LEWISTOWN - In Highland Park, Jim Morrison holds an old redware jug up to the light. Backlit from a window, the sunlight plays off the jug's surface, shining through where pieces have broken off during the years.
The jug - despite a few holes - is his personal favorite, he said. It's a household item that could date back to the Revolutionary War period. Despite being damaged, it holds a special place in his heart because, as a amateur antique hunter, it's the oldest piece he has found to date.
But Morrison didn't find the jug in an antique shop or gathering dust in an area basement or attic. He literally found the jug underfoot - about 18- to 24-feet underground, to be accurate.
Sentinel photo by BRADLEY KREITZER
Jim Morrison, of Lewistown, holds up a bottle from an old Lewistown brewery that he unearthed from one of his digs.
Sentinel photo by BRADLEY KREITZER
Collector Jim Morrison holds up a broken piece of red clay pottery that he found during one of his digs.
Sentinel photo by BRADLEY KREITZER
ABOVE:?Jim Morrison holds a ‘Jos McFadden Pharmacist’ bottle from his collection to a window in his home in Lewistown.
Sentinel photo by BRADLEY KREITZER
Jim Morrison, of Lewistown, displays some of the items that he found during the years, which include decorative plates, a small bell and clay tobacco pipe ends.
Morrison said he always had an interest in local history. As a youth, he frequently visited dump sites looking for antiques, which can be difficult and sometimes dangerous. About two years ago, Morrison decided to look underground, joining a nationwide group of people who dig into old privies as a hobby.
Together, he and his digging partner, Charles Thompson, have unearthed hundreds of artifacts, ranging from toys to milk bottles, rum flasks and bird feeders - all of them from old privies scattered throughout the Lewistown area.
"That was the dump ... they didn't have local trash pickup," Morrison said. "Anything you didn't want, down the pit."
A national hobby
At first, Kirk Wilson, with the Pennsylvania Museum and Historical Commission, laughed when asked about hobbyist privy diggers. But, after conferring with a staff archeologist, Wilson said the hobby wasn't as uncommon as he initially believed.
"Today there are those who are curious enough to go privy diving," Wilson said. "Especially persons who are bottle collectors or collect old pieces of pottery."
Wilson said in Pennsylvania the hobby is mostly confined to more urban areas, where large communal privies can yield treasures for the persistent digger. Those privies and cisterns were, like those in Lewistown, used as the community dump.
"So that trash you thought you threw away may be dug up in 50 or 60 years," he said with a laugh. "But these (the privies that the hobbyists dig) are obviously ones that were closed up a long time ago."
Unlike other archeological activities in Pennsylvania, there are no rules or regulations surrounding the hobby of privy digging, Wilson said. It's more a matter of trespassing and being a good neighbor.
"All it basically has to do with is the property owner giving their permission," Wilson said.
Morrison said he and Thompson always ask for permission before digging. They also try to return their dig sites to pre-exhumation status or better.
That was the case when the two approached Lewistown Borough regarding the Embassy Fairgrounds off of South Main Street.
The fair grounds
The two knew the site contained old privies.
Maps showed homes at the location until the 1970s, when the homes along Elizabeth Street were destroyed in the flood caused by tropical storm Agnes. Older maps also showed homes at the site, dating back to a time before the borough had trash service - a key indication that the privies may contain items.
Morrison said he and Thompson spent hours researching the site through old maps and articles and were able to identify several possible privy sites.
In a letter to the borough, Morrison stated his intentions and asked for permission to dig.
"I happen to find this 'disappearing street' fascinating," Morrison wrote. "I have spent hours researching the area through old maps and atlases, and have been able to put names and dates to some of the former houses."
Once they received the borough's permission, after several discussions regarding liability and other matters, the two spent several weekends digging at the site, uncovering old privies and other pits.
Although maps may show old outhouse sites, finding them is not always easy.
After they became obsolete, many of the old pits were simple filled in and planted over. If a digger is lucky, a small sinkhole may indicate likely locations. But more often than not, it's painstaking work, involving a "probe" that reveals where a pit might be.
"You have to know how to feel the earth," Morrison said.
What the two men do is take a probe, or a metal rod, and jam it into the earth until they hit loose soil.
Morrison explains, "The ground at a pit location will feel different than that of the regular ground, because it has been disturbed. The probe goes through easier, sometimes striking rocks, bottles and other materials."
It may sound simple and easy, but there is a lot of luck and a "lot of trial and error" involved, Morrison said.
