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Digging up the past: The search for Western New York history in old outhouses

Posted at 4:43 AM, Oct 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-07 13:50:38-04

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — A group of local collectors is working to unearth Western New York history in an unusual place. They call themselves "privy diggers."

"Privy is a word that means private. And it's really a polite way to say outhouse," explained Peter Jablonski.

In fact, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, people dumped their garbage in their outhouses. These collectors get permission to search properties for old outhouses, and once they find them, they'll dig a hole about the size of a sidewalk square. About 5-10 feet down, they unearth history.

"You can pick up something someone hasn't touched in 175 years," said Jablonski.

"I really try to picture someone and how they were using whatever item I find," explained collector Sam Genco.

In the privies are old bottles, doll heads, pocket watches, chamber pots and marbles. The collectors say there's no issue digging into them.

"Everything from years ago is decomposed - there's really nothing to be concerned of in there from a health standpoint," explained David Potter.

The collectors have been all over Western New York - digging privies in Buffalo's Old First Ward, Lockport, and Dunkirk. They say they've found some really interesting items in outhouses along the Erie Canal. They're always looking for new places to check, in hopes of finding that next big treasure.

"In your mind you're wondering who used it last, and it's just a miracle it survived," Jablonski said, as he talked about holding an item for the first time.

"It really gives you a connection to the past,' echoed Genco. "There is just an amazing amount of history that does back a couple hundred years in our area. It's important and worth knowing about. I really hate the thought of history being lost."

The group often gives talks about their work, and they're always looking for new places to dig. They're especially interested in areas that may have been hotels or taverns in the past, because the privies were much larger.

If you'd like to connect with them, or have a place they might be able to dig, you can reach them Peter Jablonski at (716) 440-7985