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March 31, 2000: "The pits are FULL, dude!  LOADED!"

 

I've dug for nearly 30 years (a tacit admission of age), but had never seriously considered digging a privy.  After all, it seemed a bit, well, unseemly.  Knowing virtually nothing about privy digging, I reasoned that foraging through the feces of the past in the quest for old bottles was the last straw in bottle digging options; I'd stick to old dumps.  So it has been all these years.

 

With the advent of the Internet, I began monitoring the Historical Bottlediggers website, in addition to Scott's Privy Page.  Over time, I became increasingly intrigued at the possibilities.  After all, productive dumps were getting harder to find, and privies just might offer an alternative opportunity (not to mention an interesting experience).  I began to seriously consider the option and sought any information I could about it.  After several months of e-mail correspondence with Jason and Rick, the opportunity to actually dig a privy presented itself when they invited me out to give it a try.  Two days before I left, Jason sent me a Yahoo message about a couple pits he'd found that were FULL.  I could hardly sleep; all I did was dream about bottles.  So it was that I found myself driving nearly 350 miles from eastern Iowa to central Indiana to participate in my first privy dig.  Along the route, I entertained the distinct possibility that I was crazy.

 

If I am crazy, I found out that the Blevins are crazier!  Talk about hardcore diggers!  I'm not a morning person, but we were on-site well before 7:00 A.M.—a frosty lawn behind an old, nondescript two-story home.  Earlier in the week Jason had received permission from the owner to probe the lawn, and had subsequently located two pits.  From all indications, each pit was fairly well loaded, so this promised to be a very exciting dig.  We were totally stoked and ready to dig beneath the layers of time and bring the past to light!

 

Unfortunately, Rick, had to leave by noon to attend class in Fort Wayne, so Jason offered him the option of deciding which pit to dig first.  After probing each spot for himself, Rick speculated that the pit closest to the house would likely be the oldest one, so that's where we began.  The ash on the tip of the probe, and the "crunch" at a depth of about three feet was sure sign that this was indeed a pit.  We roped off the site and began to remove the sod, methodically laying it out on a tarp next to the pit.  Having removed the sod, the topsoil was next.  The process was amazing to watch, and I was already learning a lot!

 

At first, it looked like an ordinary hole in the ground (albeit a big one) as we dug down.  As the dirt piled up, I was beginning to have some doubts about what we were doing.  It seemed like we were just digging a big hole, and I considered the possibility that we were wasting our time.  As we were digging down, the tenants of the building came out and cast a cursory glance at us.  They didn't seem the least bit alarmed, or even curious, by three scruffy strangers digging a big hole just 30 feet from the door.  This seemed odd to me; perhaps the owner had informed them what was going to take place.  Or maybe we just appeared so menacingly crazy that they decided they'd better not ask…

 

As the mound of topsoil grew larger, nothing was turning up in the shovel.  I expressed my skepticism, but the veteran diggers assured me there was no doubt whatsoever that this was a pit.  Sure enough, at about three feet we dug into a fairly thick layer of lime, followed by ash.  An occasional china shard emerged from its century of darkness, and my spirits were suddenly aloft.  It was amazing!

 

Now we took turns in the hole, digging down carefully so as not to damage anything that might lie below.  Rick was the first to "tree" a bottle.  As he carefully scraped away, an amber, blob top quart beer gradually emerged into view.  The brothers were visibly disappointed to discover that it was a common local William Rauper brew, and they offered it to me.  I was delighted with it, and now may have the only one in Iowa (Thanks, dudes!).

 

The adrenaline was flowing now.  We were a little over four feet down, and there seemed to be a lot of ash and loose glass—china shards, pottery, broken jars, remnants of a china doll bust.  How much lay below we could only imagine.  It looked real good!  Judging from the shards and stuff, we were pretty sure that the pit dated from the 1890s, at least.  There was no machine made stuff in this one!  As we proceeded to excavate shovels full of broken stoneware, china and glass, we were so pumped that we were almost hyperventilating.  I got in the hole and did some de-fluffing before climbing out to let an expert in.  Jason, in turn, treed a few clear prescription bottles, a French Gloss, and a Liquozone.  Rick protested that Jason was hogging the hole, so Jason got out and let Rick in.  Rick scored a couple Pitcher's Castorias in quick succession. The bottles were starting to come fast!  The stuff we were finding confirmed the vintage of the pit, but we knew that it might be even older at the bottom.  Who could tell?

 

This is Jason and I am going to periodically add notes they will be in red

Notice the roped off area with the keep out signs, this is a good idea especially since children seem to think that digging in the piles of glass and rusty metal filled dirt is fun and they also like standing right on the edge of the deep pits!

