Privy Excavation Reveals life for Old Mission family, 1860-1930

Warne, November 2014, describing the excavation of the privy site. Warne is also involved in the more recent excavation, in June 2015, undertaken by North Central Michigan College professor Kerri Finlayson and her students.
Warne, October 2014, describing the excavation of the privy site. Warne is also involved in the more recent excavation, in June 2015, undertaken by North Central Michigan College professor Kerri Finlayson and her students. Image courtesy of the author.

Nancy Warne’s interest was piqued. While undertaking her volunteer duty of raking the grounds behind the house and buildings of the Dougherty Home on Old Mission Peninsula, she would find an assortment of debris, mostly broken glass and pottery. Her suspicions were further raised, after having watched a program on excavating a historical outhouse site.

What else could be found under the myrtle in the Dougherty/Rushmore backyard?  What might be found at the suggested site of the Rushmore outhouse?

A brief, but relevant, digression: Peninsula Township purchased the Dougherty Historic Home Site property in July 2006, in collaboration with a number of concerned organizations on Old Mission Peninsula. The Site is home to the original 1842 structure built by Reverend Peter Dougherty, a Presbyterian minister and missionary. The Mission House “is believed to be the first post and beam house in the lower peninsula, north of Grand Rapids”. (1) Solon Rushmore purchased the property from Rev. Dougherty in 1861, and it remained in the Rushmore family for 100 years. (2)

An archaeological study of the entire home site was commissioned by the Peter Dougherty Society, the organization responsible for restoring the buildings and grounds on the property. When that gridded search came up empty, the Society members figured there simply weren’t any buried treasures to uncover. So what was Warne uncovering during her raking stints? Random refuse? A possible location of an old outhouse? 

There was nothing for it: Warne had to know.

Rather than searching blindly, which could compromise the integrity of any historical dig sites found, Warne had some help.   Nancy (Rushmore) Hooper, the grandchild of William and Minnie Rushmore who had run the Mission House as a summer inn for visitors until about 1915, knew where the Rushmore privy was located.  She had used it as a child during her summers in Old Mission.  She recalled during inclement weather running through the house into the summer kitchen and out the door of the woodroom directly to the outhouse.

warne-privy
The outhouse was restored in 2009 by dedicated Society volunteers, and other than the roof and 4 inches of treated wood at the base of the outhouse, most of the wood is original. Needed replacement wood was obtained from a collapsed 1870s barn near Bowers Harbor. Original wooden pegs in the window framing and 5 different sized square steel nails from the roof were reused in the reconstruction. The lids are original, as is part of the seat. Sorry folks, this three-holer is for display only. Image courtesy of the author, October 2014.

Understandably, after the Rushmore family purchased the home from Dougherty and eventually turned it into an inn, the first order of business was to move the Dougherty outhouse from direct view of the dining room window and orient the door to face south for additional privacy. That new location was the one Hooper remembered and the one that was excavated.  The Mission House was not graced with a full bath until some time between 1930 and 1950. In the 1950s after the site was sold to Virginia Larson, the outhouse was moved to the cement slab where it now stands.

Once plumbing went in to the Home, the privy holes were slowly filled with household refuse. After the outhouse was moved in the 1960s, the holes were further filled with dirt, and myrtle gained a footing, creeping over the site and providing effective camouflage.

Society members are fully aware of what it takes to properly dig a site and restore any findings, so after making an initial, inches-deep search of the spot Hooper identified, Warne called upon experienced archaeological students and Society volunteers who were excited to begin digging. They began digging August 23, 2012, and lasted through the month of October. On that first day, nearly 60 bottles were found. Warne says that, initially, the items were merely cataloged based on where they were found in the dig site, but quickly a more rigorous procedure was developed, as follow-up research would clearly need to be done to do the excavation justice.

The results? Three to four tubs of disintegrating metal, mostly cans; some intact pieces of metal, including an 1869 shield nickel, a small child’s sterling silver ring, a shotgun barrel; dishes, mostly broken that are being lovingly reconstructed; a Kewpie doll and clay marbles; and most significantly, 280 intact bottles.

After the thrill of excavation, Warne got down to the nitty-gritty of her research. What were these bottles, and what would they tell us about the Rushmore family?

A sample of Warne's work on identifying and dating the bottles found during excavation. Image courtesy of the author, October 2014.
A sample of Warne’s work on identifying and dating the bottles found during excavation. Image courtesy of the author, October 2014.

