Minnesota history buffs find treasure in old outhouses
AFTON, Minn. — An Afton art studio was recently home to a unique type of treasure hunt.
“Before the 1930s, there wasn’t trash removal or trash pickup,” said Kate Sullivan, owner of the Old School Art Studio. “Whatever they couldn’t burn, they threw down the outhouse hole.”
During the dig in June, Lewanski and his “outhouse archaeologists” crew unearthed such artifacts as liquor bottles, glass medicine bottles, ceramic crocks, snuff jars, inkwells, a piece of a blackboard, a school desk leg, chamber pots and even a pig skeleton.
“You never know what’s going to come out of the hole when you’re digging,” Lewanski said. “Some people never threw a thing away while others filled it up with all of their garbage from the day.”
Lewanski first got into outhouse — or privy — digging thanks to a few friends involved with the hobby.
“I’ve always liked history,” he said, “and this literally is digging up the past.”
When Lewanski tells people he digs up outhouses as a hobby, he said he often gets strange looks because people don’t fully understand what that means.
“We only dig in places where the bad stuff has been gone for 100 years,” he said. “The man-made objects are the only things left.”
Lewanski said he loves the uniqueness of outhouse digging.
“Every privy is different because every lifestyle is different,” he said. “It’s interesting to see what was buried in yesteryear.”
The primary reason that Lewanski and other outhouse diggers got started in the activity is that they are bottle collectors.
“A lot of it is one of a kind, and you don’t see it very often,” he said.
Lewanski is a member of the Minnesota Historic Bottle Association.
The process for outhouse digging is that Lewanski and his crew visit historic sites with buildings dating back to the 1800s.
The crew locates the former outhouse sites by looking at old photographs and then they probe the ground looking for where the holes were.
Lewanski and his crew came to Afton after he connected with Pam Reuvers at the Afton Museum in search of historic sites within the city where digs could potentially happen.
“We travel throughout Minnesota looking for old towns,” he said.
The crew found its way to Old School Art Studio because the building is the site of Afton’s first schoolhouse.
Sullivan said she jumped at the opportunity to have the dig in her backyard.
“I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ because I’m redoing the backyard and I’m into history, of course,” she said.
“We educated so many people during this dig,” Sullivan said. “Children do not realize really what an outhouse is — they think it’s a plastic structure that goes to events.
“People were fascinated at what was coming out of there.”
Of the artifacts uncovered, Sullivan and Reuvers said some will be put on display at the Afton Museum and at the Old School Art Studio, while Sullivan will use the remaining remnants to make a mosaic.
After the dig, Sullivan, Reuvers and Lewanski buried a time capsule back in the outhouse site.
Sullivan said the timing could not be more perfect because the city is undergoing a sanitary sewer project, and the outhouses offer a unique perspective on the past.
“It’s a sign of the times,” she said.