As volunteers sifted through soil at a natural rock formation in Gorge Metro Park last summer, they found evidence of the ways people used the area more than a century ago, from broken bits of bottles to fragments of pipes that helped drain the space.
But they didn’t find any evidence to indicate any past human habitation of the feature commonly known as Mary Campbell Cave. Nor did they find any evidence to support the local legend that the young Pennsylvania girl kidnapped by Native Americans in the mid-1700s spent any time at the feature that bears her name.
"We do know that Mary Campbell was a real person. We do know that she was abducted, that she did live with the Lenape, or the Delaware, tribe and that she was released," said Summit Metro Parks cultural resource specialist Megan Shaeffer. "But we don't have archaeological evidence that she lived in this shelter.'
Summit Metro Parks is in the process of renaming Mary Campbell Cave as Old Maid’s Kitchen to more accurately reflect the feature’s history.
The roughly 300 million-year-old sandstone and shale formation in Gorge Metro Park, along the boundary between Akron and Cuyahoga Falls, isn’t so much a cave as it is a long alcove with a giant rock overhang.
Shaeffer said the feature has been known as Old Maid’s Kitchen, a common name for rock shelters like the one in the park, since the mid-1800s.
The park district acquired the area in the late 1920s, and fill dirt was added in the early 1930s to make the site — flat toward the back but quickly sloping down and away from the formation — more accessible.
That’s part of the reason why the feature’s history was uncertain — that limited flat portion, along with being naturally wet and having drainage issues that were repaired in more modern times, would have made the site difficult to inhabit.
In the 1930s, the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution campaigned to change the name from Old Maid’s Kitchen to Mary Campbell Cave. A bronze plaque was unveiled there in 1935 in a grand dedication ceremony.
Although the Lenape did have a settlement nearby, there’s no evidence 12-year-old Mary, who was returned to her family in 1763, or the tribe stayed at the rock formation.
Shaeffer said although several visitors have said they’ve found arrowheads in the area, the team didn’t find any evidence to support that. If people did inhabit the area long ago, the crew would have likely found debitage — "the stuff that comes from making the points," she said, or flakes of flint or chert, a type of sedimentary rock commonly found in Ohio.
The team also didn’t find any fire pits or evidence of structures as they dug down to the natural and impenetrable shale layer and sifted the soil through screens to find artifacts.
That lack of evidence means there’s no indication the rock formation was used as a habitation site by Native Americans during historic — within the last few hundred years — or prehistoric — thousands of years ago — periods.
"If this had been used for habitation, I would expect to find something," Shaeffer said.
But what the team of nine citizen science volunteers and seven Summit Metro Parks employees did find during last summer’s excavation — which attracted both a descendant of Mary Campbell and a woman named Mary Campbell from out of state — was evidence of the site’s use for recreation dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The Gorge was a popular spot at the time that included Riverview Park, which featured a roller coaster and a dance hall, among other features. Because of its importance to early recreation in the area, the feature is being recommended as eligible to the National Register of Historic Places.
The 107 artifacts found included several fragments of pipe and drainage tiles dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900s that reflected how the site was drained to make it easier to visit.
"They're trying to make it a more comfortable place, and to do that, you have to use these artificial means," Shaeffer said.
Other interesting finds included a bullet casing and the bottom of a Coca-Cola bottle printed with the words "Akron Ohio" that was only manufactured in Akron in 1928 and 1929.
'Pretty much everything we found was late 19th, early 20th century," said Summit Metro Parks cultural resource specialist Charlotte Gintert.
Given the lack of evidence to support the Mary Campbell story, the park district is in a transition period and moving to referring to the feature only as Old Maid’s Kitchen on signage, maps and its website.
The park district knows it’ll be hard to rebrand a feature that’s so ingrained in local lore, so much so that it’s even taught in local schools. But the bronze plaque installed in 1935 christening the feature Mary Campbell Cave is expected to remain at the site.
"In a way, the plaque itself is a little bit historical and it kind of tells the story of our history, our local history and what we once believed versus what we know now," said Summit Metro Parks chief of marketing and communications Stephanie Walton. "There wouldn't really necessarily be a need to remove that as long as we are doing everything we can to educate people as to what we know today to be the true story of the cave."
Contact Beacon Journal reporter Emily Mills at 330-996-3334, emills@ thebeaconjournal. com and on Twitter at @EmilyMills818.