Southern Privies

Bottle Digging“We need some fresh meat in this hole!” John hollered. No, it wasn’t the shouted orders on a porno movie set. The fresh meat was going to be me and the hole was a privy we were digging in downtown Savannah. We were hoping to find some antique bottles, specifically, those of the mid-19th century. Obtaining permission to dig, we had pored over the 1852 fire insurance map that showed the original layout of the lot, and where the privy should be. It was, usually, in the right hand corner of the lot. City code, even in the 19th century, required that privies have brick sides and bottom. By pushing spring steel probes of various lengths into the ground at four different angles, these long-buried structures could be found. The probes had not revealed much on this lot, but, we pressed forward. So far all we had uncovered was a sizable pile of brickbats. A brickbat is a piece of a brick, existing as nothing until it is thrown like a “missile”, and then it becomes a brickbat.

I had just broken a good sweat when the little pinch-faced skinflint pulled up in his Jag. Being 1985, he was dripping in gold chains and bracelets, a polo shirt the color of lime sherbert, beige linen slacks, and Gucci loafers so thin that they looked painted onto his sockless feet. He stomped over, obviously not happy.

“You’ve got a lot of gall, buddy!” he barked. John, his brother Mark, Larry and Bill gaped in various stages of concern. “Now, hold up, swole-up…!” Larry began, John shushing him.

“I got permission from Mr. John Sapling (not his name) to dig this lot,” I explained. He seemed to calm a bit, and said, “Oh, this is my lot, his is over there,” he said, pointing to the overgrown junk strewn lot next door. I apologized, immediately, and stepped out of the knee deep hole.

“Do you mind if we dig it, anyway?” John asked. “We’ll leave it just the way it was.” That was true, we never left a hole uncovered.

“No,” he answered, then, trying to be expansive he said, “I like to do this sort of thing myself, sometimes.” We didn’t think so, but, we didn’t say it. We had learned some manners dealing with these downtown landowners of the monied class. We moved everything to the adjacent lot, and began filling the hole on his. He watched us fill it and asked a few banal questions we mostly ignored, and he left. John and Mark sank probes in the ground, found solid structure, and the digging began anew.

“All those brickbats over there,” John mused, indicating the other lot. “Most likely been dug before. We’re in the right place, now.” We dug all day, evacuating the whole privy. Finding some broken Lea & Perrin bottles, we weren’t dismayed, they existed as early as 1832, but, our hearts sank when we found the Schlitz beer can at the bottom of the privy.

“Well, that’s exactly what you don’t want to find!” John spat. “Time to fill this hole!” We did, but, not before throwing in our own numerous dead soldiers.

I first got exposed to bottle-digging when a gas station on Bay Street was changing out their underground storage tank, and found a privy clean-out ladened with pristine bottles, and, a separate hole containing a full bottle of wine, believed to be Spanish in origin, and, possibly, pirate booty. Interested in history, particularly that of pirates, and being that it was only three blocks from where I worked, I walked there on lunch break. John was there as well as another group of guys, a bottle-digging club I’ll refer to as the Big Boys. John smiled and introduced me, then, handed me a beautiful cobalt blue bottle, saying “This is what it’s all about.” It was embossed with the letters John Ryan Porter and Ale, 1866, Savannah Geo. “Wow, that looks old! ” I exclaimed. “Looks like something Robert Crumb would draw,” I added, drawing blank stares all around. It was squat, and had a pronounced top called a blob. There were some other bottles on hand, but the John Ryan garnered the most excitement. Gene, the de facto leader of the group ran it down for me.

“John Ryan bottles were made in Philadelphia, and shipped by boat to Savannah for filling. They were filled with beer, ale, mineral water, soda water, and ginger ale. There was a twenty cent deposit on them at the height of the Civil War. “

“Twenty cents?” I wondered.

“Yep. Wadn’t any bottles coming in. They had that blockade, remember?”

“Does that make them worth more than the other bottles?” I asked.

“No, what makes them worth more is, there wadn’t that many of them made. That’s the key. Age doesn’t even matter. Take this black glass wine bottle,” he said handing me a bottle that looked pretty old, if rather non-descript. It even had the pontil scar, on the indented bottom, where it was blown into existence. “Late eighteenth century but hundreds of thousands of them made, even by the handblown method. I guess you could call them generic.” Certainly they were compared with the others embossed with the names Thomas Maher, George Eberwien, James Ray and Henry Kuck in colors clear, ice blue, amber, brown, bottle green, teal green, aqua, and a reddish color called puce. Nevertheless, cobalt blue was the desired color and John Ryan, the name.

Gene and his group had been digging since the early sixties and had learned quite a few things over the years. They had collected all the necessary tools of the trade, all manner of shovels, wrecking bars, sledgehammers, picks, sifting screens, ladders, buckets, sometimes employing a backhoe if they could afford it, or, if it was practical. They knew to look carefully for the changes in the layers of dirt and trash, when to go slow and careful, when to press on, when to take a chance, when to bail. Sifting the trash layers with a hardware cloth screened box you’d fine buttons, the occasional coin that may or may not accurately date the hole, and marbles (so many that I wondered if it was once a trend for kids to swallow marbles just to see if they’d traverse the complete digestive tract ) . There were the sometimes creepy porcelain doll parts, pale and ghostly arms, hands, feet, and legs, the head with its dead doll eyes.

