It often begins with a lilac bush in the back yard. That’s probably where the old outhouse once stood.
There’s a trio of “urban archeologists” spending a lot of time in Morenci. They consult an 1857 map, they knock on doors, they ask permission to dig a hole in the back yard.
Most property owners become intrigued by the prospect of historical artifacts and they give permission to dig. Besides, the privy hunters take pride in leaving no trace of their visit. Sod is carefully removed, excavated soil is placed on plastic sheets. Once the prospecting ends, everything is put back in order.
In Morenci, the men had the old map to serve as a guide. In some communities, they operate strictly by architecture, looking for an old stone foundation, for example, that indicates a structure built in the 1800s.
But digging into what was once below an outhouse? This is their hobby?
It’s not what you might think. It’s all rich soil now, and it hold lots of treasures.
At one time the family outhouse was used as a dump, explained Dan Argentati of South Lyon—a 14-year veteran of privy prospecting.
“They’re like time capsules,” Argentati said. “What’s in the pit was once in the house a hundred years ago. You can tell a lot about the people who owned the home by what they threw into the pit.”
“It’s often straight out the back door,” Argentati said.
And it’s often near a lilac bush, added Todd Osborne of Onsted.
That was for odor control, explained Ernie Spaulding of Lyons, Ohio. A layer of ashes was also thrown into the pit occasionally for the same reason.
“I was out metal detecting in a park and Dan was probing,” Osborne said.
That was about four years ago. The two struck up a conversation and Osborne was invited over to take a look at Argentati’s extensive bottle collection.
That did it. Argentati had a new digging partner. Osborne told his friend, Spaulding, and then there were three diggers to while away weekends in back of strangers’ houses.
On Sept. 12, the trio knocked on the door of a brick house on LaGrange Street in Morenci and were soon probing around the back yard. No luck. They moved west one house to the Cottrell property and soon found what they were looking for.
“We’re going to cut a four-foot by four-foot hole and in about 30 minutes we’ll know how old it is,” Argentati said.
It didn’t take long to find a shard of pottery, but soon some rubber was encountered.
That’s not a good sign, Osborne said, but Argentati noted that rubber was used around the turn of the century.
“It’s probably a newer pit,” he said.
Every 20 years or so a new outhouse pit was dug, Spaulding said.
Out came a pocket watch, more pottery and a spoon.
Osborne talked about a house in Tecumseh that resulted in a two-day dig, with more than 200 bottles found. Once they hit the jackpot, it was easy going.
“You didn’t even need a shovel,” Argentati said. “We were just pulling out bottles one after another.”
The men have so many bottles that most of what they find isn’t new to them. But when they find something unique, they ask the property owner if they can take it—after all, they spent the time in the hole digging. Most of what they find is left with the home owner.
Several bottles were found on LaGrange Street, plus a horsehead brooch, another spoon, a Bakelite button and more pottery shards.
“This is mostly from the late teens,” Argentati said. “We like them older.”
Pre-1890 bottles were all hand-made, he said
There’s probably an older pit, Osborne said, and it’s likely located underneath a metal building that was added on to the garage. That would place the outhouse in front of the lilac bush, the usual location.
No false teeth, eyeglasses or lanterns—objects that were probably accidentally lost while visiting the outhouse.
A week later Osborne and Spaulding were working a property on Locust Street and it was more to their liking. They were taking shifts in the hole and were sorry that Argentati couldn’t make it that day. This hole is getting deeper and wider.
“It looks like a bucket hole,” Osborne said, meaning that it’s going to be deep enough that a bucket will be filled and hauled up by rope.
“It looks like it’s under you,” Spaulding said to Osborne, sitting on the overturned bucket.
“It’s always where we place the dirt,” Osborne said, figuring they’ll soon have to shift the pile out of the way. “You never put the dirt far enough away.”
This is the eleventh dig in Morenci and they still haven’t found a bottle with the word “Morenci” on it. However, they’ve uncovered more than one bottle of Brant’s Pulmonary Balsam from Albion, Mich.
The hole is a good five feet deep when they encounter another cap—a layer of dirt or clay to cover over an older section.
The pit has turned up at least two dozen bottles so far, including Dr. Jayne’s Tonic Vermifuge, and other items such as the skull of a hummingbird.
“That would have been a pretty gin bottle,” Osborne said as he lifted up some brown glass.
Two pits at the Cowgill residence on the south side of Morenci produced 78 bottles and the hunters were not about to give up on this one, although they knew a lot of dirt would be bucketed up.
Unlike most hobbies, this weekend pastime requires a lot of heavy laboring.
“Why couldn’t we just collect stamps?” Spaulding wonders as he takes another turn in the hole.
• Anyone who thinks their property might produce a good find is welcome to call the hunters. Todd Osborne can be reached at 517/467-9101. Ernie Spaulding’s number is 419/902-6591.