A Lesson in Backyard Archaeology

Liquor, bitters and medicine bottles are valuable outhouse finds. Photo by Jerah Augello

Terry York digs up abandoned outhouse pits. Voluntarily. He assures me that the bottom 2 feet of the eventual 12-foot hole he digs is where to find the best stuff. The “stuff” in question is medicine bottles the likes of “Pumley’s Iron & Wahoo Tonic,” “Monticello’s Rub-My-Tism Liquid,” and “Healy & Bigelow Kickapoo Oil,” as well as bitters bottles like “Polar Star,” “Poor Man’s Family” and “Dr. Hick’s Stomach & Liver.” Terry York is looking for history. He’s a backyard archaeologist.

In their day, our rural grandparents had only three choices for trash removal: Burn it, bury it or put it down the outhouse hole. The outhouse was handy, expeditious and very private. It was a retreat with secondary employment if hard liquor was not allowed in the home. The offensive bottle might be hidden in the woodpile (which was often close to the outhouse so one trip down the path might accomplish two purposes), and then brought into the outhouse for sequestered consumption. When the bottle was empty it went the way of all unwanted bottles, down the hole.

If the woodpile hiding place was ever found out, a plan B became necessary. The tippler simply wrapped a wire securely around the bottle’s neck with another longer wire attached. The bottle was then lowered (tightly corked!) down the hole while the loose end of wire was attached somewhere out of sight under the bench for easy retrieval.

Those who resorted to this method of secrecy were dedicated drinkers.

How the digging is done
I first met Terry at one of my favorite haunts, a hiking trail on Conesus Lake. I thought maybe he had lost something. He was looking intently into a scrubby area near the parking lot.

“Lose something?” I asked.
“No, just looking,” he said.
Never knowing when to keep my nose out of others’ business, I asked, “Oh, for what?”
Apparently he had gotten this question many times before and was ready with a quick answer.
“Bottles.”

My mind instantly took me back to my childhood days of collecting pop bottles for their deposit money, though we never went so far as to dig for them. But here was a grown man who didn’t look like he was down on his luck (he was driving a pretty nice truck) yet was digging for bottles. An environmentalist perhaps, doing his bit for the ecology.

I was about to offer a couple of empty Coke cans from the floor of my backseat when he launched into the rest of his explanation.

“I heard there used to be a dumpsite here, long time ago. Hoping to find antique bottles. It’s a hobby of mine. Usually I dig them out of old outhouse pits but dumps are good, too.”

Outhouse pits? I was hooked now. I began to pepper him with questions, being somewhat of a collector myself. Besides, I never could walk away from a good story. We went back to the parking area as he talked. He reached into the bed of his truck and brought out a long, thin metal pole with a T-shaped handle at one end.

“This is the probe I use to find the exact location of an outhouse hole when there’s no building left,” he told me, “though I can pretty much tell where it’s going to be, even without the probe. There’ll be this little depression in the backyard, about 30 paces from the back door. It’s off to the left or right, hardly ever in the middle of the yard. I just push the probe down in the ground; it’ll go real easy if I’ve found the right spot. I can feel it.  Once I dig most of the hole, I can probe again and hear the clinkity-clink of the bottles.”

I didn’t think I could keep this guy answering all the questions exploding in my head, so I did the next best thing. “Could you come and speak to the history club in my town, and would you mind if I wrote about you because I’m a writer and this is great stuff,” I reeled off without taking a breath. I was afraid he would stop me mid-sentence if I paused to inhale. He grinned the tiniest bit and told me he could do that. He said that he had spoken to other groups and had a whole program worked up with lots of examples of the things he has found in outhouse holes and lots of stories, too. Evidently I wasn’t the only one who thought this was a fascinating subject.

Locating the hole
It was a while before I heard from Terry; he runs a busy contracting business.  Finally we connected and I was invited to go along on a dig. The property where Terry and his son, Troy, would be digging was a busy dental office with a small area of lawn out back. It was expected to be a really good dig.

Terry uses Sanford Fire Insurance maps to locate sites in cities. After a century, people lose track of where the old outhouses have been. Many residents don’t even realize their home once had a little shack out back. Terry is happy to let them know and to ask permission to dig a hole 12 feet deep in their yard.

Dig day. My alarm went off at 6:30 a.m. and even though the sun was not yet fully up, I could see that it was overcast and nasty outside. I got to the dig area before Terry and wondered what proper attire for digging up an outhouse might be. I decided I was dressed okay in barn boots and a Mackinaw.

