button was probably made from the mid to late 19th century, when manufacturers obtained large quantities of bones from slaughter houses and the use of machine tools became common in the manufacturing process.
We had less success identifying item 2. I initially thought it was a so-called “dandy button” made from pewter during the colonial era. After some cleaning, the Gauthiers examined it carefully, looked through their references, and compared it with known examples in their own extensive collection. They could not find a match and were of the opinion that the notches running axially around the perimeter on one side were too symmetrical to be hand-made. Assuming that the item is a button, the notches would be decorative in nature and on the front. The center of the back side should therefore contain a sewing loop known as a “shank” for attachment to clothing. While it is not uncommon for the shank to break off, there is still generally a nub present to indicate its former position. The one small dimple located where the shank should have been could just as easily have been caused by corrosion. The metal itself has a crusty gray appearance. It lacked the white patina often associated with pure lead or the green patina common to copper. Beyond a simple magnet test confirming the metal was non-ferrous, we were unable to determine its composition.
Although the origin of these two items and the story of how they ended up in the Lee cellar will most likely never be fully known, one could make the case that the bone button was once on a piece of clothing worn by the last Lee family member to occupy the house, Osbert Lee. Land records show Osbert transferring ownership to Dr. Thomas Lee in 1857, but Dr. Lee is believed to have built and resided in the “Lee cottage” located next door. Without further evidence, I can’t confirm item 2 is a button or what it’s made from. But, if the base metal is in fact pewter, that would place its manufacture back into the 18th century and tie it to any number of Lee family members. Readers are encouraged to examine the accompanying photos and share their views.
The East Lyme Historical Society owns and maintains the Thomas Lee House and Little Boston School House, offers educational programs to the community throughout the year, works to provide access to historical materials through its publications, archives, and website, and is always ready to work with other groups to help foster understanding and appreciation of the history of our town.
And we do it all as volunteers!
The generosity of our town and our members is greatly appreciated. Time, energy, and dollars donated are put immediately to work.
If you are currently a member, THANK YOU! If not, please consider joining us. You may download the Membership Form here, or print the Membership Form page here, and mail either one to us, or you can contact us at:
Donations are always welcome.
And please remember: all of our programs are open to the public, free of charge. We welcome your participation!
BUSINESS OWNERS: Become a Business Member of the East Lyme Historical Society for only $50 a year. Members receive a free listing on our Business Directory page, with a link to their own sites, as well as being mentioned in our newsletters. Our website is currently attracting over 900 unique visitors and 14,000 hits each month, from all over the country, and from around the world. Many of them are in the process of planning trips to our area, and would be interested in the services you provide. Local residents will recognize your generosity, as well.
INTERESTED IN BEING A VOLUNTEER? The Society is busy year-round, with a calendar full of events to plan and execute, and a substantial property to maintain. We are always looking for people to get involved. If you have ideas, would like to help organize future activities, or want to be a more active member of the society, let us know. We'd be thrilled to hear from you!