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Digging into History: Unearthing pieces of North Dakota’s past

Posted by Kylie Blanchard, Co-Editor 6/6/2022 11:48:58 AM

When Tom Askjem moved from Grand Forks to an 1878 farmstead near Buxton in 1997, he says he was just a young boy “looking for something to do” when he discovered the previous owners’ trash dump in the woods. “I would bring home little trinkets from digging in the dump and wash them up,” he says. “I was digging through that for years and would find old bottles from the 1940s, 50s and 60s.”

His interest in these finds were further peaked when the farm got internet service. He found information on the bottles he was unearthing and now knew what else could still be found. What started as entertainment has now grown to a full-time venture, digging across the Dakotas in search of items that help tell the story of the pioneer era.

 

A New Discovery

When Askjem reached his teens, he learned of another common location to dig for old bottles and more. “Through my research, I found outhouse pits also had a bunch of items,” he says. “When I was 14, I started digging the farm’s old outhouse site and found hundreds of items down there from Victorian dinnerware to bottles to trinkets.”

He then started asking area farmers if he could dig on their abandoned farmsteads. “I got firsthand accounts from those who had lived and grew up there,” he says, noting he is thankful for the opportunity to dig those sites as, today, many have been converted to farmland.

Askjem’s focus soon became finding old soda bottles. “The first ones I found were from the 1930s and had painted or embossed labels,” he notes. “I am always looking for bottles from the Dakotas, but they were returnable, and I have also heard they were melted down for electric pole insulators. These are hard to come by.” 

In his 20s, Askjem met another local “privey digger” with 20 years of experience. “He showed me everything he knew,” he says, noting his passion for digging outhouse pits grew from there.

Over the last decade, he has dug 1,300 outhouse pits across North Dakota and the United States, including South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Maine, California, and Texas. “I do try to stay local, as I have ties to the history of the Dakotas,” says Askjem, noting he finds many of his dig locations through word of mouth. “I get calls from people wondering what is buried in their backyards.” 

Digging In     

When he first began digging outhouse pits, he says he was often alone. “I would call buddies to join me, but they usually lasted a day and then wouldn’t return my calls,” he laughs. “This isn’t for everyone.” 

Today, he has a couple of steady helpers, but still likes to keep his methods and tools of the trade simple. The most important tool, he notes, is a metal probe rod for locating outhouse sites. “I can feel the compaction differences in the ground. I have dug so many pits, I can usually tell the age just by probing it.”

In addition, he says he is often also armed with a shovel, two-pronged garden fork, plastic shovel, brush, and stick to very gently and gingerly dig into the ground. “We are digging to not break glass,” says Askjem, noting he finds utility lines in approximately half of his dig sites.

On occasion, excavators and skid steers are used to dig at larger sites. “We will mark our site and then dig down with equipment beside it and enter the pit laterally to dig out the contents.”

 

Finding History

“The earliest sites are the most interesting, dating back to the 1870s through the 1880s in North Dakota,” says Askjem.

In South Dakota, he notes, some dig sites date back to the 1850s and 1860s. Askjem travels frequently each summer to sites in Yankton, S.D., which he calls “the mother city of the Dakotas.” At a site in Eastport, Maine, Askjem dug behind the Todd House, built in 1775, the oldest site he has explored. At another site in Eastport, dating back to the 1840s, he recovered wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of pottery shards. Individuals at the community’s Tides Institute & Museum of Art then spent weeks piecing them back together, and the pottery items are now on display.

“When I am digging, I will offer things to the local historical society and most of the items I do offer to the landowners,” he says. “They will take a few items and then tell me to get rid of the rest.”

The most bottles Askjem has recovered from a pit is 230, and his warmest day of digging in North Dakota topped out at 109 degrees Fahrenheit. At dig sites, he also finds many kids items, broken dolls and marbles; broken and complete lanterns; as well as glasses, buttons and coins. An 1860 quarter is the oldest coin he has unearthed, which he says he keeps in a jar of other odds and ends found at dig sites. “The most interesting item I have found in a pit is Victorian brass knuckles in Crookston, Minn.,” he notes.  

While venturing 30 feet down an old homestead well, Askjem says he unearthed a Red Wing jug each foot to the bottom of the deepest pit he has dug to date. Each pit is a little different, but the average is about six-feet deep, four-feet long and three-feet wide. Depending on the location, the items discovered will vary as well, he notes. A saloon pit will hold many liquor bottles, where as a train depot will have bottles from various locations. “Almost everything I find in North Dakota came from out east, showing the westward expansion of the United States.”

At the site of an old Tower City hotel, Askjem says he did find a drugstore bottle from Sandpoint, Idaho. “It makes you wonder how these out of place items got there,” he notes.

 

Weighing the Risks

While he has avoided serious injury, Askjem hasn’t come out of his years of digging unscathed. On a dig in 2016 in Blanchard, he says he and his digging partner were battling an immense number of mosquitoes near sundown. “I ended up with West Nile Virus and have never been so sick in my life,” he says. “It took a few years before I was back on track to 100%.”

