Kane County History: Batavians Find Treasure in 150-Year-Old Privy

Kane County History: Batavians Find Treasure in 150-Year-Old Privy

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a weekly series on Kane County’s amazing history. This article was contributed by Greg Domel, Batavia Historical Society/ Depot Museum Historian. 

Mike Renaud

Own a home in the Fox Valley built before 1900? It is almost certain there is a time capsule hiding in the back yard in an unexpected location, the privy or outhouse.

A person’s level of wealth, and the neighborhood, determined the size and materials of the privy. They came in different shapes, sizes and depths, ranging from 2 feet to 12 feet deep.

What kinds of items were thrown in the privy? A partial list of treasures found in Fox Valley privies are swords, guns, smoking pipes, eyeglasses, children’s toys, ink wells, cups, flatware and many bottles.

The bottles found can be as ordinary as a plain medicine bottle or as rare as an 1860 Union hospital-issued medicine bottle. The medicine bottle once used by a civil war surgeon was found in a Batavia privy. It is one of four known to still exist, a museum-quality find.

A bottle found in Greg Domel’s backyard privy dig.

The materials used to build the walls of the privy varied on what the family could afford. Wealthier residents used limestone, which would last longer and were much easier to clean out.

The average resident would use wood for the walls of the privy. The wood deteriorated over years and was much more difficult to clean.

Less affluent people very seldom cleaned out the privy. One option was to put lime inside the hole and then drop a layer of clay in an attempt to keep the odor sealed in. Another option was to dig a new privy and move the privy house over it.

The reason that the privy holds treasures is that families often would throw away items that were no longer needed, wanted or were broken and could not be burned.

How is this treasure chest found? That is where Aurora’s Mike Renaud comes in.

Renaud is a privy digger and expert at identifying the age and use of artifacts that are unearthed.

“After digging over 75 privies, including the Tanner House in Aurora, the process is pretty straight forward,” Renaud said. “I review area maps from 1883 and 1907. I look for outbuildings and the location of property lines. I use these landmarks to decide the most probable location of the privy,”

Renaud starts the search by inserting a 4-foot probe into selected areas of the yard.

“If you pull the probe out of the ground and it has ash on the tip you are most likely in the privy,” Renaud said. “If it missed the privy, the tip will have a red or brown clay substance on it.”

Once Renaud locates and outlines the privy, the grass is carefully removed and the digging starts.

Some artifacts are a foot or two down while others wait near the bottom. Renaud can determine the time frame of the artifacts by the level at which they are found.

“People think that mansions provide the most valuable artifacts, but their privies were usually cleaned out, so the earliest treasures are gone,” Renaud said. “I am more hopeful when I dig down and start seeing clay layers. That’s when I know the privy has not been cleaned out, and the items near the bottom will date back to the year the house was built.”

Excavating the privy in a historic home can reveal family history.

“If your family has owned the home since it was built and you have very few heirlooms from your original relatives, the privy is a great place to find new ones,” Renaud said. “You can see how they lived and hold items they most certainly held and used. We have found items that were used by the homeowner’s great-great grandparents. We handed them over being the only hand that touched the item since their relative dropped it into the privy.”

For more information about finding and digging for a backyard privy contact Greg Domel at Bataviahistorian@gmail.com.

Feature Photo Caption

Greg Domel standing in his backyard privy where the glass bottle was found. (ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE BATAVIA DEPOT MUSEUM.)

About the Depot Museum

The Batavia Depot Museum is now open!

Updated hours are 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The Batavia Depot Museum opened in 1975 as a joint effort between the Batavia Park District and the Batavia Historical Society. The Chicago Burlington and Quincy Railroad Depot was the first of its kind built in 1854 and is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places.

Inside, the city’s past comes alive through exhibits detailing the history of rail transportation, manufacture of windmills, agriculture, banking, commerce and a brief stay by Mary Todd Lincoln at Bellevue Place. Suggested donation: $5. Your donation will benefit the development of museum exhibits and educational programs.

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