Down and Dirty

There's gold in them thar outhouses, and things are getting ugly

Sep 5, 2001 at 4:00 am
"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."

Meiners, a beefy 6-footer with a chatty, confident demeanor, is standing behind a counter filled with antique marbles, porcelain doll heads, coins, inkwells, a Confederate cigarette holder and various curios that once graced the homes of long-dead St. Louisans. The permanent display of his finds is in a corner nook of the architectural section of the City Museum. He recalls his first dig at what is now Kiener Plaza, downtown: "There was a stone-lined outhouse right at the bottom of where that amphitheater now goes around. I dug and dug and, down near the bottom, found this," he says, reaching into an antique wooden hutch chockfull of peculiar old things and pulls out what could be a whiskey flask. The embossed brand name on one side reads "Cholacogue."

"This is an 1830s-vintage New York patent-medicine cholera cure," he says. "It's still one of my favorites."

A typical mid- to late-19th-century city resident visited privies, sometimes for purposes other than nature's call. "These outhouses offered privacy for closet drinkers," says Meiners. "When they were done, they could toss the bottle down the hole, hide the evidence. It's a cliché, but a true one, that in the old Irish settlements you find whiskey bottles and clay pipes, and in the Italian settlements you find wine bottles."

Moreover, the privies became the equivalent of today's Dumpsters. "Those immigrants wouldn't think for a second about filling that outhouse up with trash," says Meiners. "Why pay some fool with a wagon to take it away when you've got this perfectly good 10-foot-deep hole in the back yard?

"The outhouses that most excite me," he continues, "are the ones where you have the biggest slobs, who had the most vices. They drank and smoked and were sick and had kids running out the wazoo. In that guy's outhouse, you'll find his whiskey bottles, you'll find his smoking pipes. You'll know who he voted for in the presidential campaign of 1848, because you'll find a likeness of the president on his smoking pipe. You'll know how big his kids were by the size of their shoes, and you'll know how poor he was by whether or not those shoes had holes worn in them. The outhouses tell so much, even a dummy like me can pick up on all this stuff."

The self-employed landscaper is the self-deprecating sort, routinely disparaging his own intelligence. Yet his knack for locating privies, many of them neatly concealed by time and surface developments, amounts to a sort of genius, the kind that's grounded in the earth. "The outhouse itself is not nearly as interesting as the trash they threw in," he remarks. "Neither is the human waste all that interesting." Meiners says the smell of these old privies piques his senses the same way a pinch of curry might stir the taste buds of a gourmand. "For some reason," he muses, "some of these outhouses have stayed damp, and they've got this real earthy smell about them, a smell that privy-diggers love." Meiners says the best-preserved artifacts come from these "wet" holes. "A scientist told me that the uric acid acts as a preservative," he says, "and really, the clothing, the coins, the household materials are often in perfect condition, where if they were in cinders or regular earth they would have been all eaten up."

If there is a fraternity of privy diggers, it may be found at the antique-bottle shows. Bottle prices vary greatly, from little more than $1 for an H. Groen bottle, which held a locally manufactured soda water from the Civil War era (and so common that bottle collectors joke that you "groan" when you find one) to $1,000, which Meiners accepted for a rare "beautiful green patent-medicine bottle, Longley's Panacea," from the 1840s.

Although he will barter with other diggers, his own collection is, well, his own. "Most of the stuff in the museum I've personally dug, and most of the stuff I've bought I've personally seen dug," he says. "For some reason it has more value to me if I've seen it come out of the ground. In this way, I'm like an archaeologist -- there's more meaning to artifacts than just the object itself."

For every object he unearths, he wants to know who made it, where and when. If it has a commercial history, he'll research it. Take pot lids, 19th-century cosmetics containers. Meiners again reaches into the hutch, producing a round, shallow container adorned with the legend "Bear's Oil." "This is a pot lid that once contained perfumed bear grease," says Meiners, lifting the lid by its nubby little handle. "You would probably never be interested in pot lids unless you saw one come up out of the ground."

Meiners was stricken with privy fever as a teenager. At 16, he volunteered with the Florissant Historical Society, hoping to help save various endangered historic homes in Florissant. "These were older women who had tremendous zeal but couldn't physically do the needed work," says Meiners, "so they had this big dumb kid who knew nothing about historic restoration but had tons of energy for tearing out walls and things like that." Then he met Kurt Borrowman, an actual privy digger who gave young Jim a taste for unearthing "junk" encrusted in ancient human dung.

Twenty-five years later, the "shithouse archaeologist" (as his family and friends call him), is still at it and feels he's only scratched the surface. "It needs to be done more," he stresses, "and it needs to be done by the archaeologists. So much stuff is being destroyed and so little thought given to what's in the ground. I've reported major-league finds to the universities here, and in some cases they've followed up." In 1993, while exploring privies during construction of the police superstation at Jefferson Avenue and Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, Meiners learned of the remains of a long-forgotten cemetery. "It was a second Catholic graveyard that had been covered over in the 1870s by a subdivision. It was kind of like the movie Poltergeist. These bodies were buried about 10 feet deep. In all, about 400 bodies were removed and reburied elsewhere."