Another dig at the site of Tackett’s Station at Choteau Creek, S.D., also led to unexpected consequences. “Tackett’s Station was known as ‘The Wildest Place in the Dakotas,’ and gun fights were commonplace at this stage stop, hotel, saloon, and brothel. The locals say the place is cursed,” Askjem says. 

When he finished the dig at the Tackett’s Station site, he began to break out in a rash, which led to a few miserable days of itching and recovery. “I had a rash on the whole upper part of my body, and I had never had poison ivy, oak or sumac in my life.”

Groundwater contamination is also an issue when digging into old wells and pits. “While the waste in the old pits has since broken down and is no longer dangerous, there can be contaminates in the groundwater we may hit,” he notes. 

On one particular dig, Askjem and his team were removing buckets of water while he was in the pit. He was often spilled on and was soaked by the end of the dig. He soon became ill as a result of E.Coli bacteria, which he attributes to the groundwater. “I wouldn’t recommend someone not familiar with this go out and dig one of these pits,” he says.

 

Telling a Story

“When I dig these pits, I like to try to piece together the lifestyle of those who used it,” he notes.

At one such dig at a North Dakota Centennial Farm, Askjem learned of a devastating time in the farm’s history. “During the Spanish Flu of 1918, the family living there lost all of its kids to the illness. I dug the first pit and one of the first things I found was a medicine bottle that was three-quarters full. Digging below that was a huge amount of empty medicine bottles.”

Outhouse pits are often dug in a line next to each other and Askjem says the next pits dug at this site were then much smaller and full of liquor bottles.

On a month-long dig in Hope, Askjem says he didn’t turn up much in the pits he found. “I learned that throughout history, outhouse pits got cleaned out during a health scare and many of these pits dated to the 1918 Spanish Flu era. All of them had been cleaned out,” he notes. “It wasn’t until I got to the druggist’s house that I found an untouched pit and finally found some items.” 

Askjem says he also wonders about the journey some of the items took to get to the state. “I enjoy finding the items that pre-date local stores or businesses, items that were shipped by freighter or river boats to get there.”  

The most valuable bottle he has found pre-dated the state and was discovered in Grand Forks behind an 1883 house. “It was a drugstore bottle and aqua in color with embossed scrollwork, and it was still fully intact,” he notes. “It was worth $4,000.”    

 

Sharing His Finds

“I’ve always enjoyed sharing my finds. As a kid, I would set up displays in the house,” says Askjem. “I have had some good hauls over the years, but on average we find about $100 worth of items per pit. Sometimes, I find bottles worth $1,000 or several hundred, but that is about once a year.”

Askjem decided to share his finds and knowledge through two self-published books, “A History of North Dakota      Bottling Operations 1879-1930” and “Nebraska Soda Bottles 1865-1930.” The books include each bottle produced in the two states during the noted timeframes, as well as full histories of the bottling works and biographies of the bottlers. “These books include a lot of bottles from my collection, and I ended up selling many of them to fund the books,” Askjem notes.  

Both books have sold out, but he has six more books in the works, including a revamping of “A History of North Dakota Bottling Operations 1879-1930,” with improved photography and images. He is also working on a book documenting his dig at Pembina, as well as a book on the earliest bottles made in the western United States. “I have put on 20,000 miles for this book and have visited every state in the western United States to photograph the earliest known bottles.” 

While he is hoping to have a few of his book projects completed within the next year, including the updated North Dakota bottling operations book, Askjem says he will soon begin the summer digging season. “The digging season is short and, in North Dakota, the ground thaws in mid- to late-May and we are generally done by mid-November,” he notes. “But I have dug in blizzards in early December.” 

 

The Future

Recently, Askjem has shifted his exploration and digging focus to finding and exploring stage stops in North Dakota and South Dakota. “These are some of the more significant sites and some of the earliest sites to see where people came from who made their way to the Dakotas,” he notes. “I am following stage lines, and I have had to search pretty long to find some of these sites in fields.”

In addition, the “Below the Plains” YouTube channel launched in January, which has allowed Askjem to reach a broader audience of both diggers and history enthusiasts. He is assisted in this effort by Jake Cariveau, a regular helper at digs who also creates and edits videos for the YouTube channel. The channel has 4,000 subscribers with videos broadcasting in  17 countries, and recently surpassed 300,000 views. “I am blown away, I never thought it would blow up this fast,” he says. “It is fun to share local history.” 

Askjem hopes “Below the Plains” will help broaden his exploration of historic sites in North Dakota. “I have been talking to archeologists on the state and federal level about some of the state’s historic sites and what might be in those,” he says. “If this YouTube channel can get big enough, maybe I could pay these archeologists to dig these state sites and film them for the channel?”

His love of the pioneer era in the Dakotas and history is what continues to drive Askjem to dig and tell a unique piece North Dakota’s early story. “I consider myself a historian and not a looter. We’re not grave robbers and have never dug up anything prehistoric. All I am really looking for is outhouse pits from the pioneer era,” says Askjem. “There is a lot of history to tell and there are not a lot of people doing this. It takes a unique interest.”

   For more information contact Askjem at 701-864-0126 or thomas.askjem@gmail.com or visit www.youtube.com and search for “Below the Plains.”

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