"There's somebody home," Mark Youngblood said as he wiped away the dirt from a glass bottle he'd just unearthed.
"That means there's a name on it," said Brian Mann, who stood near the 6-foot deep hole Youngblood kneeled in.
The bottle Youngblood held hadn't seen the light of day for more than a century, dropped into an outhouse pit used by Brainerd residents long since dead.
"It's like a time capsule," Youngblood said. "You know they have those intentional time capsules that people bury? Well here's one that was never meant to be dug up."
The men are dedicated to an unusual craft in which few partake, but it's a hobby proven invaluable to local historians and antique bottle collectors. While the prospect of digging up an outhouse, or privy, pit might seem-unsavory-to the average person, the sites along with dumps are the source of the majority of antique bottles and ceramics on display today. Unused for decades, the pits are no longer anything but dirt.
Nearly every weekend for eight months of the year, Youngblood and digging companions Mann and Steve Showers find themselves below ground on a treasure hunt all throughout the state and into Wisconsin and Iowa. Saturday was no different as the trio found glass bottles and other items at a steady clip in a hole alongside a garage in northeast Brainerd.
Youngblood's interest in privy digging began as a young boy growing up in White Bear Lake. After a dredging of the lake occurred, he went about poking around the pile of material drawn up from the water. In it, he found numerous old bottles, and a lifelong obsession was born. It started at dumps and construction sites and progressed to privy digging, Youngblood said.
"We kind of all went through that same process," Mann said.
Mann and Showers were digging partners before they began joining Youngblood on his excursions. One of the most memorable the two completed together was a dig at Basset's Creek Park in Minneapolis.
"We actually used a skid loader to dig," Showers said. "We found thousands and thousands of bottles."
Finding bottles isn't uncommon once a privy pit is identified-it's finding embossed bottles with the names of companies and cities that is the true aim of privy diggers. On Saturday, in the backyard of a home on the 100 block of D Street Northeast, the men were on the lookout for those embossed with the city's name.
"Brainerd's got a lot of embossed bottles," Youngblood said.
Joining the diggers were local history enthusiasts Carl Faust and Andy Walsh, who helped identify potential sites for the group to pursue. Homes or lots dating back to 1910 or earlier are the most likely candidates for finding privy sites. From there, Youngblood and the others know exactly what to look for: outhouses were typically located in the corner of a lot in the backyard, and sunken depressions in the grass are a sign of an area that was once filled back in.
The next step is to use specially designed steel probes to determine what might be waiting for the diggers in the soil below. The probes are made from spring steel to prevent bending. A small bead of steel along the probe makes the hole a little larger than the rest of the shaft, removing some of the drag that can make it difficult to pull back out from the ground. They are hollow from handle to tip, allowing the user to not only feel but also hear when the probe hits something.
The shortest of several probes is used first. If the dirt is hard to penetrate 3-4 feet below, this means it's virgin soil-no one has dug a hole in that area and refilled it. If the probe easily slides through the earth, 6-foot and 8-foot probes are used next. Diggers can hear the difference between the materials the probes are hitting. Glass has its own particular sound in comparison to cement or brick. Within as few as 10 minutes, the diggers know whether or not the area could yield what they're looking for.
Before proceeding any further, the diggers must first receive permission from the landowner and then have the area checked to ensure it's safe to dig. In Minnesota, Gopher State One Call is the service that notifies any potentially affected utility companies of one's intention to dig. Those companies send a locator, who places flags to indicate the presence of buried lines.
Youngblood and the others were in Brainerd the previous weekend identifying where they'd like to dig, and the permissions and utility locations were completed during the week. When they arrived in Brainerd Saturday morning, they could start digging immediately.
If manicured grass is present, they carefully remove the top few inches in pieces and set it aside to replace once finished. The crew has a number of different tools they use for digging, including several shovels, a pitchfork and a screwdriver, which is used for some of the finer digging once items are uncovered.