 

It was my turn again, so I took to a corner (they say you should always check those corners good).  Using the plastic handrake, I scraped perhaps three of four inches deeper down into the soil.  "Hey, there's a rusty sheet of metal or something here," I remarked. 

 

On hands and knees, Rick and Jason peered down into the corner.  Rick looked at Jason.  "Bottom, dude." 

 

Jason stared into the hole.  "No way.  Can't be already, can it?"  I got out of the pit and let Rick in. 

 

Rick took a couple scrapes at what I thought was metal.  "Yep.  Bottom."  We'd hit the hard clay bottom of the pit.  Our luck, like the pit, had run shallow.  As Rick and Jason lamented the sudden demise of what had moments before promised to be a good pit, I looked at the massive mound of dirt on the tarp and compared it to the small pile of bottles. 

 

Rick dug away a little more at the opposite side of the pit, then stopped, sighing.  "That's it.  She's through.  Finished."  Just as we had started to strike it, the pit had run dry. 

 

"Let me in there," Jason demanded, quickly replacing Rick in the pit.  Digging back under one side, he managed to find a swirl horseshoe flask and a one-inch embossed bottle that fell out as he was digging.  Nothing else came.  That was the end of it.  Jason climbed out and we stood for a moment in stunned silence, staring at the bottom of the shallow pit.

 

"Man, that's weird.  Real shallow pit." 

 

"Unreal.  Haven't seen one like that before."   

 

Rick shook his head.  "Well, let's fill 'er in."

 

Together we proceeded to scoop the dirt back into the pit from whence it had come, replaced the topsoil, then laid the sod back into the square in the same way it came out.  Rick "did the dance" on the sod, pressing it down underfoot.  I joined in, and together we stomped the area back into its original condition.  There was no great joy in either of our faces.  It was amazing how our hopes, so high one moment, had been so quickly and completely dashed by the sudden appearance of the bottom of the pit. 

 

The brothers wanted to give me first pick, but I declined; they'd already given me the Rauper beer, and as far as I was concerned it was the best bottle of them all.  According to the Jason, Rick never wins a coin toss, so they'd made a pact that they would alternate first pick every other dig.  Since I'd declined first pick, it happened to be Rick's pick.  Typical of Rick's luck, there just wasn't a lot to choose from.  As he stood staring down at the pitiful pile of six common bottles from which to choose (two of which were Pitcher's Castorias), I could sense his deep disappointment and consternation.  Here he was, about to burn his turn at first pick on a pile of scrubs, then he had to leave for class and miss digging the other pit. 

 

 

 

I think Jason and I both wanted to laugh at the rotten situation he faced, but that wouldn't have been nice.  Instead we just smiled.  Rick sighed, pondering the choice for a minute, shaking his head.  "Man, there ain't much to choose from."  Sighing, louder, he finally bent over and picked up the clear, swirl horseshoe flask.  It was a decent bottle--not great, but decent.  "I guess I'll take this."  Rick wandered over toward the garage and began to wipe the dirt off the bottle.  In my estimation, he had chosen wisely.

 

Jason looked at what was left, and grabbed the Liquozone.  Suddenly Rick spoke, "Hey! Guys! This can't be first pick.  It's cracked! "  Frowning in frustration, he held out the swirl flask and pointed to the face.  "Look."  Sure enough, upon close inspection one could see a fairly serious hairline crack that spread most of the way through one side of the bottle.  Jason wasn't about to give up the Liquozone, though.  Gaining no satisfaction from his protest, Rick picked the light green French Gloss next.  I essentially defaulted, and took a Pitcher's.  Jason grabbed the tiny bottle, and Rick was left with the remaining Pitcher's.  That was it.  Pretty lame.

 

We moved to over to the next pit.  It was about 10:30; Rick would have to leave in a little over an hour.  In the same fashion we prepared the pit, only this time we only removed a 3X3 foot area of sod, preparing for a test pit.  We proceeded to dig down, at first hitting a 1960s era ketchup bottle, along with a croquet ball.  This wasn't looking good at all.  Then the brick started to come, and it just kept on coming!  Brick, after brick, after brick came to light.  We were down about four feet and it was still coming.  How much deeper should we go?

 

We paused to think the situation over.  First, if there was a pit here, chances were that everything was busted, given the profusion of brick we were unearthing.  Second, a ketchup bottle and a croquet ball were the only "artifacts" we'd unearthed.  Needless to say, that was not very reliable evidence of a privy pit.  Third, we were about as far away from the house as we could get, right next to the river, and it didn't make any sense why would they place the privy so far away, especially considering that the first pit was relatively close to the house.  Disappointed, we decided to fill it in, then loaded the gear and headed down the road.  We did some probing that afternoon, but couldn't score a pit.  Afterward, we cruised into the historical section of town and scoped out some places that, in my mind, one could only dream about digging.

