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From outhouse to museum

  • DAVID WARGO/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Local privy excavator Robert Perrin displays a cannon ball discovered in the remains of an outhouse pit in the borough.
    DAVID WARGO/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Local privy excavator Robert Perrin displays a cannon ball discovered in the remains of an outhouse pit in the borough.
Published November 06. 2009 05:00PM

It's not every day the average person gets to hold a cannon ball, but thanks to a generous donation of several items, including a cannonball found in a town privy dig by a local group represented by local resident Bob Perrin, the Summit Hill Historical Society is the proud owner of the defused artillery piece.

"This was found in the pit from an outhouse on East Fell Street and has been defused and is safe for public display," said Perrin in his presentation to the society during its meeting. "These are illegal to own unless they are defused like this one."

Perrin said the find was like "finding gold." He explained to the society members that the ball, when it was originally armed, would have been fitted with a brass cap full of gun powder and lead which is attached to a five- to seven-second paper fuse. The cannon ball would be shot in the air and the fuse would ignite causing the ball to explode over the field, maximizing the shrapnel created by the ball exploding.

"These are very dangerous to disarm," he said mentioning that an expert in Baltimore who had disarmed almost 4,000 such devices, was killed by a faulty cannon ball similar to the one he was displaying.

"There is no need to be concerned about this one as there is nothing inside of it now," he added.

The ordnance probably was originally stored in the town armory, or was a treasure recovered from the Civil War, based on its size and appearance, said Perrin. He did not speculate as to how it came to be found in a privy pit.

Perrin was joined by fellow diggers Tom Porambo and Joe Slakoper to display other artifacts found in borough privy digs. He said most people are curious as to whether there are diseases or danger in such digs.

"There is no danger. Germs don't survive in an oxygenated atmosphere longer than 30 days. Everything changes back to inert soil after that point," he said.

"The only danger is from sharp edges or broken glass," Perrin added. He explained there were different types of privies dug ranging from meticulous stone walls to pits. Each is usually lined and has a layer of fill followed by a layer of garbage where they find their "treasures."

Perrin was enthusiastic about digging. He explained that once you reach the point where the fill is cleared away, it becomes suspenseful. The thrill of not knowing what you will find is a rush to the diggers, and when they reach that point, Perrin described it as being in "a zone." You don't think of much other than what might be in the hole.

One member asked if they ever take photographs. Perrin said they almost always have a camera but the excitement of the dig usually causes the camera to sit on the side while they explore.

Other items Perrin showed the group included a unique syringe from the early 20th century that was completely intact. He explained the syringes in those days were made of glass and the mechanism used to inject the medicine was a cord covered in wax. The needle was no longer present but the rest of the syringe was complete.

Another rare find that Perrin displayed was a porcelain doll face that was almost completely intact when it was excavated. He said it was likely to be one of those cases where brothers and sisters who were fighting may have exacted vengeance by throwing each other's toys in the pit.

He also showed them an old bottle from the Dyottville Glass Works in Philadelphia that was used for medicine. In addition to the bottle, there was a demitasse with a pitcher that was intact and buried for an estimated 75-100 years. With regard to bottles, Perrin pointed out that customer loyalty seemed to be strong in the old days. He mentioned that they frequently come across medicine bottles for Wright's Pharmacy and the Mauch Chunk Pharmacy, but rarely do they ever find both companies in the same privy pit.

He closed his presentation by offering the historical society members an opportunity to join them on a dig next spring so they could document and watch how one is conducted.

President Maxine Vermillion gratefully accepted the pieces and the cannon ball on behalf of the society and said they would be a wonderful addition to the museum.

The museum is located at 12 E. Ludlow Street in Summit Hill, is free to the public and is currently open by appointment. Anyone may call Vermillion at (570) 645-9772 for more information.

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