You read that right.
They locate spots where outhouses had once stood and dig down an average of 6 feet or so to find items – other than the obvious ones – that someone disposed of in the privies over their years of use.
Carson says the human waste products are long gone, leaving just dirt and whatever items people threw down the outhouse hole.
“I am very interested in history, especially the history of Buffalo, Iowa,” says Carson “I am a member of the Buffalo Historical Society.”
Her interest in privy digging grew from a dig on a small farm she has in Buffalo.
She discovered there is a small dump on her property, and a lot of old medicine bottles had been dumped there over the years.
Coincidentally, since she is associated with the Buffalo Museum, a bottle collector had contacted her.
“In talking to him, I told him about all the bottles I had at my house, and he just went gaga,” says Carson. “He has come out to dig several times.”
The collector then introduced Carson to Dave Hast, a privy digger and bottle collector from Port Byron, Ill. And that led to Hast and Carson digging up a former privy location on her land.
Hast, who is in his mid 50s, says he got interested in bottle collecting in about 1970 when he and a fellow teen stumbled upon a dump in some woods in Rapids City, Ill., where he used to live.
“And we started digging bottles,” he says. “There were tons in there. It was the old city dump.”
As for privy digging, Hast says few people were involved in it until the 1960s.
“But somebody figured out that, hey, when someone was in the outhouse and he finished his favorite patent medicine, he’s going to throw the bottle down the outhouse hole. Maybe that would be a good place to go digging.”
Privy digging is a lot of work and takes some finesse, too. (See the contributed photos above.)
Hast figures out where an outhouse likely sat and probes the ground there with spring steel rods. They have a T-handle and a tip that’s larger than the rod.
If he has chosen the right place, the rod punches through the hard ground and finds loose and gritty dirt below.
“If the ground is too hard, diggers know there wasn’t a privy there,” Carson says.
But if he’s struck pay dirt, so to speak, Hast then pushes the rod deeper. When it hits something, he says he can tell by the sound if the object struck is a rock, pottery or glass.
Carson says Hast, after probing, will tell the property owner if there’s been an outhouse there and if it’s worth digging. “Sometimes he’ll say, ‘There’s nothing in here’ or ‘It doesn’t sound like anything good.’
“It’s an art,” Carson says of the probing. “I just think it’s amazing how they do that.”
She also says a privy digger will pull the rod out of the ground and look for seeds on it “because I guess back in the old days people ate a lot more fruit.”
If a privy is worth digging, Hast says he will dig a hole from 3 to 10 feet deep, though he admits the deeper holes “can get really kind of scary.”
Because people’s waste products are long decomposed, Hast says, the work isn’t messy and “all that’s left is what they threw in.”
Carson has arranged for and been involved in several privy digs in Buffalo, in addition to her own. She also has accompanied Hast on digs on formerly flooded lots in Keithsburg, Ill. The old houses that stood on them are now gone.
She says diggers are looking for old bottles, but they find much more because “people did use privies as garbage dumps.”
Between the two of them, Carson and Hast say they’ve retrieved porcelain doll heads, horseshoes, animal bones, a rusted handgun, broken chamber pots, tools, plates, bowls, cups, saucers, women’s hygiene syringes, a full set of dentures and a bone toothbrush.
Hast says he also found a pocket watch complete with chain, “and it was in good condition.” It must have slipped out of its owner’s hand.
Carson says the pair found “hundreds” of whiskey bottles where the outhouse had sat on her property. Whoever used it, she says with a laugh, “definitely had an addiction to the sauce.”
Copyright 2012 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises. This piece ran as a column in The North Scott Press.