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"Thieves!" spits Roy Legendre. "Pirates!" His invective is directed at a large group that includes a television crew from New York and Jim Meiners, a local privy-digger and amateur archeologist. Somehow they had been allowed to excavate his property without his express permission, and this wasn't the first time those privies had been plundered, either.
Meiners and Legendre have never met in person, but they are embroiled in a nasty bit of business that includes allegations of claim-jumping. As far as Legendre is concerned, Meiners conspired to part him with his treasure -- antique bottles, clay pipes, medicine jars and other artifacts that may have been in the old privies, or outhouses, behind his buildings on the near North Side. These things could have been his, should have been his, but now, he says, someone else has them.
Legendre drains his mug of Budweiser, calls the bartender over to replenish the glass. The Cat's Meow, at 11th and Sidney in Soulard, is Legendre's chosen tavern, a high compliment from a man who appreciates taverns and the effervescent libation they provide. Legendre, who looks to be in his sixties, is an ATF agent whose duties include inspecting breweries. For 40 years he's been collecting breweriana -- beer bottles, cans, openers, crates, signs, promotional items and more -- and stashing it at his home, above a defunct hardware store at Sidney and Lemp streets.
Legendre bought the three old row houses, a back building once used as a wagon-wheel shop and a row of brick outhouses in the 1200 block of N. Seventh St. in 1981. The property -- between Sixth and Seventh streets and O'Fallon and Biddle streets-- and the area just west of it was called Kerry Patch, a teeming Irish-American enclave dating back to 1842, when a group of immigrants took up illegal residence. In the early 1950s most of the remaining Kerry Patch housing was demolished to make way for the Pruitt-Igoe Housing Complex. In the middle of each block were the privy yards -- an essential feature for a community with little or no indoor plumbing. Legendre says he bought the property as an investment, partly because of what might be in those privies. Ironically, the property, just north of the convention center, has been nothing but a drain on his finances.
About four years ago, the city condemned one of the row houses, the old wagon-wheel shop and the brick outhouses. Legendre says that by the time he learned of the condemnations, the city had already razed the structures. Even though he was successful in getting the city to back down from collecting a $17,000 demolition bill from him, Legendre is still bitter over the incident.
And although his "row of crappers" was rudely knocked down, the trash that was thrown into the privies remained. That's why the "thieves" and the "pirates" come around.
Legendre claims he has twice caught people plundering his holes. Commiserating with Legendre at the Cat's Meow this evening is fellow bottle collector Terry Schoenlau. The two are reminiscing about catching a "sometime preacher and bottle pirate" named David Beeler red-handed a few years back.
"Yeah," says Terry, the suds from a schooner of Budweiser threatening to slosh all over the bar, "we just happened by, and there's Beeler with a shovel, standing over a hole. He sees us and, just as friendly as can be, says, 'Hey, Roy, how're you doing?'"
"I told him to get the hell off my property," barks Legendre in a booming voice.
Beeler, reached by phone, recalls the incident vividly but maintains that he and a friend were digging on a lot next to Legendre's. Not so, counters Legendre, close to apoplexy, adding that Beeler and his friend hastily drove off with the purloined privy articles, taking with them any evidence the cops might have used to bring charges.
"It's so aggravating," says Schoenlau, "because no one sees them do it, and then they turn up at bottle shows. It's now very competitive because of the money involved, and it's easy money."
Four years ago, Legendre says, two men from Dallas flew into Lambert Airport, went straight to his property and started digging up his privies. The men, whose names Legendre can't remember, were caught, arrested and eventually fined. Apparently word about his privies gets around in the arcane world of bottle collecting.
Legendre knew that the most highly prized antique bottles came up out of the bowels of privies, and he fully intended to mine the veritable treasure trove on his property. Says Schoenlau, "Roy always told me, 'We'll get around to digging these up.'" But in 20 years he never quite got around to it. Now, with this latest act of "piracy" involving Meiners and a television crew, it may be too late.
"The neat thing about outhouses," ventures Jim Meiners, "they threw their trash in from the day they built their house, and so when you're lucky enough to find a fresh privy that has a lot of artifacts in it, the deeper you go, the older those artifacts get. You don't know how old it is until you get down to the bottom. You're hoping it goes back to the 1700s, and, of course, it very seldom does, but to find things from the mid-1800s is not unusual."