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Privy Madness

By Matt Schaeffer

 

 

Dedicated to all the

HISTORICAL BOTTLE DIGGERS OF INDIANA

(who are still "H.A.R.D.C.OR.P." diggers)

and all the other diggers of the

WORLD!

 

 

I

 

After a long week's wait, Saturday finally dawned.  Although my breath hung visibly in the crisp air of the early morn, it wasn't a bad day at all; at least as far as a December day goes…  As I loaded the shovels, tarps, probe, buckets, gloves and other privy-digging necessities into the trunk of the car, my thoughts turned to the object of the day's outing.  Visions of what might lie buried in the Wilson's Grove privies mounted in my mind's eye.  Trembling in anticipation, I seated myself in the car, slammed the door, and sped along the road to collect Hugh, my bottle-digging partner.

 

I'd spent the better part of the autumn researching the history of Wilson's Grove.  Settled in 1833, the place was now but a mere speck on the landscape, inconsequential to the ordinary traveler who might chance to pass the few ramshackle structures that remained standing at a crossroads, neither of which led anywhere in particular.  Despite its present state, such had not always been the case.  My research had revealed that the first structure was a large, rambling traveler's inn, and that it had served as a major stopping-over point for the stream of early settlers, itinerant dignitaries, and others who had pushed through the area on their quest toward the promise of a better life.  Some elected to stay, building their cabins and making a home at Wilson's Grove amid the stately thicket of beauteous oaks from whence the place derived its name, in part.  By the time the country was torn in half by Civil War, the place was a bustling little village with a promising future--until the railroad went north, that is.  Thus, like so many other long forgotten places that proliferated along the expanding frontier, the nineteenth century optimism that gave rise to Wilson's Grove suddenly faded, commensurate with the distance of the whistle of the iron horse.  In the manner of a lantern sputtering for want of fuel, the flame of optimism dimmed and flickered--perhaps to be briefly revived—but alas, only to pale and then die forever.  And with it died the place; such had been the fate of Wilson's Grove.

 

Hugh stood outside waiting, and he bounded forward as I pulled in.  He was obviously as excited about digging the Wilson's Grove privies as I was.  I popped the trunk and cranked down the window.  "Ready Hugh?" I shouted as he threw his gear into the trunk.

 

"You betcha!  Let's go after the pontils!" he shouted back, sliding into the passenger's seat.  "You're sure you have permission to do this?" he inquired.  The question wasn't unreasonable, for after all, we'd been run out of digging holes before for not having permission.  But those occasions had taken place years ago, and we'd learned our lesson well.

 

"Permission granted!" I replied, beaming.

 

It had taken some serious effort, but I'd managed to work my way into the favor of the property owner, Miss Beatrice Wilson.  Having seen the passage of perhaps 350 seasons, she was a fifth generation descendent of Silas Wilson, the original owner and proprietor of the inn that had once stood near the crossroads.  Miss Wilson had never married, and consequently had no heirs to which she might pass the family property.  A few weeks earlier I'd rapped on her door and stood waiting in the cold, awaiting a response for what seemed like an eternity.  As I stood there persistently, whiling away the minutes, it occurred to me that the television was so loud that I could plainly hear the details of the current Oprah episode that played within the house.  And out of the corner of my eye I had noticed a slight movement of the curtains, so I was certain that someone was present.

 

I knocked again, beginning to feel like a real jerk, contemplating the possibility that I was scaring this elderly lady.  I waited.  I waited longer.  I grew self-conscious standing there like that, my foot tapping away on the floor of the porch.  Was she peering at me from some hidden vantage, sizing me up?  Was she wondering if I was an encyclopedia peddler?  Did she read me as a ubiquitous siding or window salesperson?  Did she suspect I was a mass murderer or something?  In my mind, I grew lower by the second, and increasingly demoralized, until I could bear it no longer.  Finally, given my rapidly diminishing mental state, I resolved that I was in no condition to ask her if I could probe and dig the privies on her ground!  After all, it's hard enough trying to ask for permission to do that when you're at "FULL" on the confidence gauge!  I slid my customized "Privy Reclamation and Historical Reconstruction Specialist" brochure into her door, turned and hustled away.

 

Upon returning home, I was quite surprised to find a message from Miss Wilson on the answering machine.  I returned her call immediately, and we arranged a tea engagement.  That evening, over steaming cups of her finest Darjeeling, I proceeded to attempt to explain my exceedingly peculiar and eccentric interest in the privies at Wilson's Grove, and the process by which the excavation would occur, if she would consent.  I shared pictures of previous digs, explained the importance of a partner in such a venture, and discussed what might be learned from such an endeavor.  Miss Wilson was noticeably amused, and at many points during my strange spiel she openly laughed in my face!  This was to be expected, so I took the humor in stride, and the evening mounted toward a conclusion with that which I'd been seeking.

 

Chuckling, she proclaimed "Well, I've never heard of anything quite so odd as this, but I see no harm in it, that is, if you're certain you will not contract some dreadful disease or something."  I assured her, again, that all organic waste decomposes into soil, and that germs, bacteria and other disease-bearing organisms cannot survive for more than 40 years beneath ground.

 

She paused, then nodded, remarking "Well, never in a million lifetimes would I have dreamt that someone might ask me for permission to do this.  But go ahead, I guess, if you think you must."  She gently placed a sere hand on mine and bent forward, whispering, "I must confess—it's all quite interesting; and I'm very, very curious to know what you might learn about my relatives" she added, winking, and laughing rather nervously.  Did I detect a blush?

 

"You might be surprised—or shocked!" I replied, smiling.  Her hand remained on mine, and her eyes twinkled with, well, I didn't know…  With permission in hand, I sought the very first opportunity to retreat from what increasingly seemed like some sort of an advance, and I soon bid her a fair evening.

 

"YES!!!!!" I thought to myself repeatedly as I walked to the car.  By the time I was behind the wheel I was literally giggling aloud as my mind raced with a torrent of imagined possibilities.  During the drive home I mentally calculated the vintage and number of privies should exist at Wilson's Grove:

 

    • Wilson's Grove existed from 1833 to approximately 1890 (since that predates the Owens Automatic Bottle Machine, everything will be blown-in-mold!)
    • At its peak in 1860, there were 22 residential dwellings, plus the inn and a general store (meaning that there will be at least 22 or 24 pontil-era privies!)
    • Given a pit-span of 15-20 years per privy, each dwelling would have had at least 2 privies, and perhaps as many as four!
  • That's a minimum of 44 residential privies, plus the store and the inn!

 

By the time I reached home, I was reeling with the thought of what might come to light from the Wilson's Grove privies.  As I lay in bed, visions of rare and desirable bottles cascaded within my mind: barrel and cabin bitters, Wishart's, a Van Dunck's coachman, varied pontilled medicines and sheared lip inks.  Such was the force of the procession of welcome images that visited me that night that I failed to sleep at all.

 

To be continued

 

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