SunWatch projects continue, as park looks forward to reopening

Thatching roofs is William Cahill’s passion

As with so many other area attractions, SunWatch Indian Village was gearing up for its spring season when the coronavirus hit.

“We were hard at working preparing to welcome back the public when it became evident we would not be able to reopen on the first of April,” says site archaeologist Eric Collins.

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The popular archaeological park, operated by the Dayton Society of Natural History, is the site of a prehistoric village inhabited by the Native American people we today call the Fort Ancient people. The village existed along the Miami River about 800 years ago. Highlights are an interpretive center and museum along with a partially reconstructed village where visitors can step back in time and experience Fort Ancient culture first-hand.

The good news is the historic park has just two full-time employees and 20 acres of land, so it’s been easy for staffers to practice social distancing and continue to maintain the property. “If a property like SunWatch were abandoned for the month of April it would be lost to prairie species until next winter!” Collins explains.

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Kids love walking inside of the fully reconstructed structures and hearing about the lives of the people who once gathered there. Each of the houses, which stand in the exact location where they stood 800 years ago, are built with materials that would have been available to the native people of the region: wood, prairie grass and clay.

After 800 years below ground, most of the remains have long since decomposed, but vertical posts left signature stains in the soil where they had stood. Some of those still held the burnt ends of wooden structural supports. “Mapping these ‘post holes’, archaeologists can determine the shape of the houses, and tiny remnants left behind give us clues as to what materials were used,” Collins explains.

He says visitors usually find their own touchstone on the tour — sometimes the garden which reminds them of their parents’ or grandparents’ own garden; for others, the one-room houses that are so different from what we live in today. “Everyone leaves with a new respect for how easy they have it today! ” says Collins. “One constant favorite for the entire group is the Native American game of Chunkee, where children improve their hand-eye coordination by throwing blunt spears at a stone disc sent rolling across the plaza.”

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Credit: Kristy Creel

Credit: Kristy Creel

New projects being completed

A number of new projects — including new pathways — will greet visitors when the time comes to open the site.

“We were awarded the Montgomery County Solid Waste District’s Recycled Materials Grant at the beginning of 2020, which was used to purchase recycled rubber mulch and edging to entirely rebuild our paths through the village,” says Collins.” The long process began with the removal of decades of accumulated mulch, leveling the ground, laying down weed suppressing fabric, installing edging and then, finally, spreading over 40 tons of recycled rubber mulch. The labor was done entirely by Dayton Society of Natural History staff and a handful of community service volunteers, with additional financial and equipment support from The Kettering Fund and Rieck Services.

“This new path will dramatically reduce maintenance, last for many years to come, and will deter the rodents and insects that made their homes in and around the rotting mulch — damaging the structures and archaeological materials left in the ground,” says Collins.

A new garden has just been planted growing heirloom fruit and vegetables utilized by Native American people. Produce from it will be used in a newly constructed outdoor food-ways classroom, complete with cooking racks, a clay hearth, and hands-on activities where visitors can use prehistoric food-processing tools.

“We also harvested the SunWatch prairies this winter, and used entirely homegrown Indian Grass and Big Blue Stem prairie grasses to repair and maintain the roofs this spring,” says Collins. “The thatch roofs at SunWatch are iconic, and we rely on the expertise of one of just two Master Thatcher’s in the country, William Cahill of Cincinnati, to help. A professionally installed thatch roof can last decades with minor repairs and additional layers.”

Meet William Cahill

William Cahill travels the country creating and repairing thatched roofs. He learned the specialized skill as a young man.

“In Ireland when you left school you had a choice of college or a trade and I chose a trade,” he says. “I liked the outdoors; I like travel and meeting people. It’s such a noble trade, as all trades are.”

He’s been fiddling on the roof ever since that first apprenticeship, researching each museum structure in order to be as authentic as he possibly can. He’s worked in Ireland on 500- to 700-year-old structures, in the Bahamas and in all but nine of the United States.

Cahill has been coming to SunWatch since he first settled in this area in 1991. He says it’s always “sweet” to return because it’s close to his Cincinnati home and he can spend evenings at home during the project. He comes back whenever they need him. “It’s like your own house or apartment, there are always minor maintenance to do,” he says. “It can be from storms; there was a little bit of wind damage from the Dayton tornadoes.”

In Dayton, the 10-day process involves harvesting the prairie grass, letting it dry out in order to eliminate shrinkage and slippage, then installing the grass, tying it to the horizontal saplings. Covering the roof in this way, Cahill says, makes it water and weatherproof. “You want it to be warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The nice thing about thatched prairie grass is that it’s living and breathing.”

The indigenous people, he says, learned by trial and error. “They were extremely practical and smart so they would always put their villages in places that were safe from the weather and other elements of nature. In the case of SunWatch, they were in a protected area of the river but close to the resources they needed.”

When the time is right, says Cahill, SunWatch will have a fine big opening. “It’s been there for 60 years, but really for 800 years — so it will be there,” he says. “Archaeologists and curators are helping to maintain all of the structures respectfully. It’s important to learn from the past and care for it.”

Did you know?

• The Fort Ancient People are often considered Ohio’s first farmers. They grew corn in huge quantities to feed hundreds of people up and down the Great Miami River. A prehistoric canoe trip might have looked much the same as driving down an Ohio highway today, corn on all sides.

• As agriculturalists, understanding seasonal change was essential to survival. SunWatch was constructed in a semi-circular pattern, a central post 40-plus feet tall at the center giving the village its name. This post acts as a calendar dial, its shadow used to mark ceremonial dates and to plan a successful harvest.

• If you’d like to learn more about thatcher William Cahill, check out

• The Dayton Society of Natural History is waiting on guidelines from the state government and currently has no information on when cultural sites and museums will be open. “We intend to do everything we can to keep our visitors safe at both Boonshoft Museum of Discovery and SunWatch,” says SunWatch site archaeologist Eric Collins. “The education staff has been hard at work producing videos during the stay-at-home order, utilizing our Dayton Society of Natural History Youtube page, and we are planning SunWatch educational content now.”

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