 

 

APRIL 1, 2000: April Fool's Day Dig

 

It's funny how dreams can become reality, because the next day we were on-site in the historic district, behind a row of three 1850s brick Italianate homes, probing the lawn at quarter 'til 7.  Each imposing structure held the promise of one or more magnificent privies that had certainly stood somewhere out back, if only we could find them.  Another digger had joined us that day, Monte Boshko, from Buffalo, NY, aka the "Buffalo Backhoe."  Monte, an engineer on an assignment in Indianapolis, had e-mailed Jason the night before, wondering if he wanted to dig.  Now we had ourselves a tri-state dig!  This was almost like a privy-digging summit, and what better place to have it than behind houses like these!

 

 

 

The permission to probe and dig behind the Italianates was attained through chance, a little dumb luck, and considerable skill on the part of Jason.  After the dig on the previous morning, we'd cruised into a historic neighborhood and just made a cold call.  Jason stopped at one of the big bricks where a young woman was out front working on an old school desk.  In the course of introduction, we discovered that she and her husband owned two of the Italianates!  As we were talking, the owner of the third chanced by on his return from work, stopped, and listened.  After explaining the basic process, Jason left his card and we headed back.  Aside from hoping, that was all we could do; now it was up to chance.  That evening, the owner called him and gave permission.  Moreover, she had also "recruited" the neighbor! 

 

The morning was warm and sunny, and we were in heaven with three Italianate houses, 1850-1880, right in a row, awaiting the probe.  It doesn't get much better than that!  We spread out and methodically began probing the lawn behind the first two.  After probing for an hour, we weren't having any luck.  How could this be?  Rick decided to head across the street to the neighbor's place.

 

 

 

In no time at all, Rick had located a pit in the back corner of the lot behind the third Italianate.  Now things were looking up!  We prepared the dig site and shoveled down.  We quickly discovered that this was no ordinary pit.  For one, it was brick-lined, and additional probing and digging revealed that it had also been a considerably spacious outhouse, at 4X8 feet.  Jason speculated that it was a two-holer, and that most of the stuff would be toward the hole side closest to the house.  Indeed, wealthier families sometimes had larger privies, with special accommodations on one side for children.  This might have been such a facility.

 

 

 

Jason's hypothesis seemed logical, but I was skeptical from the start.  Not having the benefit of much experience, I offered an alternative possibility that the fact that the privy was brick-lined implied permanence, which in turn implied maintenance.  That meant that the pit had likely been dipped a few times over the years during which it was in use.  But I was in the company of optimists, and such pessimism was not well received.  Monte noted that out in Buffalo, NY where he dug, if you opened a pit, you finished it.  Oh well, after all, there was no way of knowing unless we dug.  We continued to dig on.

 

By now, the children of the owners of the two other brick houses had assembled around the pit, visibly excited by what was taking place.  When we had earlier cordoned off the area with rope and hung "KEEP OUT" signs on it, I had remarked to Jason that it seemed to send a belligerent message.  He insisted that it was necessary, otherwise children would want to get into the dirt (or try to get into the pit itself), and that they might get cut or otherwise hurt.  Sure enough, he was right.  The kids spent almost the entire day at the edge of the pit, staring in rapt amazement as the dig took place.  

 

At about the three-foot level, we began to hit a layer of brick inside the pit.  This layer proved to be nearly 4 feet deep.  We'd dug into the pit beneath the proverbial "brick shithouse."  As we dug deeper, the effort became exceedingly grueling, a situation exacerbated by the fact that it was becoming painfully apparent, at least to me, that the pit had been well-dipped.  Other than bricks, there wasn't much stuff coming out at all--just a few broken pieces here and there.  Still, we dug on.  At one point, an aqua 3-piece mold bottle emerged.  An occasional piece of patterned china or yellow ware turned up, and we also found several pieces of a cuspidor.  Someone chewed tobacco!

 

Monte was a human backhoe.  He was a savage animal in the pit--a digging machine!  As hard as this pit was to dig, though, he was an asset to the effort.  As I watched from above, I began to wonder how anything might survive the wrath of his digging technique.  I glanced over at Jason and Rick who stood on the other side wearing expressions of concern on their faces as Monte chopped away with the shovel in one corner.  "Be careful there, Monte," they warned, but he was "in the zone," just digging like a madman possessed.  Well, it was bound to happen, and in the next instant we all cringed at the sudden sound of breaking glass.  Monte stopped.  "Oops."  He held up the remains of what had been an aqua cabin-shaped ink for us to see. 

