Tom Askjem on outhouse archaeology

Black and white photo of a community by a river.
A shack and outhouse on the Mississippi River’s edge, taken in 1917. Image from Carol Aronovici, seen in "Housing Conditions in the City of Saint Paul."
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

An old outhouse pit might not be the first place that comes to mind when searching for buried treasure. But for Tom Askjem of Buxom, N.D., yesterday’s toilets are a treasure trove of information that tell the stories of the past.

Tom Askjem is a citizen historian and archivist who has made a career of digging bottles, dish fragments and other forgotten relics of the past in outhouse pits, many of which in the Red River Valley date back to the 1870s. He joined host Cathy Wurzer to talk more about his work.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: So, if you've ever used an old fashioned outhouse, you probably didn't linger in there anymore than you had to, right? Our next guest spends quite a bit of time in outhouses. And he is darned happy about it.

Tom Askjem of Buxom, North Dakota, says, yesterday's toilets are a treasure trove of information that tell the stories of the past. He's made a career of digging bottles, dish fragments, and other forgotten relics in outhouse pits, some of which date back to the 1870s. Tom's on the line. Welcome to the program, Tom, how are you?

TOM ASKJEM: Hey, not too bad.

INTERVIEWER: Good. How in the world did you stumble upon your first old outhouse?

TOM ASKJEM: Well, I grew up on an 1870s homestead outside of Buxton, Buxton, North Dakota. And as a kid, I would explore the woods. I found the trash dump from the previous family and started digging through that. And once that finished out, I must've been about 14 or 15 years old at the time. I've read about old outhouses having long lost relics that were thrown in on them.

Well, I asked my parents where the old outhouse was, when they bought the place. They showed me the general area. And it wasn't until they were clearing the woods with a tractor, just kind of pushing dead trees and pushing some trees over, that I saw some garbage and stove ashes come out of the ground. And I'd read that the ashes were usually thrown over these pits to neutralize the smell. So I started digging.

It took me all summer. But I've found just a ton of information on the people who used to live here, medicine bottles, whiskey bottles, dinnerware, really fancy dinnerware in that pit. So, kind of got a general idea of their lifestyle. They seem to be well off.

INTERVIEWER: I'm kind of curious. Who's generally in Buxton, North Dakota? I mean, who were the first-- beyond natives, who were the White settlers?

TOM ASKJEM: Well, a lot of them were Norwegian immigrants, Swedish immigrants. And a lot of them homesteaded in the 1870s and '80s. I think the earliest homesteaders were maybe in the mid 1870s. Yeah, they usually came in, built a sod house, and later, a log cabin, and then a frame house, if they stayed long enough. And the farm, the farm I grew up on had all three.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, it did. Wow, that's really neat. I'm kind of curious as somebody would throw away really nice China in an outhouse. Was that just like today's version of a garbage disposal?

TOM ASKJEM: Yeah, they didn't have as much garbage as we have nowadays. So these pits wouldn't fill up as fast as someone in modern day would think. And the dishes that were thrown down were usually broken. Sometimes, they could have been dropped down by mistake. I'll find whole pieces. But generally, just broken stuff was thrown down on them, with the exception of the bottles that were made to be discarded once the contents were used up.

INTERVIEWER: Where else do you take your outhouse digging to? Have you been around the region?

TOM ASKJEM: I've been coast to coast, Maine to California, south to Galveston, Texas. I've been all over the place. I generally focus on this upper part of the Midwest though.

INTERVIEWER: So, what kinds of stories about people's lives do you put together through these found items?

TOM ASKJEM: Well, there's all kinds of folks out there, I guess. You'll sometimes get a pit from an alcoholic or a drug user. You'll find the pits packed full of liquor flasks or prescription bottles. Like I mentioned, with some of the more ornate dinnerware, you could come to the conclusion a family was a bit more well-off than the others that had the plane dinnerware.

And the size of the pit can be an indication of a bigger family, in a residence anyway. The hotel pits can be huge. Travelers were coming through there. So you'll find items from all over the place. It's kind of interesting to see where they came from, as they stopped at the hotel along their way.

INTERVIEWER: So, how have you turned these digs into a career?

