- Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. Today’s article was written by Mary Clark Ormond, president of the Aurora Historical Society. All images are courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.
Sometimes the best history stories come from humble holes in the ground.
Many residents of an old city like Aurora have on their properties, sometimes unknowingly, humble holes which are veritable treasuries of local history and the consumer goods of earlier Aurorans. Those holes are privies, or outhouses, which before organized trash disposal were where you tossed the worn-out, the broken and the unusable stuff in your life that could not simply be burned.
Today, in old neighborhoods in Aurora, long-gone privies have been built over, paved over, or just forgotten under lawns and flower beds. They were perhaps the most unregarded aspects of a home, so no one memorialized them. When they filled up, they were simply filled in and covered over as the household turned with enthusiasm to the newest thing in personal comfort.
This was true everywhere in the country, and the Aurora Historical Society knew that the home of William and Anna Tanner, at the corner of Oak Avenue and Cedar Street on the near west side of the city, was no exception.
A filled-in privy had to be out there somewhere on the Tanner property, although no one knew quite where. Changes — by the Tanners as well as the historical society — had happened many times since the house was built in 1857, and with each change the past retreated another step back from our grasp.
Over the years, the Tanner barn was torn down and a carriage museum was built nearby, later converted to the Research Archives. The wagon driveway to the barn disappeared under landscaping, and the north porch was removed except for its footings. It seemed there were a lot of things we were just never going to know about.
Enter Mike Renaud, a local man who from a young age had developed an interest in buried history, and some unique skills which enabled him to find it.
When Mike approached the historical society about volunteering to locate the privy and to excavate whatever history it might be hiding, the AHS was intrigued. Mike already had a reputation in the area for locating old privies and for his ethical conduct of the process. And he had a sturdy group of volunteers whose weekend hobby it was to dig for the fun and history of it.
Once it was decided to go ahead with a privy dig, the obvious question was, “But where?”
Mike was confident he could find any hidden mystery on the large Tanner property, and he spent many weeks probing the entire property with a long steel rod. Over and over he inserted the rod into the ground, his muscles attuned to that subtle shift in resistance that indicated disturbed soil and his eyes attuned to changes in the color of the soil clinging to the rod.
He also studied the ground in the low light of dawn, looking for vague depressions that would indicate the long-ago settling of loose soil. And, of course, he used his common sense in determining where a homeowner might have placed a privy where it would be the most useful to the occupants of the house.
By June 14, 2014, the day of the dig, Mike had identified not one, but two, privies. One was near the dining room door on the north side of the house, adjacent to the disappeared porch. The other was farther out to the north and west, near the door to the 1950s-era Research Archives. He even knew the exact outlines of the holes, because he could feel the stone lining common to privies of the day.
Their shovels biting into the dirt for the first time in a century and a half, the excavation crew went to work at 8 a.m. on the closer-in location. Unfortunately, a concrete slab to support our historic bells had been installed over part of the opening, so they were not able to dig straight down. They had to breech the wall from the side and empty the hole sideways.
Dirt was hauled up by the bucket full and dumped into a large screening pan, where objects could be detected and retrieved, and excess dirt allowed to fall into collection buckets lined up underneath.
For the diggers, the rate of discovery and the nature of the items was disappointing. By lunchtime they were getting discouraged. Could someone have been there ahead of them?
The historians, on the other hand, were feeling fine. You could see that at some point a drain tile had been let into the pit from the house side. It seemed obvious that the privy had been reused as a septic pit — something that would have been necessary once Aurora got a water works and residents in the neighborhoods began to install indoor bathrooms, generally around the late 1880s.
The practical Tanners had probably had the privy cleaned out by one of the many privy services in town and put back in service as a septic tank, although they didn’t need it for long. Within a few years, the city had created a municipal sewerage system.
The items found — part of a leather shoe, some decorative plaster work with original paint adhering, some miscellaneous bits of metal and a broken cordial glass, had somehow just not been cleaned out the first time around.
All the same, one object pulled from the presumed 1857 privy-turned-septic-tank, the cordial glass, was proclaimed the prize of the day.
Just weeks earlier, the Historical Society had received a set of glassware from Virginian Robert MacDonald, the great-great grandson of William and Anna Tanner, who was helping his mother distribute family heirlooms and had become a generous donor to the museum. Only Executive Director John Jaros had actually seen the glassware so far.
Wordless at the appearance of this mud-caked cordial glass with a missing stem, he disappeared into the archives, to reappear with an identical glass in the pattern called Cable, so named for the successful laying of the Transatlantic Telegraph Cable in 1866, a technological advancement which was universally celebrated as a “this changes everything” moment.
The glass in John’s hand was whole and sparkling and definitely attributable to the Tanner family. It was a perfect curatorial moment.
The day wore on. People got simultaneously sunburned and muddy, and muscles began to ache. Visitors and curious neighbors drifted in and out. A staff member checked her phone battery.
Jackpot! The Second Privy
The second privy, near the door to the archives and close to the original location of the Tanner barn, was dug next. Obviously never cleaned before, it turned out to be what everyone was hoping for.
Probably dug after the pit nearer the house had filled up and been covered over, it was dubbed the “1870s pit.”
Hundreds of items came out of the ground, so fast that a few trusted observers had to be pressed into service to help lay them out on long tables. Broken china, including a beautiful c. 1880 brown-patterned bowl that made a pair with one already in the archives collection, came to light.
There were also paint cans, a light fixture in many pieces, perfume bottles, tiny figurines and, astonishingly, an ambrotype of a young couple, probably created in the 1850s or even earlier.
The diggers were astounded and told us this was a “once-in-a-lifetime find.” After all, an ambrotype photo is glass and this was wrested from the ground after a very long sleep in the dark.
The human story of how an apparent wedding photo wound up, whole, deep in a privy, sounds very much like the opening scene of a movie, with the secret to be explained over the next 90 minutes. Alas for Aurora history buffs, no one has been able to identify the pair, and this secret will most likely remain untold forever.
Finally, about 8 p.m., as the summer sun softened and dulled behind the neighborhood trees, the men set aside pieces of the flagstone walls to be used in some way on the property in the future, and backfilled the holes.
There had been 12 hours of digging, and it would take weeks of work by curators and volunteers throughout the summer to clean, photograph and catalog the pieces, but the Historical Society now had new connections to the Tanner family. Connections to Victorian material goods when they were new, whole and wanted. Connections to the past hidden right there in the back yard.
It was a validation of the Aurora Historical Society’s motto: Giving the Past a Future.
A few items from the 2014 privy dig are on display in the Family Sitting Room of the Tanner House, which will reopen for the 2019 season on June 2, with tours at 1, 2 and 3pm. Free, but donations appreciated. The house is at 304 Oak Avenue, Aurora, IL 60506. www.aurorahistory.net
- FEATURE PHOTO CAPTION: John Vlahovich, Steve Griswold (in hole), Paul Renaud, Chris Jordan, Tom Majewski and John Jaros during the digging of the 1870s privy. All photos courtesy of the Aurora Historical Society.
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