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Marshalltown native’s hobby makes him ‘privy to history’

CONTRIBUTED PHOTOs Jeff Springer of Eagan, Minn. shows off an 1810-30s antique bottle he discovered while “privy digging” on his cousin’s farm near Albion. Springer has more than 2,300 digs under his belt, is a member of the Iowa Bottler’s Club and chairs the Bloomington, Minn. bottle show in March.

Before indoor plumbing most every residence had little buildings for nature’s calling on their properties. But due to the fact that there were also no garbage collectors and haulers in those days, the little outbuildings were also the recipients of a lot of the resident’s garbage.

Marshalltown native Jeff Springer, now of Eagan, Minn., has a business/hobby of being a “privy digger,” with more than 2,300 digs under his belt and more than 25,000 bottles in his collection.

“The beginning of my digging allowed my passion for history to come alive. Now I do independent historical research with the specialty of looking for the garbage that people threw away some 100 plus years ago,” Springer said.

“It all started for my late brother Jim in the 1980s. He used to fish all the time and would occasionally find dumps alongside his fishing sites. One day he found a Marshalltown druggist bottle and that started his collection. He then would go to all the auctions around the area and buy up boxes of bottles,” Springer said. “Then at one auction he met Tom Southard who was the President of the Iowa Antique Bottler’s Club. He asked Jim if he had ever dug privies, and a few months later Tom and another friend had my brother out digging privies in Marshalltown.”

Springer became interested in the practice one year later when he found a couple of crocks, a jug and dozens of bottles underneath floorboards in his old house. He was a teenager at the time and was helping his father take off the back part of the house.

Contributed photo Jeff Springer, formerly of Marshalltown, reveals some treasures he found in an old outhouse pit in Ottawa, Ill.

“Obviously as a young teenager I was very excited about the finds, and asked my brother to get his tile probe to see if we could find any of the privies behind our old house. We found 3 or 4 pits on the property and I was hooked,” Springer added.

Springer is a graduate of Marshalltown High School and earned a bachelor’s of science degree in marketing with a Bible minor at Northwestern University in St. Paul. He was a baseball card dealer, worked in the banking industry and also in the finance department at his alma mater in accounting and was in charge of payroll.

As an entrepreneur, Springer is the owner of AristoClean Inc. — a residential house cleaning business. He also works in the personality assessment industry and does historical research.

“I do this privy digging in order to see what the people who lived on the property, purchased — that is if they were drinkers of whiskey, beer, wine, other liquors, pop, mineral water or bitters. I try to determine if they were sick often or if they were hypochondriacs by the druggist bottles, patent medicine bottles, opium or other narcotics,” he said.

Springer is a member of the Iowa Antique Bottler’s Club, North Star Historical Bottle Association and is the show chairman for the Bottle, Stoneware and Advertising Show and Sale in Bloomington, Minn. which will be held on March 29.

“I’ve had some three dozen newspaper articles done on my hobby, spoken to thousands of people at speaker events, been published in bottle magazines, and for the last two years I’ve done a “hand’s-on” experience teaching students at Shattuck St Mary’s in Faribault, Minn.,” he said.

Springer has found almost anything thrown away or dropped into the outhouse, such as a Civil War bayonet, toothbrushes, porcelain dolls, doll heads, marbles, combs, light bulbs, pipes, doorknobs, locks, keys, bullets, guns, harmonicas, syringes, false teeth etc.

“It’s common to find broken stoneware and dinnerware (plates etc.) and bones from animals – cow, chicken, pigs and other rodents that were killed. It is also common to find seeds of all types. I have dug some tomato seeds that were still viable. So, from that I have 3 types of heirloom tomato seeds that produce the best tasting tomatoes that I’ve ever had,” he said.

Some special editions to his collection include: An 1810 – 30 Midwestern Pitkin whiskey flask found on his cousin’s property just outside of Albion and a Reed’s Bitters amber 1870’s ladies leg bottle which was found during the Hy-Vee expansion in 1992.

“This was the bottle that got me into collecting bottles, beforehand I just wanted to dig and spend time with my brother. With all the digs and multiple thousands of bottles that I’ve found it’s hard to pick and choose my favorites,” Springer commented. “But I can tell you it is special when I’m able to go to a town and dig a bottle that was unknown – one that no one has seen for 100 – 150 years. That’s part of why I search out history, piece it together and bring it to life!

Marshalltown native and current Eagan, Minn. resident Jeff Springer has a collection of antique bottles and glasses he collected in old outhouse pits in the area. The items bear the marks of former Marshalltown businesses.

Springer said he tries to shoot for digging 100 pits per year and would like to dig in all 50 states.

If anyone has a property dated before 1900 and are interested in the history of those who lived there, contact Springer at 651-500-0949 and he will schedule a time to do the research and dig.

A picture of a historical flask from the Civil War era.