Over the course of a little more than an hour, the diggers found a variety of both intact and broken bottles: those that once contained ammonia, bluing, soap, beer, soda, whiskey, bitters and various medications.
Although ubiquitous and machine-made now, glass bottles were once expensive and labor intensive to produce. Mann said it took two men and a boy to complete the process required to make one bottle. A glass blower would blow glass into a mold held by a second man, who then removed it from the mold and stuck it back into the furnace to shape the mouth. A boy took the hot bottle and placed it within a different furnace, which allowed it to cool slowly over hours.
"If you were going to make 400 of those in a day, you'd have to do that process 400 times," Mann said. "Now, they have machines that crank them out 1,200 a minute."
Most of the bottles the men took turns pulling from the pit Saturday were plain and clear without any writing-the least interesting to Youngblood, Mann and Showers. The diggers were primarily concerned with what they call "pretty" finds-embossed bottles, particularly those with colored glass, to complete their own collections or to bring to the annual Minnesota Antique Bottle, Advertising, and Stoneware Show and Sale.
It was not too long before they found a treasure-a blue glass beer bottle with "Wm. Bredfield Brainerd Minn." embossed upon it. A total of four Brainerd embossed bottles were ultimately pulled from the site, including another (broken) Bredfield bottle, a James Cullen soda bottle and a Johnson's Pharmacy medicine bottle.
The crown jewels of Saturday's digging would not come until the end of the day. At a second site on the 300 block of North Seventh Street, the diggers were almost finished when a small, clear bottle embossed with Cable's Pharmacy in Brainerd emerged.
Faust explained by email what happened next: "Andy (Walsh) nor I had even heard of this pharmacist, but Mark (Youngblood) said there is one other one out there that was found in the Twin Cities but was a gorgeous green color, the only one known. This would be the best find of all. No sooner of its mention, at the last stab with the pitchfork, out fell a green Cables Pharmacy medicine bottle. These two bottles made the whole 6-foot, three-hour dig worthwhile."
Despite an extensive knowledge of the city's history, Faust said he'd never heard of this pharmacist.
"Now we need to find out who this Cable was," Faust wrote. "A quick look through some old directories revealed little, but he was in business at least in 1888. More winter research."
Faust and Walsh were excited by every find-not only the pretty ones. The diggers also found broken doll heads, pieces of china, a completely intact chamber pot, animal bones, mason jars and wringer rollers from a hand-crank washing machine. Even items as small as a beautiful glass marble, a pearl button likely crafted from a shell found in the Mississippi River and pieces of eggshells were unearthed.
For Faust, it is an opportunity to learn more about the former residents of Brainerd that so fascinate him.
"As I study Brainerd, I realize that it grew at hyper warp speed," Faust wrote. "If any town in Minnesota was like the Wild West, it was here. ... I suppose this fast growth is now showing up in the artifacts of merchants that flooded in to accommodate the fast influx of residents."
For the diggers, the monetary value of their finds seems a secondary concern. Showers said he's found bottles worth thousands of dollars-medicine bottles made of black glass from St. Paul. Mann once found a cobalt blue bottle from the Comstock company, a St. Paul soda maker. He said if the rest of the bottles in that pit had been intact, they could have been worth more than $40,000.
What's the most valuable thing Youngblood said he's found?
"The next pit," he said.
--- --- ---
Interested in learning more? Have property that's a good candidate for privy digging?
Mark Youngblood and his fellow privy diggers are always on the hunt for more places to dig. Properties dating back to 1910 or older are the best candidates, and vacant lots are ideal. Many outhouse pits have since been covered by additions to homes or the building of garages.
Planning five days ahead of the diggers by calling 811 and flagging the area is good practice. The diggers typically keep the items needed for their collections, but will share things they find with the owner as well. They recommend discussing this arrangement before the dig begins.
For more information, check out Youngblood's Facebook page, Midwest Privy & Dump Diggers or call him at 651-329-0815.
--- --- ---