BEATRICE, Neb. (AP) – The adage says, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Tim Clements and Jim Ohme take this saying to the extreme.
The pair travels eastern Nebraska searching for “hidden treasure” by digging up the sites of old privies, more commonly known as outhouses.
“We’re after the artifacts, of course!” Clements said from the six-foot hole he dug behind Hartig Real Estate in Beatrice. “Every once in a while, we get lucky and find some really good stuff.”
“It’s a numbers game,” Ohme added. “Sometimes, you have to dig 20 before you find that one good one.”
Clements, who has been digging around old outhouses since 1998, admitted his pastime seems unusual to most people, but explained it’s actually a logical place to find interesting antiques.
Outhouses were occasionally used as trash bins, as there was no garbage service while they were in use. Also, if someone dropped a personal belonging in the outhouse while taking care of his or her business, it’s likely they wouldn’t try and fish it out.
For obvious reasons.
Connie Hartig, co-owner of the property, acknowledged the logic behind this from her own childhood memories.
“I’d had an outhouse until I was 12 years old, so I remember using them and relatives using them on the farm,” Hartig said. “I remember as a kid, my dad lost his watch in an outhouse. He sure never went in after it.”
As outhouses fell out of flavor when indoor plumbing became the norm, most were capped or filled in without a second thought being given to their contents.
To answer the obvious question, Clements said human waste in the sites decomposes after about 40 years, leaving in its place clean, nitrogen-rich soil.
Clements works at Pan-O-Gold Baking Co. in Lincoln, while Ohme owns Expert Vending in Omaha. Hunting for the old antiques is just a hobby for the two, who’ve found some interesting pieces over the years.
Common finds include glass bottles from liquor or medicine. Bottles with embossed labels in the glass are particularly interesting and easier to connect with an era and location.
On the excavation at Hartig Real estate, the pair uncovered a series of medical bottles, along with a unique wine bottle – estimated from the 1890s – that still had the paper label intact indicating it was bottled in Beatrice.
Clements and Ohme plan to continue hunting around Beatrice in coming weeks. Smaller communities often have the best finds thanks to generally older properties, Clements explained.
Property owners tend to raise an eyebrow when approached about digging up their property, but the entire process of digging and refilling the six-foot holes lasts only a few hours and leaves little evidence of digging behind.
Finding the locations of the old outhouses is aided by Sanborn Fire Insurance maps from the early 1900s. From there, a probe is used to pinpoint the exact location.
“We use a probe to locate the exact spot of the outhouse,” Clements explained. “We go back and forth poking the ground and we can tell when we hit the outhouse that’s been filled in. The first foot or two feels like the surrounding area, but then it feels like you hit a kind of hollow area.”
To date, Clements said his best find was an 1870s-era whiskey flask.
Someday, they hope to come across an Omaha American Life Bitters bottle. Amber in color with “Omaha” embossed in the glass of the log-cabin shaped bottle, Clements said the collectible can be worth as much as $20,000.
Until they find the prized bottle and even after, the pair intends to keep digging, always looking for that buried, neglected treasure hiding in people’s backyards.
Information from: Beatrice Sun, http://www.beatricedailysun.com
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