Tim Clements is privy to Milford’s history.
He can tell you what the kids played with, what kinds of medicine people used and a bit about the old bottling works in town, and he learned it all from digging up the ground under an old outhouse.
Clements, a Lincoln resident, operates Urban Privy Reclamation as a hobby. He and two of his friends, Jim Ohme and Dave Kupier, both of Omaha, recently completed a privy dig at the future site of Milford’s new municipal building at the corner of First and Walnut streets in Milford.
A privy refers to the hole used as an outdoor toilet before indoor plumbing came about.
After digging down more than 8 feet and cutting through thick tree roots, they found about 75 relics of Milford days gone by.
“It’s cool, especially when you’re pulling out 1880s drug store bottles,” Ohme said.
Clements became interested in privy digging as a hobby about 20 years ago after joining the Nebraska Antique Bottle Club.
He met Ohme and Kupier, and now they try to go on privy digs once a week, wherever they can get permission.
The Milford City Council approved their request to dig in July, but a lack of rain until a few weeks ago made the ground too hard.
Clements uses Sanborn fire maps from the Library of Congress to figure out where outhouses were located more than 100 years ago.
The one they excavated was located behind the Grand Hotel that once occupied that lot. Prior to the hotel, a lumber yard was there in 1885.
“This one (privy) is on the 1910 map, but we’re hoping it’s a lot older,” Ohme said.
Once they have a general idea of the privy location, they push a long probe into the ground to find the exact holes and see how deep they need to dig.
Clements said the dirt changes consistency in the area of the holes, and that’s how he knows when he reaches the right spot.
“You get through the top two or three feet, then it feels like you hit a hollow area,” he said.
Though they do all their digging by hand, they said they don’t worry about what’s in the dirt because it has been buried for more than 100 years and anything bacterial has broken down.
“It’s just seeds and bones,” Kupier said.
Ohme said they never use machinery but stick to shovels and metal detectors.
“You’ll just end up breaking all the bottles if you do that,” he said.
Clements said they’ve done more than 150 digs and have found some cool stuff. His favorite piece is a 1970s whiskey flask.
Ohme said they’ve also found marbles, doll heads, crocks and other items of interest.
“We dug a gun once,” he said.
They’ve even come across a dog skeleton they didn’t know was buried there.
Clements displays his findings at his home and sells any duplicates online.
They gave a few of the bottles they found in Milford to the city to display in the new municipal building, which will be constructed over the top of the old privy sites.
Ohme said they catch flak from professional archaeologists who believe the items should be professionally dug up and preserved.
He said with construction nearing on the municipal building, there isn’t time for a professional dig.
“We’re amateur archaeologists,” he said.