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History vs. Progress?

Outhouses and their "privy pits" will be of particular interest to workers when excavation begins for the new Lithia Motors headquarters in downtown Medford next month.

The Medford Landmarks and Historic Preservation Commission last week agreed to require Lithia to hire an archaeologist who will be on the lookout for artifacts that might have been trash discarded by one of Medford's pioneer families.

Lithia, which hasn't yet hired the archaeologist, hopes the new requirement doesn't create any delays in completing the project, which might require a permit from the state Historic Preservation Office.

"We want to learn from our history," said Mark DeBoer, Lithia's vice president for real estate. "We don't want to be bound by it."

A ground-breaking ceremony will be held April 22, and Adroit Construction of Ashland is the general contractor for the four-story, 69,000-square-foot headquarters that will house 300 employees. The first floor will feature retail outlets and restaurants.

The project is bounded by North Riverside Avenue, East Sixth Street, North Bartlett Street and East Fourth Street.

Ben Truwe, a local historian and former City Council member, said he made the request to the landmarks commission for an archaeologist because the site of the Lithia headquarters is where Medford got its start.

There were two wells and a homesite for Iradell J. Phipps, and likely outhouses and their privy pits (the holes dug beneath the outhouses).

Phipps, a local dentist, and Charles W. Broback were instrumental in bringing the railroad to Medford and shifting the county seat away from Jacksonville in 1927.

The old Medford High School, built in 1909, also was located in the same area but was torn down.

Truwe said the basement for the high school might have destroyed one of the wells, based on maps of the area.

Truwe said the typical things an archaeologist would look for include ceramic and glass bottles, possibly metal objects. "If we're lucky, maybe even leather," he said.

Last year, researchers dug through old garbage pits behind pioneer photographer Peter Britt's cabin in Jacksonville. The bowl from a smoker's clay pipe retrieved from the archaeological dig helped reveal the exact location of the cabin Britt built late in 1852.

Mark Tveskov, director of Southern Oregon University's Laboratory of Anthropology, said Lithia should seek permits as quickly as possible from the state to prevent delays in the project.

"The more you think about it in advance, the better off you are," he said. "The key to not letting it turn into a can of worms is to not let everything wait until the last minute."

If an artifact is found, a permit is required before the object can be retrieved from the ground, Tveskov said.

Though not familiar with the Lithia project, Tveskov said permits could be obtained within about a month.

Even with planning, he said it's always difficult to predict how many artifacts are in a historical site.

"Where things could get snagged is if a lot of stuff is found there," he said.

DeBoer said Lithia's research didn't show any evidence of wells on the site.

He said he has been involved in about 100 building projects around the country, and this is the first time he's had to keep an eye out for artifacts.

He said he didn't expect the excavation for the headquarters would be very deep — only a few feet in most cases.

DeBoer said the search for artifacts could drive up the costs of the project.

He said the area already had been the subject of a cleanup effort because abandoned tanks had to be removed.

He said it's possible additional tanks might be found, which would require involvement by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Since the landmarks commission made its decision last week, DeBoer said he has begun looking for an archaeologist to take on the work.

"If something is salvaged from our history, we're all for it," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

Eight buildings will be demolished north of Sixth Street in Medford and replaced by The Commons, including Lithia's new headquarters. - Mail Tribune / Julia Moore