An introduction to glass bottle manufacturing in the United States, ca. 1860 to 1930, was the first step in dating the bottles. Warne’s primary dating method deals with the seam present on machine-made bottles, which ran up the side and over the rim of the bottle; a bottle-making machine was invented in 1895, and in wide use by 1910. Many of the bottles had manufacturer’s marks on the bottom. With that information, Warne was able to date most of the bottles, the majority of which are machine made. Some of the oldest items were canning jars, dating from the 1870s, complete with common imperfections of the time, such as bubbles in the glass.

One of several displays for the August 2012 privy excavation. Image courtesy of the author, October 2014.
One of several displays for the August 2012 privy excavation. Image courtesy of the author, October 2014.

Some of the bottles are of brand names we would recognize, “Colgate,” “Hires Root Beer,” “Listerine,” Alka-seltzer”, “Heinz Catsup”, “French’s Mustard”, “Bromoseltzer”, Carter’s Ink” Ultimately, Warne divided up the collection into Food, Personal Use, Household, Medical (which turned out to be the bulk of the collection), and Miscellaneous. An important local find were bottles from the American Drug Store, Traverse City, Michigan.

When asked if anything really stood out to Warne, she pointed to her favorite bottle, “Mascaro Monique for the Hair” (pictured above), largely for the history of the woman behind the hair tonic. Warne also noted that there were “lots of laxatives. Take that for what it is.”

Warne’s find has been on display in the “kitchen” of the Mission House for the past three years, and as she told me, “seeing this many bottles on display really gives you a sense of the numbers, including the number of hours I spent cleaning and identifying them!” As the restoration of the Home continues, the vision being to restore the interior and exterior back to between 1850 and 1915, Warne’s find is no longer safe in its current space, and will be put into storage. She anticipates that one-third to one-half of the collection will be put back on permanent display, once the restoration has finished. She also curates two annual displays, at the annual Log Cabin Days on the last weekend of June at the Dougherty Home Site property, and at the Woodmere Branch of Traverse Area District Library, usually in August.

Warne, here piecing together pottery found in the June 2015 excavation, in much the same way as the August 2012 finds.
Warne, here piecing together pottery found in the June 2015 excavation, in much the same way as the August 2012 finds. Image courtesy of David C. Warne, June 2015.

Warne stresses that the restoration of the Home has truly been a dedicated group effort by all the Society members. “We have experts come in, but most of the work has been done by retired businessmen, teachers, farmers… just people who are really handy.” (3)

This summer of 2015, a licensed archeologist, Kerri Finlayson and her student crew from North Central Michigan College have been digging in the suggested area of the original Dougherty outhouse.  Hundreds of small artifacts have been found from a depth of one foot to nearly 20 feet, including an arrowhead, buttons, ink bottle, shoe polish jar, toothbrush, pipe stems, animal bones, chards, etc.

The Peter Dougherty Society continues its work to restore the Home. Many of their restoration projects to this point have been on outlying buildings, including the outhouse, ice house, and summer kitchen. You can help the Society complete the restoration of the Home and establish it as a museum! The Jeffris Family Foundation has awarded the Society a challenge grant of $157,000, to be provided on a 1 for 2 match basis and has kicked off a three year Capital Campaign to raise $314,000 to complete the restoration of the Mission House and establish it as a museum. Fundraising for the matching grant must be completed by December 31, 2015, so no time like the present!

For additional information or to donate, contact www.oldmissionhouse.com, Peter Dougherty Society, PO Box 101, Old Mission, MI  49673 or call (231) 223-8778.

Amy Barritt is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal. Nancy Warne, interviewed for this article, has been an active member of the Peter Dougherty Society since 2005. In addition to discovering lost privy holes, Warne is also responsible for filming much of the restoration projects underway, as well as all pre-restoration documentation, “to record the way everything looks before they tear it all apart,” as she says.

Special thanks to David C. Warne for introducing the Journal to Nancy Warne and her fantastic work, and for the photograph included in the article.

  1. Dougherty Historic Home Site. History. Accessed 15 June 2015. http://www.oldmissionhouse.com/mission
  2. For more information on the “Old Mission” in what is now Grand Traverse County and the “New Mission” in Omena, Leelanau County, check out “History of the Grand Traverse Region,” by Dr. M.L. Leach, from your local public library!
  3. Nancy Warne, Personal Interview, October 2014.

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