Frustration and the Over Sized Out House Pit by Dan Gross

large house with privy While I was at a local bottle show recently I talked with some fellow diggers and divers and was told of some rather nice finds that had been made in the past week. Talk of these finds got me to feeling rather ambitious. So, on the way home I decided to see if I could set my self up with a dig site for sometime in the next week or so. Went to a town that wasn't to far out of my way and started to bang on a few doors trying to get permission. Seems that Sunday morning most of the folks in the town I selected were either not home or don't answer the door! But, after a few tries I finally got permission to probe a rather large 3 story Victorian house. I found two pits but was told at the last minute that I would have to come back another day as the owner wanted to talk to her son first. Humpf! Well, the next house was even larger and older. It was a cream city brick with the original brick carriage house. After getting permission to probe I was later told that the person I talked with was not the owner and that they did not know how to contact the owner. Double Humpf!! But at this point fortune smiled on me. A neighbor saw me probing and asked what I was doing. After talking to her for a while I found out she owned another nice cream city brick on the next block and that I could do all the digging I wanted! This sounded too good to be true. It was. I couldn't find the pit. Humpf again. I believe her pit was under the garage and there fore out of reach. But the good news is that she knew the owner of the house I had just left! Not only that but she got out the phone book, looked up their name and phone number, wrote it all down for me, and then proceeded to tell me how to find their house and all sorts of other good things. Well, this was a great reference and when I got to the owners house I felt very confident. But I guess it was just one of those days. I was told by the owners son that the owners were on vacation until the following Wednesday and I would have to come back another time. Well by now I was getting a bit frustrated so I decided to stop back next week and try again.

privy digWhen the following week rolled around I drove back to that same city and as I was walking up to the door of the owners of that big cream city brick house I began thinking, 'ya know, I think this is going to be a good day'. A second or so later a car pulled into the driveway. It was the owner. Talk about luck! I found out after talking to her that she had planned to be gone all weekend again and only stopped back too pick up something she had forgotten and would have only been home for 1 or 2 minutes. After a short discussion with her she not only gave me permission but said she once collected bottles and proceeded to show me some of her finds. They were mostly window bottles that were not of great interest to me but it helped her to understand why I enjoyed the hunt for bottles. She also said that if showed her what came out of the pit I could keep all I found.

I got back to the yard as soon as I finished talking to her and started to probe. I found one pit. One BIG pit. It measured 4 foot by 10 at the surface and after digging down about 4 feet my 5 foot probe was finally able to touch the bottom.It was over 9 feet deep. This was a big pit. Here in Wisconsin it is relatively rare for a pit to exceed 6 feet in depth and more than 5 feet in width. By the time I hit the 4 foot level I had found over a dozen hand made bottles. I was feeling pretty good about this pit! That's when it happened.

privy digI took out a scoop of dirt and I saw water. Humpf again! That's when I realized that I couldn't dig this one by my self. This pit was more than one person could handle. So I did something I had never done before. Closed the pit without finishing. For the next week I called other diggers to see who would be available to help me. I found two volunteers. Steve and Mark, and just after that my luck changed again. It rained every week end for the next six weeks. I just knew there were great bottles in that pit but I couldn't get them out! Hmmmm.

Six weeks later in June the weather finally cooperated. The three of us headed out and arrived at the site about 8:30 on a beautiful Saturday morning. After some additional probing we got out the tools and started to open up the pit. His was not done without some effort however. Seems the bushes and several other plants that were next to the pit had grown substantially in the last 6 weeks. It took us a bit to tie them out of our way. Also, the pit was in a narrow area between the fence and the old carriage house and this made it difficult to lay out the tarps to hold the dirt. After getting down about 3 ½ feet we got the next surprise. There was even more water than the last time I was there. We were not about to give up at this point! Grrrr. So, we dug out a corner of the pit and let the water drain into that corner. Then, with a small bucket we bailed the water into a larger bucket, lifted in out and (Luckily) were able to dump it on the other side of the carriage house without having it drain back into the hole. Then we dug down to the water level again and repeated these steps. By the time we were done we estimated that we had bailed well over 250 gallons of water. That's a lot of water to lift out of a nine foot hole.

privy digThe entire day wasn't all frustration however. The pit turned out to be rather interesting all by itself. It was brick lined with arches. None of us had ever seen arches in an outhouse pit before. The basic outline of the pit was two parallel walls that were about 6 or 7 feet long and about 5 feet apart.

Then, on the ends of the pit, the bricks were laid out in a half circle and dividing the pit into 3 equal sized areas were two arches. These arches were not just a few bricks through the middle. They were arched with cream city bricks and mortar to hold them together then and, smaller wall was built on top of the arch to provide additional strength and support. Also, there was a buttress on the inside under the arches. This was most unusual.

While we were digging several of the neighbors stopped over to check us out. They all agreed that the stuff we were finding was interesting but, 'you know', they asked, 'Your digging up an outhouse, do you guys really enjoy this?' We smiled politely and said, YES!

We found well over 50 intact items in that pit. There was never a single spot that had a lot of bottles but we did find them though out the pit. There were pharmacy bottles, patent medicines, household bottles, many broken plates and window glass, pottery and of course the required (and worthless) wine bottle. There was even the required heart breaker. It was an extremely rare embossed beer made of green glass and it still had the original porcelain stopper. It was, of course, shattered. Not only shattered but totally broken into many pieces and spread though out the pit. The damage to that bottle had been done when it had been tossed in back in the 1880's. Based on the style of the house and the items we found, we believe the pit had been in use from the late 1870's until about 1905. There was a wide range of ages for the items we found.

antique bottles

When it came time to fill in the hole the frustrations continued. As we filled in the hole we discovered we were going to be about 4 FEET short of dirt. That's right 4 feet! We had taken out so much water and the remaining dirt had compacted so much that we needed lots of extra fill. So, we found some old rocks, lawn debris, a log, Mark cleaned out the bed of his truck, we also found some cement blocks, even a bunch of newspapers and junker bottles from other digs we had been on and we were still short! Well you diggers can probably guess what we did next. We took five 5 gallon pails and turned them upside down and placed them over the rocks we had just put in the hole. Then, we put in the remaining dirt. By the time we were done we ended up with exactly enough dirt to fill the hole.

Here is the AFTER shot...

bottle dig

Well it was a lot of work and very frustrating at times but we did have fun and we each got several treasures to take home. Here is a partial list of some of our treasures and the value we think the items may bring if we decide to sell them.

  1. 3 embossed pharmacy's ($5-$10 total)
  2. Applied top soda with picture of badger on it
  3. About a dozen patent medicines
  4. One Hutch ($30)
  5. Lydia Pinkhams "Blood Purifier"($15-$25)
  6. Dr Petzoids Genuine German Bitters ($100-$150)
  7. A rare, light honey amber, beer, with the name of the town misspelled (this one had a chipped lip $100+)
  8. Some Inks and a gravy bowl (the bowl in two pieces that fit together perfectly) and other neat 'Stuff'


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