Any downtown-area excavation attracts Meiners, who is now digging in a construction site east of Union Station, the former location of Chouteau's Pond. In all his undertakings, Meiners says he is careful about getting permission. And when he began digging on Roy Legendre's property, he got approval -- from the wrecking contractor.

"I found seven sets of drivers' licenses in one of those buildings there," says Andrew Hemphill, the contractor hired in August by Legendre to level his remaining two row houses. The licenses, explains Hemphill, a robust 65, were the contents of purses and wallets, discarded after robbers had gone through them, removing anything of value. "It was a thieves' den," says Hemphill. "I personally contacted those people and saw that they got their licenses back." He pauses to tell his son Robert, the crane operator, what to do next. "Take out these steps," he says, pointing to a concrete stoop. "These buildings need to come down."

After the city threatened Legendre with demolition of his remaining buildings, he hired Hemphill, who bid the job at $9,500. Meanwhile, Meiners had been contacted by the producer from The National Network (TNN -- yes, the former bass-fishing station), which was looking for quirky people doing quirky things to feature on their new show Pop Across America, billed as a sort of latter-day Chautauqua. Meiners' subterranean sideline was quirky enough. And the crew wanted to film Meiners digging, not just talking about digging.

Meiners drove around town and saw Hemphill's sign on North Seventh indicating that the row houses were soon to be demolished. He was excited; any lot in the former Kerry Patch, he knew, had promise. Meiners called Hemphill and explained the TNN crew situation; Hemphill said it sounded all right, except that he had yet to receive a demolition permit and, until that happened, there would be no digging.

Meiners went to City Hall and expedited the process, and soon Hemphill had his permit. Meiners brought his Bobcat to the site and, with a couple of helpers, began to dig. After three days of digging, the film crew got the shots it wanted on Aug. 8. That same day, a friend of Legendre's alerted him to the digging on his property. Legendre showed up, but Meiners and the film crew had already left. He called the police. After establishing that Meiners was responsible for the dig, the officer, feeling diplomatic, negotiated a deal between the two parties: Meiners would meet Legendre the next day at the Cat's Meow, and Meiners would bring whatever he had found on Legendre's property.

They were supposed to meet at 7 p.m., but Meiners got to the tavern early, left the stuff and went on his way. Says Meiners: "From what I could tell talking to the officer, Roy was not in a reasonable mood, and the idea of me stopping at the Cat's Meow ... I didn't think anything was to be gained by me physically sitting down with him. He had my mobile number; we could talk over the phone."

Being stood up just made Legendre even madder, especially when he saw what Meiners had left him -- "a box of junk," he calls it with as much venom as he can muster.

"I gave him back everything," retorts Meiners, "except for some stuff that was dug by a friend of his who was down there with me. I brought him a Busch carton with 24 slots filled with bottles and then some. There were some bottles worth about $20-$30, and the rest were Groen soda bottles. My expectations were much higher. There was just not a lot of diversity there."

Despite Legendre's claims of skullduggery, Meiners insists he did no wrong: "We had written permission from the contractor. We weren't in a hurry. We weren't afraid of being caught. If I were trying to pull a fast one, I certainly wasn't very fast about it,' says Meiners. "The unfortunate thing is, he didn't find me on the first day, because I would have just stopped and apologized to him right away. I could have gone out and found another place that would have been interesting to the film people and gotten permission to dig there."

Hemphill, who goes by the nickname Bay-Bay, also insists that he was within his rights to give the crew permission to dig. "You give me a building to wreck, it's mine until the city says, 'Hemphill's job looks nice, and we release you from the property.' Roy talked to me like he had his fortune buried down there. I say, 'If they stole your fortune, you signed a contract with me to steal your fortune.' Why didn't he tell me that stuff was important to him when he signed that contract? I don't think it's fair to make a big stink about it."

As a contractor who has yet to be paid in full, Hemphill has nothing to gain and everything to lose if Legendre is upset with him. Any valuable stuff in those privies would have been lost when the customary ramp is made into the basement to haul out the rubble when the building comes down. "I know it's worth a lot more if it isn't busted," he says, "but after Bay-Bay gets through, ain't nothin' gonna be intact."

The demolition is done, and the ramp Hemphill built destroyed only a portion of the privies. "The potential for that lot is great," says Meiners. "But that treasure's not gonna jump up out of the ground, if there's any there. It's going to require [Legendre] to dig like a dog for years, and I don't know what kind of physical condition this guy's in, but he's going to need to find somebody like me that would dig in a heartbeat in an area like that. I feel terrible for this guy that he is now feeling so embittered -- you can add to the list one more time that he's been screwed. If there were something I could do to make him feel better or to help him, I would be more than happy to, including bringing my Bobcat down there, with him there, and help him find the privies. I would do that, and all I would ask him to do is donate some things to the museum."

"That's a lot of hogwash," protests Legendre when informed of Meiners' offer, "because he knew that was my property and he knew he had to get permission from me, not from the wrecker. If he wants to make amends, he should have brought back what he stole from my holes, 'cause what he gave me was a box of junk. I have no appreciation for Meiners and the way he operates. The whole deal is rotten, just rotten."

It may seem rotten now, but Legendre would be well advised to accept Meiners' offer of digging on his property. The treasure, if it exists, awaits.