 

Jason shook his head.  "Dude, that's why we have a rule.  No metal shovels in the pit.  We use the plastic handrake and trowel when we're getting into stuff.  It takes more time, but it's a lot safer."

 

In and out of the pit we climbed, taking turns.  Almost nothing but bricks was coming out.  As Rick was digging down through the brick along one side, he, too, crushed an ink (I think).  It can happen even when you are digging carefully.  Jason scolded Rick; in turn, Rick denied breaking the bottle, insisting that it was already broken.  Although he refused to admit that he broke it, the edges of the shards were clean and freshly-broken, and the pieces were all there.  Yep, you broke it, Rick!  Fess up, dude!

 

By now it was necessary to use a stepladder to get in and out of the pit.  It was my turn to go in.  I climbed down and began to fill the bucket, which was then hoisted and emptied, repeatedly.  Lots of bricks, but no glass.  I wasn't liking this at all.  It had nothing to do with the fact that I wasn't finding anything.  I felt confined, claustrophobic.  Moreover, the loose brick on one side was fairly unstable, and I imagined the side giving way.  After a few minutes, I'd had enough.  I climbed out and stated, "That's it for me.  I'm not going back in there.  It's too dangerous.  I'm done, unless we cave down on that side where all that loose brick is."  For the remainder of the dig I resigned myself to "bucket duty," hoisting and emptying the buckets as the others filled.  It was hard labor, as each bucket was full of brick.  It was clear by this time that the structure itself had likely been brick, and that it had been "collapsed" into the pit and covered over sometime soon after indoor sanitary facilities became available.

I will add here that this pits was really dangerous, it wasn't just that Matt's a wuss, lol!  I got into the pit directly after Matt got out and started to dig took about three scrapes with the handrake and told them the wall comes down or else I'm out, I started taking the wall down and we were still finding nothing and just moving lot's of brick!

 

After another rotation, a seed layer came to light, and soon thereafter, the bottom became evident.  Monte found a couple pontilled bases at the bottom of the pit, proof of its 1850s-60s origin.  Rick found a circa 1870s deep teal cone ink amid the brick rubble on the dangerous side.  A few porcelain shaving cream containers came out.  That was it.  What a bust!

 

 

 

 

 

We filled the pit in and looked at the paltry pile of objects which awaited the split.  The teal ink was nice.  The aqua 3-piece mold bottle was routine.  The shaving cream containers were neat, but they sure weren't bottles.  We paired off and flipped a coin; the two winners then flipped for first and second pick, and the losers for third and fourth.  I lost both times, and ended up with a shaving cream container, which I gave to the kids.  Rick actually won, and had an easy choice in selecting the teal ink!  Jason got second pick, took the aqua 3-piece mold bottle, and gave it to the kids.  Monte got a shaving cream container, and shuffled off to Buffalo via Indianapolis.  The third shaving cream container we gave to the owner.  The kids were the happiest campers on earth that day, I think.  It was a great way for them to connect with the past, and virtually right in their own backyard!

 

That was it.  What a bizarre day we'd had behind those three, pre-Civil War Italianates!  Having started out probing and eventually digging in what had to be the most promising place on earth, we'd dug our guts out in what turned out to be an 8-foot deep, brick-lined, brick-filled pit and had nothing to show for it but blistered hands and sore backs.  As we stood around discussing our misfortune, I suddenly realized that it was April Fool's Day.  I'm kind of agnostic about it, but if there is a bottle god, he sure pulled a damn good one over on us that day! 


I returned to Iowa with only two bottles, but it wasn't bottles I was after.  I wanted to learn how to get permissions, probe and locate pits, and experience the proper technique for digging them.  I came back with just what I sought, plus two bottles!  Thanks to Rick and Jason for sharing their knowledge with me and providing a great experience on my first privy dig.  You never know what lies in the pit; it could be a heartbreaker or a day-maker.

 

I'm now ready to return the favor by having Rick and Jason come out to Iowa to dig.  Hopefully, we can lay some plans for sometime this late summer or early fall.  I've got some permissions lined up already, including an 1840s property with a sweet backyard.  The others are an early 1870s hotel and a house of the same vintage.  I just know, "The pits are FULL, dude!  LOADED!"  I just know it…

 

From left to right, Jason, Matt and Monte

 

From left to right Matt, Rick and Monte

Ty for coming out and digging Matt and Monte we all had a wonderful time and will be digging together again soon I hope

Till Next Time, Enjoy The Dig !

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