Once the two have located a likely privy site, the digging starts, using hand tools and other non-mechanical means.
At a recent Lewistown Borough Council meeting, Morrison brought several artifacts the two had recovered to share with the council members.
Most of the items they found dated back to the 1890s, not as old as they would have liked but good finds nonetheless, he said.
In their excavations the two found a variety of milk bottles, beer bottles, a few broken crocks and even an old doll's head, minus the hair. Hair, like most other organic products, such as paper and corks, tends to deteriorate quickly in the subterranean environment of the pits.
At its last meeting, the borough waived their claims to the items, and they became a part of Morrison's and Thompson's collections.
For the right reasons
If anyone wants to see some of the items Morrison has found through his digging adventures, they only have to ask.
Morrison's Highland Park home is abound with cases of bottles and other artifacts.
On his porch outside, boxes of whiskey bottles, milk bottles and other antiques sit, awaiting cleaning, researching and for Morrison to find room for them.
Inside, glass display cases hold his more important finds, but they're not necessarily "important" in terms of money or historical significance.
Instead, they're important in that they hold a place in Morrison's heart. Each item contains the start of a story or tale from Morrison regarding the piece, where he found it, notes on the manufacture and historical significance of the item.
Morrison holds up a bottle of "Dr. Woods Hair Restorative" dating from the mid-1800s.
After talking briefly regarding the quality of the manufacture of the bottle, Morrison launches into a short tale of how he found it.
"I specifically remember pulling it out of the ground if you can believe it," he said. Morrison said when he found it, the bottle still had a stopper in it along with "some residual material."
"It was jet black and it stinks," he said with a laugh.
A crock nearby holds bonehandled toothbrushes he has found. Another one holds a collection of marbles.
Morrison said he likes to find uses for the things he finds, as storage and decorations for his house. He also gives some of the items away to friends and family.
"If you're going to dig, do it for the right reasons," he said.
He gets a little worked up talking about the different views among the digging community when it comes to artifact collecting.
"Sadly, a lot of guys who dig don't keep the stuff, because a lot of it is not worth money," he said. "So they throw away much of what they find if it is not a collector's item."
Morrison admits that he does sell some of his finds. He and Thompson take turns claiming items when they're digging, and they sell them to each other if they really want a specific piece. But for the most part, it's all about the thrill of discovery and the chance to look into the history of the Lewistown area.
What it's not about for them is trying to make money, Morrison said.
"That's the wrong reason to do it," he concluded.
Digging into history
So, what can be learned from the bottom of an old privy?
Well, it might be surprising.
In their digs, Morrison and Thompson have found many items, from the common bottles of local milk companies to discoveries of their own.
In his collection, Morrison has a shard of a Bossinger's beer bottle - in itself not exactly unique. But what is interesting is the size of the bottle the piece came from - a quart.
Morrison said at the time of the uncovering of the piece, it was thought the company had only used standard-size beer bottles.
"So that was a new discovery," he said.
Morrison also has collected a large numbers of bottles bearing the marks of local pharmacies, businesses he said he didn't even know existed until he dug them up.
"One of my favorite things to collect are bottles from local Lewistown druggists," he said. "They had their own embossed bottles for advertising."
The bottles lining his shelves bear the names of Joseph McFaddon, from North Main Street; Martin's Pharmacy, in downtown; and, one of his favorite bottles, Charles Ritz, another local druggist who started his pharmacy around 1827.
"That's a great bottle ... it made a 16-foot pit worthwhile," Morrison said.
In his collection, dug from the bottom of old pits, are "a few odd ball things" he and Thompson have found.
A bid feeder, toothbrushes and toys are among things he has collected while digging. For Morrison, the everyday items open a window into a time when life was simpler.
Although, people who lived 100 years ago were not as far removed from ourselves as we may think, Morrison said.
"People back then ... for as much as technology changed, were a lot like us," he said. "They had toys, marbles, bird feeders - just like us."
But his favorite pieces, and those he enjoys displaying, are those that hearken back to the early years of Lewistown.
"I enjoy the old stuff because we dig a lot of pits without getting close to the early stuff," he said.
Still, every excavation is an adventure in its own way, even if it ends in an empty pit, he said.
And while it may not be as exciting as outrunning a boulder in the Temple of Doom, each dig can bring the thrill of discovery for the amateur archaeologist.
"You gotta take it to the bottom ... otherwise you don't know what you're going to find," he said.