In Search of Old Shamokin, February 2021 edition. Runs last Saturday of every month in the Weekender.
Eyeing that unexplained sinkhole or dip in your backyard? According to bottle-digger Garry Reigle of Shamokin, it could be the site of a long-gone outhouse–and a forgotten trove of local history.
Over the past twelve years, Reigle estimates he has excavated over 1000 sites in Shamokin and surrounding areas, often accompanied by fellow hobbyist Chuck Harris, in search of rare bottles discarded as trash by prior generations. For many of us, history is found in the comfort of libraries and museums, but Reigle isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, following his passion for the past underground, into backyards, town dumps, and yes–even into former privies.
Before the modern convenience of indoor plumbing began to be taken for granted, the outhouse was a common sight. Like anything else, however, its usefulness had a lifespan–about ten years, according to Reigle, after which the hole would be filled in with large amounts of trash gathered from the household and neighbors. The result? Dozens, even hundreds, of glass bottles of every shape, size, and use: milk, beer, liquor, furniture polish, cure-alls. But the finds aren’t just limited to bottles.
“You can find clay pipes, jewelry, sometimes coins,” says Reigle. Ink wells and marbles are also common. One of Reigle’s most unusual Shamokin finds is a souvenir tin bell from the Market Street National Bank, which somehow ended up in a privy on Chemung Street. Countless other historical businesses are represented in his finds, particularly breweries like Fuhrmann & Schmidt and a host of storied Shamokin dairies such as Reed’s, Martz, Klick’s, and Peerless Herb. Each bottle has a story to tell about Shamokin history–as well as everyday life in a bygone era.
“In the coal region,” says Reigle, “unless you were a mine boss or businessman, you were poor.” Many of the holes he’s excavated contained mostly cheaper condiment bottles, as families couldn’t afford to throw out bottles that could be reused or returned for credit. “In one dig, you could tell the people didn’t pay their milk bill because they had milk bottles from all different dairies.”
Another dig in Danville unearthed Reigle’s oldest discovery, an 1840s commemorative Temperance Society cup–ironically accompanied by dozens of liquor bottles.
Like any other archaeological study, bottle-digging requires as much good old-fashioned research as it does hard work. When selecting a site to dig, Reigle looks for geographical features like that characteristic round or square depression in a yard or a sinkhole in a parking lot. He also consults historical maps which show the footprints of homes, businesses, and outbuildings, such as the fire insurance maps published by Sanborn, to get a sense of where an outhouse might have been located.
Privy holes were lined with material such as stone, brick, or wood, usually the same used for construction of the house or store. In the Shamokin area, wood liners seem to have been the most popular. Holes were typically 6-8 feet deep, but Reigle says he’s encountered some uncommonly shallow 4-foot holes in Shamokin.
“Men worked hard digging holes in the mines all day,” he notes. “The last thing they wanted to do was come home and dig a real deep hole.”
Over the years, Reigle has acquired an expert repertoire of bottle knowledge, using his understanding of glass-blowing techniques to date his finds to a particular period. Mold-blown bottles were common in the period from 1900-1920; hinge-molds were used in the 1870s. Dating from the 1840s-1850s are pontils, glass bottles blown while spun on a rod. The name refers to the resulting dimple, or “pontil,” on the bottom of the bottle. One of the most common bottle shapes is the “squat soda”–in bottle digger parlance, a “squattie.” An example of this bottle shape is a pontil squat soda excavated by Reigle bearing the monogram of Fritz & Richards, the 1850s Shamokin brewery which would later become Fuhrmann & Schmidt.
But Reigle’s favorite dig is that of a privy hole at the site of the National Hotel on Shamokin Street. Built circa 1853 and operated by W. M. Weaver, the National Hotel was one of the principal hotels in Shamokin. According to the 1876 History of Northumberland County, the first house built in Shamokin in March 1835 was also located on the site and eventually incorporated into the hotel structure. This, then, was the center of old Shamokin–the nucleus from which the city we know today emerged.
Reigle and his fellow bottle diggers knew they had found a significant site when they spotted the large square dip in the ground near the Whatnot Shoppe Cafe and the former Exxon station at the intersection of Shamokin and Sunbury Streets in February 2020. Braving frigid weather and high winds, the team secured permission from property owners and went to work. Almost immediately, digging yielded oyster shells and squat sodas–no doubt from the former hotel’s dining room–and Reigle knew they were onto something. The dig revealed a deep privy hole lined with stone–the only stone liner Reigle has yet uncovered in Shamokin–just wide enough for two men to fit in safely.
“It was in layers,” Reigle recalls. “It started with the 1880s and got older as you went down. The bottom layer was 1850s, 1860s.”
Included in the layers of trash were broken crockery, perfume bottles, horse medicine, and, on the bottom 1850s layer, a ceramic pitcher discarded because of a crack. Now repaired, the pitcher–either from the hotel’s dining room, or perhaps used with a washbasin in one of the rooms–is in otherwise excellent condition and can be seen on display in the collection of the Greater Shamokin Heritage Museum.
During this excavation, Reigle was lucky enough to unearth an item from his bottle-digger’s bucket list–an 1870s hinge-mold flask featuring busts of George Washington and General Braxton Bragg on opposite sides. These rare bottles were made in honor of Bragg, a Mexican War hero for whom Fort Bragg was named.
Gallery: Artifacts from the National Hotel excavation. 1. Pitcher, circa 1850s, now in the collection of the Greater Shamokin Heritage Museum. 2. Plate, circa 1860s. 3-4. 1870s Bragg/Washington flask.
Not every dig proves as fruitful as the National Hotel project, but Reigle takes it in stride. He’s even tackled notorious Centralia, once digging up an 8-foot concrete-lined hole in the ghost town at the height of summer. Unfortunately, the concrete absorbed and retained the extreme heat from the decades-long mine fire like an oven, melting the glass bottles into an unsalvageable mass. With Centralia being a notable exception, however, temperatures underground are usually mild and consistent, even in winter. Reigle doesn’t mind a wintertime excavation, cutting through the frozen layer with a pickax or breaker bar, and taking special care to avoid bottles from the warmer layers breaking upon exposure to the cold.
Any bottle enthusiast knows a particularly rare specimen can fetch a hefty price at auction, especially in Pennsylvania, where the Shupp’s Grove Bottle Show at Adamstown is said to be the largest bottle show in the country. Reigle is often asked how much a bottle is worth. That can depend on many factors, including size, color, and era.
“But if nobody collected it,” says Reigle, “it wouldn’t be worth anything. It’s only worth what someone’s willing to pay for it.”
For Shamokinites, the greatest value of an artifact is its connection to our history–our town, our heritage, our part of the world. So if you’re contemplating replanting the flowerbeds or landscaping your garden this spring, remember that what was worthless a hundred years ago could be an invaluable historical find today–and it might be right in your own backyard.