TOM ASKJEM: One pit at a time, I guess. I'm still trying to wrap my head around all of it. Just kind of started out as a kid, digging in the yard. And now, I'm traveling across the country.

But recently, I started a YouTube channel. It's called Below the Plains. And we've already amassed a big audience, over 5,000 subscribers, and more or less just all positive comments. Thank you for documenting this history and sharing it with everyone type of thing. That's one of my favorite things to do, is share my discoveries. I've been in newspapers and magazines. I've published two books on local soda bottles, one for North Dakota and the other one from Nebraska.

INTERVIEWER: I didn't realize that local soda bottles would be so popular.

TOM ASKJEM: You know, the soda bottles were made to be returned. So local bottlers would put the bottling works name or the bottlers name. They would have it stamped into the glass during manufacture, along with the designation, it should be returned to-- for instance, Grand Forks, North Dakota. And there's a lot of local interest with those, just being they have the local town names on them. And I feel that would be the best book to publish, where the interest lies.

INTERVIEWER: So, curious, how do you find where these outhouses are? I mean, do you just assume when you were on an old spread, an old place, that there's got to be some-- either it's still there. If it's there, it must be easy, obviously. But do you go around with a metal detector, just to find out where the original site might have been?

TOM ASKJEM: Spring steel probe rods is what I use. And generally, it's best to know where the building stood. Sometimes, they're still standing. A lot of the earlier ones are long gone. But once you get a general idea of where it was, then I'll put markers out on the ground. They're usually 3 paces apart, 20 paces long. And then, I'll just grid the area out and probe every few feet between these markers.

It's kind of a process of elimination. Sometimes it takes hours, days. I've spent almost a month out on some of these ghost town sites, gridding out and marking where I figure the buildings were, and concluding that with the finding of the outhouses. They usually weren't too far from the building. The furthest I've seen was about 200 feet. And that was at a stage station stop in South Dakota.

INTERVIEWER: I'm sure that was interesting at the time. So what do you do with the found items?

TOM ASKJEM: Oh, just all kinds of things. I always dig on private property with the owner's permission. So I'll offer some finds to the property owner. And I'll offer some to local museums. A lot of the stuff is broken. A lot of the time, unless it's a whole item, they don't have a lot of interest. If no one's interested, I'll just kind of put them carefully at the bottom of the pit, and, I guess, save them for the next digger.

But if I find, for instance, maybe 70 plus percent of a piece of dinnerware, I'll save it and glue it back together, if it's something I think significant. If I'm digging on a site I feel is significant, like a stage station stop or a prominent residential, save every last piece. I've been working on a few books that document those kind of sites.

INTERVIEWER: So we have a final--

TOM ASKJEM: I'll piece them together and then photograph--


INTERVIEWER: So you really are like an archaeologist. You're kind of like an archaeologist, truly.

TOM ASKJEM: Self-taught, and there's always a controversy with that, being I'm not certified. But I sometimes try working with these state historic societies, and this and that. Some shrug me off because I don't have a degree. And I've been working on filling out site reports for some historic societies, which I have no problem doing.

I've dug, I think, over 1,300 of these sites, these outhouse sites, in the past 15 years. And it's possible I've actually dug more than anyone in the country. I've been in touch with a lot of the main diggers all across the country. A lot of them just get out on weekends. And sometimes, I'm out every day. And then, when I'm not out digging, I'll be researching. And it's kind of just a full time job for me. But I enjoy it. I can't complain.

INTERVIEWER: Obviously, you enjoy it. I've got about a minute left. What do your friends and family think about your career?

TOM ASKJEM: At first, they probably thought I was crazy. I dragged some with along on the digs. And they'd see that there is some merit to what I'm saying. And now that I've got myself known, to some degree, publishing books and working on that YouTube channel, all of them are on board with it, which is good.

INTERVIEWER: Yes, it is. Well, Tom, it sounds like it's interesting. I'm glad you took time to talk with us. Thanks so much and best of luck.

TOM ASKJEM: Thank you.

INTERVIEWER: Tom Askjem is a citizen historian and an archivist. He's from Buxton, North Dakota, checking out what's underneath yesterday's outhouses.

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