What the Big Boys could count on one hand were the intact pieces of china they’d found over the years. They would, quite often, find multiple entire sets completely broken. The intact pieces had been found in what’s called a “clean out. ” That was when the men known as “honeydippers” would go down in the privy to clean it out. They would remove some bricks in the privy wall, and dig out an opening, hauling the clean dirt up into the courtyard. Then, they would put the crap and trash into the hole, and seal the bricks back up. It was illegal, but, as nobody wanted to be close to the honeydippers, they were never bothered about it. The bottles in the clean out tended to be in better shape. However, digging a clean out was when digging got dangerous. Anytime you went horizontal from your verticle, unless you had the time and resources, and went further than a shovel handle length, you ran the risk of a cave-in. Nobody had been lost thus far, and, everybody kept reminding themselves that it would be a stupid way to die.

The Big Boys were set to dig a lot directly across the street from where I had worked for seven years. It was in an industrial area right outside of the ports authority. In the mid-to-late 19th century it had been the red light district, bars and brothels for the merchant seamen. It was only a block off the Savannah River, on the site of a former sheet metal shop. I begged to be included, and I was, along with John’s younger brother Mark. Several sites had shown promise from the probes. Mark and I were put on a spot right up next to the office building for the shop. From the git-go it was tough going, every shovel load hitting brickbats. We were removing more bricks than earth. It was hot, and four hours later, sweating like crackheads writing love letters, we uncovered what the probes had hit. It was a well, and we were told to start covering it back up, it wouldn’t yield anything of interest, and was dangerous to pursue. The only thing we found was what appeared to be a very old whiskey glass. Nobody was interested.

We broke for lunch and ate spicy fried chicken and drank sweet tea under the shade of a white bay tree. A primer colored pickup drove past, slowly, two guys rubbernecking, then, sped away. One of the Big Boys, Stanley said, “That’s the ninth or tenth time they’ve cruised by. Outlaws!” Outlaws were the lowest order of bottle-diggers. They dug without permission, left gaping holes and much damage. In one case they broke into a renovated Victorian home, sawed a hole in the bedroom floor, filled the room with dirt and bricks, and left it that way. They, often, crept onto the grounds of a golf course that sat over what used to be Savannah’s city dump, and left holes like oversized gophers. I imagined the Bill Murray character in “Caddyshack” having conniptions. We resumed digging, and it went easier, but, revealed nothing. The backhoe was brought in but wouldn’t be used that day. They used it the next day, and found plenty of bottles. Mark and I were expected to spend some time with our spouses on the weekend, so, we weren’t present. I felt like Willie Nelson was reputed to have said, “When my ship comes in, I’ll be at the airport.”

Months later we were invited on another dig. It was cooler weather, and this time the dig was in an area called Frog Town. It was a large, communal privy, probably serving a bar, at one point, but, had gradually dwindled to just a couple of families. Again, Mark and I dug at a spot where the probe had struck. We went at it, furiously, for two hours, and found it to be another well. This time they suggested we dig it out as it seemed full of dirt. We dug down finding badly rusted farm implements. Then, a six foot length of yellow plastic rope, which was the signal to start filling it back up.

The privy was twenty by forty feet, and had been dug out fairly uniformly to a depth of four feet. It was getting dark ( this would be an all-nite dig ) and lights run off a muffled generator had been placed in the hole. There was a sudden shout, and something knocked me off my feet. There was a bright flash and the breaking of glass. Suddenly, I was buried to my waist in dirt. Mark and I had to be pulled out. The cave-in buried both lights, damaging one beyond repair. Tired, sore and demoralized I refected that this wasn’t all fun, games and beer-drinking . If we’d been kneeling, this could’ve gone badly.

One corner of the privy had been productive in dozens of brown flasks, and a sprinkling of others, clear glass, round in shape called “pumpkinseed” flasks. Most were broken at the neck. By now, Gene knew I was a sucker for a good story, and was at a point of the evening where I needed one. He laid it out for me. “Now this old boy was a closet drinker. He’d slip out here and take him a nip when he’d do his bidness. I bet he broke these flasks on a nail he had for just that purpose. Back then, most of these privies had water in them caused of the water table and the tides. He’d break them so they’d sink so the old lady wouldn’t see them. The brown flasks were his regular brand. The pumpkinseed were Christmas and birthday gifts from friends who knew he drank.”

Brickbats and Beer Cans, Part 2



Tim Oliver

Tim Oliver

Tim Oliver is a writer living, and, working in Atlanta Ga. He believes your country is to die for, food is to eat. He treads the earth, in chrome tennis shoes, fervently searching for transcendent banana pudding. The skin on top is optional.