Outhouse Digging: How to Find Them to Dig Them

Old Outhouse Sites: How to Find Them to Dig Them


FINDING THEM….It is usually easier in town.  On a town lot, usually they were located at the rear of the lot, more often in either corner or in the very middle.  CLUES…A sink or a small mound.  When use was discontinued the fill often settled.  Sometimes it sank enough that more

fill was put in, including trash, and perhaps younger bottles, etc. This sometimes resulted in that area being slightly higher than the surrounding.  However, they could be anywhere in the back yard, and occasionally even on the side of the house.  I’ve even found them right up against the back of the house.  Suffice to say, most people put them out back, for convenience and to shield them from public view.

In many places a spring steel probe is used to locate the former pit. The fill in them has a different consistency that that surrounding. Usually, this is a “break”.  Suddenly the soil is softer.  Often one can feel the trash, including glass as the probe sinks through it.  Small buried dumps sometimes turn up using this method.  There is another locating method that I feel a little silly about when I mention it.

They can be witched.  Bend two pieces of large wire or small rod into a pistol shape(L). Actually his will work using a length of straightened out coat hanger.  Hold them in you hand like a pistol, maybe even placing the short ends in a couple of pieces of plastic tubing to help them swing free.  As you walk forward they will move inward and cross as you walk over metal or soils of different consistency.  One you walk over they will swing back forward.  I know this sounds weird, but so help me, it works for most people.  When I worked for UNOCAL we found buried pipe lines like this.  The theory is that this is a reaction to magnetic differences.  Downside…they react to several different things…where a tree once grew, a little layer of rust from some metal once buried.  Probe these spots.  If you feel something dig a little experimental hole and probe some more.  If you find a privy, you will be able to identify the sides.  Dig it down evenly.  You will probably need at least one helper.  After you get down a few feet, pull the excavated material with a rope and bucket.

HOW TO CHEAT…There was a company that printed maps of towns and cities beginning in about 1885.  They are called the Sanborne maps.  They were made for fire insurance companies.  All structures, including wells and privies are shown.  The maps are to scale and you can use measurement to locate them.  I found these maps in Louisiana in a genealogical library and at a couple of state universities, on micro form.  Usually you can make a copy with the machine you are using.  I have found them for towns as small as 500 population.

Remember persistence is 90% of finding and digging a privy.  I once probed for two days on a city lot where a house had recently been torn down.  It had to be there, because of the age of the house…but I couldn’t find it.  Even if there was, no trash thrown in it the soil should have a different consistency.  Finally, a few Days later, I noticed that the truck used to haul away the debris had caused the Little concrete walk going to the back of the house to sink in only one place.  Yes, that’s where it was, under the sidewalk, where it turned at the back corner.  It Was right up against the house.

I hope this helps.  If you have any success, I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to contact me again if you have further questions.


P.S. Probes can be purchased at many plumbing suppliers.

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