A MsStorian Adventure
The Quest for Lost Treasures:
How treasure hunters are digging up old outhouse pits to preserve history
Written and Photographed by Julie Jo Larson
THE SUN WAS SHINING AND THE BIRDS WERE SINGING. It was a perfect fall day to dig up some history—I mean, to literally dig it up. My passion for history led me to the backyard of a house in North Brainerd built in 1880. It was there where I watched three men excavate two 125-year-old privy pits. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined the treasures that would come from someone’s outhouse pit. It was a MsStorian adventure of epic proportions. And in case you’re wondering, the only smell from the site came from the five pizzas the guys ordered at lunch.
Mark Youngblood, owner of Midwest Privy and Dump Digger from White Bear Lake and companions Steve Showers and Brian Mann drive three or more hours on weekends for a typical Brainerd dig. Local historians Carl Faust and Andy Walsh scout Sandborn maps for houses built before 1910. These backyards are most likely to have privy pits. The diggers and historians showed me the tricks of their hobby, and even gave me a souvenir bottle to remember the day by. I was curious about the entire process from start to finish. So, they let me tag along for a day of privy digging.
Mark explained that once permission from the property owners is granted, the local utilities are contacted to locate underground wires and gas pipes. Mark, Brian, and Steve arrive early on Saturday or Sunday mornings and meet Carl and Andy at the site. The first sign they look for are sunken depressions in a corner farthest from the house. Outhouses were usually placed further away to start with, and as new pits were dug, they came closer to the house.
After a potential pit is located, a hollow steel probe is used to “feel” what treasures might lie below. The probes come in two sizes; the standard six-foot rod and another named Billy, an eight-foot giant. If the probe slides easily through the soil, that’s an indication a pit is below. When the probe hits glass, the feel is different than if it hits steel. The probe is also used to determine the edges of the pit. Then it’s time to score the sod.
The privy pit crew is careful to keep the sod intact as they score and remove it. All sod and dirt are placed on a large plastic tarp so the hole can be refilled after the dig. The crew then begins digging with shovels. The day I watched, the hole’s first three feet were just soil, and then the treasures started to surface. Pitchforks and screwdrivers helped uncover bottles and containers. I watched as countless bottles were tossed out of the hole.
“Nobody’s home,” became a constant chant along with friendly bantering. The crew explained that this phrase meant the bottle had no print on it. They were looking for imprinted bottles which were more valuable.
Suddenly Brian yelled, “Somebody’s home! Who found the first Brainerd medicine bottle? I did!” Sure enough, Brian had dug up a small medicine bottle with the name “Skauce Drug” on it. The bottle was passed around so everyone could get a closer look.
Carl Faust explained that until a few months ago, he hadn’t heard of this pharmacy. Carl told me his job at the site was to date the pit by looking at the bottles coming from it. Mark and his crew gave Carl any duplicate bottles they found. A few inches further down, a beautiful ink well was uncovered. This was an important find, it meant that the homeowners were literate and probably well off. A few minutes later a rusty ice skate from 1890 surfaced.
Mark was digging in a second hole when he called me over. “What do you think this is?” I looked closely and realized it was part of a child’s doll head. Mark added, “If it is stamped ‘England’ that means the family had money.” I didn’t see a stamp and assumed it was on the other half. The original house owners must have been wealthy to have ice skates and dolls in the late 1800s.