When Terry and Troy pulled in, they hopped out of the pickup, obviously pumped up for the day. They unloaded shovels, probes and tarps while dentists and assistants began to arrive.

Terry unrolled his map (which was amazingly intricate), stared at it a few minutes, looked up at the property, back at the map, the property, the map, then re-rolled it and commenced probing. The motion put me in mind of someone pumping the handle of a railroad handcar. He wasn’t happy with the sound or the feel and tried again. And again, and again. Dentists and assistants walked past with befuddled looks on their faces.  I smiled at them as I pulled up an overturned pail and sat down.

By 8:30, he’s satisfied with the 47th probe. Troy marked the spot and laid out a tarp. Terry began probing for a second site because the map showed two outhouses. Nine o’clock. The second site was found, and another tarp put into place. Terry and Troy chose their sites and began digging. They kept up a running commentary of what they were finding.

“I’m hitting a bunch of roots.”
“This might be the liner here.”
“I got some broken glass.”
“Hitting some ash now.”
“Throw me that little claw shovel.”

No excited exclamations of the big find were heard until Troy came up with a broken Warner’s bottle. “You find a Warner’s, you keep digging,” Terry explained to me over the top of the hole.

There was little talk after this point. My dumb questions were met with patient answers from Terry; Troy kept his head down and his shovel moving. Every now and then someone dressed in white peeked out the office window. The drizzle had been promoted to a steady rain. I was thankful for the hood on my Mac that kept the drips from running down the back of my neck. My glasses fogged up and my feet went numb. I stood up and stomped around my pail, and tried to look hopeful.

Two hours into the dig Terry hit the “usage layer.” It looked like old coffee grounds. “This is the actual old poop layer,” he told me.

“Oh,” I said.
He went on, “Below this is where you find the good stuff, bottles.” But he didn’t.

Sometimes disappointment is all you get
Break time and we headed off to find a McDonald’s for coffee and a bathroom (a bit of irony that I found amusing). I went back to the site before they did, to scribble some of my thoughts while they were still fresh. I sat in my car with the heater up full blast trying to dry my coat and thaw my feet.

After three hours of digging, they were 3 feet down and beginning to think they might have missed the exact spots. Terry said that’s how it goes sometimes. You can make a good probe and still be 3 or 4 feet off.

Then Terry found the corner of a liner and started bringing up ash, apparently a good sign. Half an hour later, more wood from the liner but nothing else.

The joking and talking had stopped. “Thinking maybe it’s time to throw in the towel on this one,” Terry said, but he kept digging anyway, scraping the sides of the hole with a hand trowel. The sky was darkening more, looking grim.

Then, “That’s it,” he said, “Hole number two is finished.”

Terry started to back fill from the mound of dirt he had carefully piled up on the huge yellow tarp. He shoveled the soil back in and stamped it down with resignation, leaving little evidence that he’d been there. It amazed me how little time it took to fill in a hole that took over four hours to dig.

Troy dug on until Terry said, “We’re done.” Troy climbed out and together they filled in hole number one. They were as disappointed for me, I suspected, as they were for themselves, and apologized several times for their lack of success. “It works like that sometimes. You never know. Wish we could have found you something.”

There were a few finds, though, shards of pottery and broken bottles. The pieces went back into the holes with the dirt that had hidden them for more than a century, except for a poker chip that Terry tossed to me back in the early going of the dig.

“This isn’t old,” he had said, but I kept it anyway. I had to have something to show for an entire morning sitting on an overturned pail in a steady rain.

All of this has led me to surmise about the outhouses that were once fixtures in my own backyard. I’ve stood at my door and tried to imagine the layout of 100 years ago. There have been only a few changes in that amount of time. We took down a decrepit carriage house after we moved in 22 years ago. It had to go: It was a wrongful death lawsuit just waiting to happen. In addition, there were reminders of trees that had sprouted, grown tall and then succumbed to some blight or another, after shading the yard for generations.

From that door, I’ve spotted several of those little depressions Terry talked about, although a couple of them are pretty close to the middle of the yard. At least one of them is where the leach field is now situated, but all of them are about 30 paces from the door. I measured.

My husband, Dan, has humored me in many of my harebrained pursuits, but I hold out very little hope of his trenching up the backyard for me as I look for old privies. I’m thinking he might be right, though. I don’t know what’s stranger, two men digging up old outhouses in the rain or one wet woman on a pail watching them.


by Gloria Slater