Privy to history: Amateur archaeologists awarded Preservationist of the Year
COTTAGE GROVE — For venturing where few have dared, two local "outhouse archaeologists" received the 2019 Preservationist of the Year award at the May 1 Cottage Grove City Council meeting.
Brandon Lewanski and David Labno locate and excavate 19th and early 20th century outhouse sites. Before the advent of modern plumbing, these detached "privies" also did double duty as trash pits.
"I've been involved 30 years since I was in high school," Labno said. "As a hobby, some people like hunting and fishing. I look for old bottles and old artifacts. I think it really brings history to life."
Last year, the two delved into a former outhouse at the historic Dr. Arthur H. Steen home in Old Cottage Grove.
The owners are City Council member Wayne Butt and his wife Angie. The couple's home was built in 1854 by John Furber, a founder of Cottage Grove.
Some of their booty from the dig was displayed on a table outside council chambers. It included medicine bottles, mason jars, and shards of china and pottery, some dating back to the 1880s. Labno told council that he's excavated about 1,000 outhouses. He's found rusty guns, liquor bottles and drug paraphernalia.
Items can offer insight into the daily lives of 19th century homesteaders. An inkwell could mean they knew how to read and write, which wasn't always the case in that era. Seeds, which are not digested, offer clues as to what they ate.
Lewanski and Labno told council they're keen to excavate and preserve more of the city's history as new housing developments overtake rural land. The original city, platted out by Furber and his brother Joseph, included a drug store, dry goods and grocery stores, two blacksmith shops, and a wagon shop and hotel.
There are more clues under the earth.
"Progress happens, that's fine," Labno said. "We think it's a great thing to save the information and share it with people."
"Once these places are gone, they're gone," Lewanski said. "There's nothing that anybody's going to remember."
Fortunately, these former latrines pose no health threat.
"It all decomposes, by the way," Labno said.