Privy Digging in New Orleans

Privy Excavations New Orleans (14)   Digging Out the Mud

Willie White is a well known salvager in New Orleans.  After doing hand salvage in New Orleans for more than 20 years, driving through the Treme he points out a disturbing number of empty lots where he has hand salvaged homes which were blighted and would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.  In the Post-Katrina environment he took me around the city and taught me how to gauge/evaluate the age of houses by crawling under them and their outbuildings. I learned so much in a year.

I also made the drive out to visit the site of the Bohemia Plantation in Plaqumemines Parish with Willie. The Bohemia and the Bechnel homes were both nearly destroyed after Katrina. He dismantled them both by hand with his crew. These home survived Betsy but the encroachment of the water through the erosion of marshland over the years led to their final demise during Katrina. Willie and his son saved everything from the architectural details, to roof tiles and right down to the old cypress wood beams and flooring so that they can be reused by people who know the value of old cypress. 

In taking down these houses of old construction by hand, one learns so much by how they were built. It was surprising when we would visit various sites in the city because what I suspected was a newer building on a lot was actually the original building on the parcel.  The older buildings withstood the wear-and-tear better, deceiving my novice eyes.

As part of this forensic work, Willie’s side hobby became unearthing the privies on these old lots. By studying the old Sanborn maps of the original lot parcels he can figure out where the old privies existed on the original lots in the 1800’s and he begins the hit-or-miss search for the privies with his partner. If they are having a good day, they find them. They start digging. If they have a hit, they often unearth old bottles from local pharmacies and other items people would once discard into their out-houses such as ceramic jugs and other personal effects, preserved in the wet earth for centuries. It’s the dirtiest job, but most fascinating. New Orleans is one of the richest cities for such an ecclectic hobby! Today I spotted Willie’s competition digging a privy and alerted him to their location, he stopped by the site to see what they were up to. For a moment, I enjoyed being Willie’s privy digger spy girl.

Like historical hand salvage, there are only a few people who do this work and they are quite competitive. If a house is removed Willie is always aware that one of the other local teams might come and get to the privy before he does. They cannot leave a privy half excavated, lest another team come by in the dark of night and get the goods. Willie always makes sure to get permission from the owners and it’s often his own bonus to dig a privy after he’s done a salvage job.

Wares from these archealogical digs are sold at bottle shows throughout the region from time to time but I know Willie keeps his best items. Some are museum worthy items. A visit to Willie’s warehouse is a privileged journey through New Orlean’s intimate past.

Privydigging.com is a site from a guy in Illinois who has set up an online account of his work digging up history.

2 Comments so far

  1. clarkt on August 12th, 2008 @ 6:32 am

    I have to tell you I loved privy digging at my house. We found three privys, and one cistern. I’ve left what I believe is the oldest privy for when my son is older….he’s almost ready for it.

    In one of the privys that we did dig, we found the remains of an old three barrel derringer .22. We figured that had some bad juju so we reburied it, but we also found some great old bottles. I love my "Lydia Pinkhams Vegetable Compound" bottle and my C.C.S. and M.F bottle is a beauty too. One friend of mine collected over 20 intact 1 Liter bottles labled "Cociane". WHOA!


  2. justuptown on August 15th, 2008 @ 10:34 am

    one man’s trash is another’s treasure.
    very cool… wishing i had a privy on my property!

    :)



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