Kempf House dig
Privy to the past
by Laura Bartlett
The trash I mean, artifacts excavated from the Kempf House's backyard gives an evocative look at nineteenth-century life in Ann Arbor.
For some time, excavators hoped they were digging where the Kempf family's outhouse had stood. When I asked excavation assistant Carol Mull about the "outhouse" site, a thin-lipped smile and pointed reference to "privies" told me that this was the preferred term for digging around in someone's historical toilet. She also said that in the pre-sewage-system era people commonly had privies in their backyards, even in urban areas, and moved them around from time to time, for reasons better imagined than described. They would use the abandoned holes as trash pits a habit that has made such sites a gold mine of historical items for contemporary historians.
A delicate key discovered in the pit is the favorite artifact of April Beisaw, the archaeologist who directed the excavation. "That tiny, tiny skeleton key . . . you start to wonder what it locked, and if they had lost it. . . . You don't normally lose a key," she muses.
Skeletons are also on the mind of local historian Grace Bacon, who looked through the artifacts with me. "I was kind of hoping they'd find a skeleton, or a silk shoe . . . something revealing," she said. After examining a large series of brick and mortar fragments meticulously cataloged in labeled plastic bags, she said, "I'm glad I'm not in charge of this, because halfway through, I'd throw it all in a pail and call it a day."
To find the site, Beisaw made a grid on the property and took core samples with an auger every five feet. She discovered evidence of a former gravel driveway, a subterranean pile of bricks possibly from a renovation project, a pile of coal at the back of the property, and the likely privy site beside the house the archaeologists couldn't dig there because
the museum's sprinkler system ran through the site. Excavation in the coal pile unearthed everything from nineteenth-century clay pipe stems to dainty carved-shell buttons. An elegant furniture caster came to light, as well as chicken, duck, and cow bones, a slate pencil, a stone marble, a handle for lifting stove lids, a fragile fragment of a china doll, and a ruler that may have belonged to a tailor who once lived in the house. A delicate tuxedo button prompted Bacon to reflect, "Mr. Kempf used to give concerts." My favorite item was an old-timey medicine bottle, preserved intact. Beisaw traced it to nineteenth-century Illinois druggist Robert George. There was no indication of whether it had contained healthful celery tonic or one of the opium-based "soothing syrups" common in Victorian times. "They probably would put a little hooch in it, too," observed Bacon.
The artifacts are on display at Kempf House September 7 through 30.
[Originally published in September, 2003.]