Privy digger to uncover history in Lewisburg

Apr. 26—LEWISBURG — You never know what's sitting just below the surface, waiting to be rediscovered.

The Union County Historical Society is about to find out what's underneath the brick and dirt in the courtyard at 15 N. Water St., Lewisburg. Master ceramicist Robert E. Lee III will conduct a live privy dig on Saturday and Sunday in the brick courtyard, the site of an early cemetery and likely early trash pit or privy. The event, which coincides with the Lewisburg Arts Festival, is expected to draw a crowd.

"It's unique. It's outside the normal," Lee said about What Treasures Lie Beneath Our Feet! dig. "There's so much history beneath our feet. You just got to figure out what you're looking at."

Over 19 years, Lee has conducted 408 digs and collected thousands of artifacts, including vintage glass bottles and pottery. He started the hobby as a way to supplement his role as the potter at the Warrior Run Fort Freeland Heritage Days

Lee spent Thursday preparing the site by carefully removing the bricks from a 40-square-foot area and removing the top layer of dirt. He is also probing the dirt to figure out where the stone walls of the pit are located.

The building that faces Market Street started as a tavern in 1790. It expanded in the 1800s and turned into a hotel. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. The annex, which faces Water Street, was built in the 1830s or 1840s, according to Bruce Teeple, historical society president.

The Fetherston family purchased the property in 1936. Following the deaths of John Fetherston in 1962 and Edith Fetherston a decade later, the home was turned into the Packwood House Museum and opened to the public in 1976.

After Packwood House closed in 2020, Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Lewisburg received the assets of the Fetherston Trust, including the Packwood House Museum. Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Church auctioned off the contents and sold the property to the Union County Historical Society in May for $375,000.

Lee said he noticed divots in the brickwork in the courtyard, a clear sign that holes were covered up. These are likely outhouses of the former hotel where people would throw away trash or lose items, he said.

Lee said he approached the former owners of the Packwood House to do a privy dig but was told no. When the Society purchased the property, Society Board Member Mike Molesevich said they were eager for Lee to come in.

"People had holes in their backyards prior to regular trash pick up," Molesevich said. "It was a convenient place to throw trash in, fill it up and cover up. You can tell a lot about people who lived, worked and visited a community with these digs. It will be interesting to see what turns up."

Lee expects to find pottery, ceramics and glassware, but he is also prepared for other items. He has uncovered an 1850 money purse and bear grease at a privy dig in Danville, pistols from one in Jersey Shore and has even found marbles, dolls, false teeth, bitters bottles, ink, milk containers, a ceramic dog statue, toothbrushes, perfumes, an 1864 pocket watch and more in previous digs.

Members of the Boy Scout Troop 600 helped Lee on Thursday as part of their community service hours. Brothers Alex and Ben Battenberg, of Lewisburg, arrived at 10 a.m. to assist with digging.

"It's pretty interesting," Alex Battenberg, 14, said. "I like uncovering history and artifacts, and trying to find out why they're there, and the significance of it."

Ben Battenberg, 17, said they used to live in North Carolina near the historic town of Williamsburg. He always liked the local museums and wanted to participate in archeological digging.

"This is one of the coolest service projects I've ever worked on," he said.

Lee, who has hosted several discussions at the building throughout April, will conduct the dig starting at 7 a.m. Saturday and Sunday with the help of fellow privy digger Russel Snyder. Lee will discuss his findings at 1 p.m. each day.

Lee's extensive collection of vintage glass bottles and pottery discovered during excavations, or digs, in Central Pennsylvania, will be on display. Admission to the What Treasures Lie Beneath Our Feet! dig is $3.