Outhouse archaeologists finally have time to talk

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX — On previous visits to Colfax, outhouse archaeologists Mark Youngblood and Brian Mann were too busy digging to have time to talk.

During a presentation for the Colfax Public Library April 8, the privy excavators had time to talk about what they do and what motivates them.

“We’ve had a lot of fun, but a lot of people can’t understand why we do it,” Mann said. “We travel all over. We meet interesting people. It’s good exercise. And it’s not an expensive hobby. It maybe costs $20 a weekend.”

[emember_protected] Their business cards say Bottle Diggers, and what Youngblood and Mann do is excavate old outhouse sites looking for bottles.

The oldest bottle Youngblood put on display for the presentation is a soda pop bottle from 1865.

It is interesting to note at the time the 1865 soda pop bottle was in use, the Civil War was being fought and Colfax was only a collection of a few settlers in the wilderness.

Youngblood and Mann have both been in the outhouse archeology business for decades.

But here’s the thing.

“You can have 25, 40 years experience digging holes, and you dig another one and come up with something you say, ‘I’ve never seen one of these before.’ That’s what makes it so interesting,” Mann said.

“You can go through our club, and no one has seen it. It’s a very unique hobby,” he said.

Mann said his wife asks him how he does it — how he gets up at 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning after working all week and then spends the weekend digging privy sites.

“It’s fun. That’s all I can say,” Mann said.

Mann said he has always collected various items and picked up bottles, and when he was a kid, his mother would use the old bottles as window decoration.

Youngblood, who grew up in International Falls, Minnesota, and Mann belong to the same club and teamed up digging about 15 years ago.

“You should always dig in a team. When you’re down in a hole eight, ten, twelve, fourteen feet, it’s handy to have someone up top,” Mann said.

Ole Noer

Youngblood and Mann came to Colfax because of Colfax resident Troy Knutson, who is keenly interested in Colfax history and who found Youngblood on Facebook.

Troy wanted an Ole Noer bottle, and Youngblood and Mann were fortunate to have found two last year at a house on University Street after excavating a number of other old outhouse sites in Colfax.

Every town will have maybe one bottle, but sometimes more, depending upon the size of the town, that is unique to a business located in the town.

Colfax has one unique bottle — an Ole Noer drugstore bottle, Youngblood said.

A century ago, businesses that needed bottles would order them in bulk with the name of the business and the location manufactured as part of the bottle. The bottles would then be filled with whatever the business sold: tonics and medicines, soda pop, liquor, salad dressing.

And Knutson, who has been collecting Colfax memorabilia for more than 20 years, very much wanted to find an Ole Noer bottle.

The lure of the hunt for an Ole Noer was enough for Youngblood and Mann.

Colfax is unique because of the 1958 tornado, Youngblood noted.

In other towns, old houses will always have a privy spot in the yard, but in Colfax, because so many of the houses were destroyed in the June 1958 tornado, outhouse locations can be anywhere, even in the yards of fairly new houses, he said.

How?

One of the most common questions Youngblood and Mann are asked is “how do you find the pits?”

The answer is — with a probe.

Mann said he carries several probes in the trunk of his car — a four-foot probe, a six-foot and an eight-footer which has earned the name of “Billy.”

“When you drag Billy out of the trunk, you know you’re going to work,” Mann said.

The first step is to look for a depression in the ground, a tell-tale sign of a hole that once existed.

The next step is to use the probe to push through the soil. The probe will feel different in a spot where there was a pit. But it is then the outhouse archaeologists also must be careful. If they push the probe into the ground too much and in the wrong places, they risk breaking the bottles in the bottom of the pit.

Because the bottles were heavier, they sank to the bottom in what is known as the “seed layer.”

In recent years, other items in the seed layer have become hot commodities as well — namely, seeds.

People now want to plant those heirloom seeds, Youngblood said.

At a dig in Faribault, Minnesota, some seeds were scattered by mistake, and the next spring there were all kinds of strawberries and tomatoes growing in the yard, he said.

Sick bottles

The bottles that come out of the pits are sometimes cloudy or milky-looking and scaled with lime, depending upon the soil and the conditions where the outhouse was located.

The cloudy bottles are called “sick” and the cloudier they are, the “sicker” they are, Youngblood said.

To clean the more rare and valuable bottles, Youngblood will send them out to a person who uses a tumbler. The cost can be as much as $25 or $35 for each bottle.

“There is always an argument about whether to restore or not to restore. They look better if they’re cleaned but some museums say the bottles are ruined if you clean them,” Mann said.

Hydrochloric acid, used to clean cement, will remove rust and much of the lime, he said.

Mann uses a coat hanger and cleaning pads to reach inside and says he can get a bottle “pretty clean.”

If the bottle is “really sick to start with, you’re not going to get it clean,” Mann said.

“Every time you clean them, you run the chance of them breaking. I probably wash a couple hundred bottles a  year. Out of those couple hundred, one or two of them will break. I don’t use hot water. I use room temperature water. I wash four or five bottles at a time, and I put them in a dish rack to dry. I will be nowhere near them, and I’ll hear BOOM! I’ll go in there, and a sidewall or something blew out of the bottle,” Mann said.

Although he has tried to research the phenomenon, he has not found very much information and has concluded “it’s just the stress that builds up in old glass. I’ve tried putting towels over them so they dry slower. Nothing seems to stop it. There’s always one or two,” Mann said.

The tools for outhouse archeological digs are not very complicated. In addition to the probes, Mann says he carries in his trunk three regular shovels, two short-handled shovels, a potato fork, a rake, screwdrivers, trowels, a root cutter, a square nosed spade for cutting sod, and tarps to hold the sod and the dirt dug out of the pits so they can put it all back neatly when they are finished.

You really never do know what you’re going to find on a dig, Youngblood and Mann say: bones, dishes, shoes, China doll heads, opium vials, light bulbs, and on a good day, a bottle they have never seen before.

And that, of course, is what keeps them going. [/emember_protected]