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Take Note: Frank Harchak On His Passion For "Privy Digging"

Frank Harchak stands in a room filled with his privy digging findings.
Houtzdale resident Frank Harchak talks about his passion for "privy digging" and some of the most unique items he has unearthed.

Houtzdale resident Frank Harchak talks with WPSU's Lindsey Whissel Fenton about his passion for "privy digging" and some of the most unique items he has unearthed.

Frank would like to dedicated his interview to his friend David Wulderk (1954-2021), a historian, teacher, friend and a special part of the Houtzdale community.

In the second part of this Take Note, you'll hear a conversation between WPSU's Min Xian and the President and CEO of the Blair County Chapter of NAACP, Andrae Holsey from June.

Here's the conversation:

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Welcome to Take Note. For WPSU, from my home studio. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton. Most of us would probably not associate outhouses with words like “interesting” and “exciting.” But Houtzdale resident Frank Harchak describes the practice of privy digging as “the last great treasure hunt in the United States.” He's found hundreds of artifacts from glass bottles to weapons to antique baby dolls. In addition to amassing a large collection of historic items, Frank has also gained knowledge of his local history, which he frequently shares by giving talks to community organizations. Frank, welcome to Take Note.

Frank Harchak: Hello.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Frank, to be clear, when you say privy, you mean outhouse?

Frank Harchak: Yes. Outhouses.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Right. Okay.

Frank Harchak: Yes, privy digging is digging out old outhouses, where the family would empty the chamber pot every day. And in the chamber pot went household items, which [inaudible] under privy every day, and that included bottles, doll babies, pipes, you name it, all kinds of artifacts. But these outhouses are over 100 years old. It's dirt. It's 100-year-old dirt. Believe me if I would find a cell phone or microwave, I would run.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: How on earth did you get started doing this?

Frank Harchak: I was always interested in treasure hunting. I love treasure hunting, even when I was small, what I'd find a nickel or a dime, I'd get so excited. I guess I got started on this as walking through the woods. I did a lot of hunting and I'd pick up an old bottle. And it would be neat to see where it came from and how old it was. And I started doing this and I found out that every bottle told a story. And I was digging older dumps. We have a lot of mining over here. And there's a lot of mine caves was sunk down into the ground. And back in the 1800s, everybody found that to be a nice garbage dump because back then they didn't have garbage trucks are garbage people. And they would get in their wagon, and they would take the garbage out to these mind holes. So, I started digging them out. And then I ran into another bottle digger. And he said, “Did you ever dig out an outhouse?” And I said, “What?” He said, “You ever take out an outhouse?” I said, “No.” He says, “Well come on down the house, I'll show you what I find.” When I went down his house and saw these bottles and artifacts from the 1800s, it just blew my mind. And it was so interesting to think that how old these bottles were because I couldn't find stuff like this in a yard sale. So, the next day, I was digging out outhouses. And it was so exciting. I mean, I hunted and I fished and, but the excitement of digging this out and pulling something out of the earth that was 150 years old. And seeing daylight for the first time in 150 years. And this then with access to the internet to look these bottles up the medicine that was in them. I mean, why these people use that medicine? I mean, it was just so interesting. And like I said, every bottle when I started looking them up, I told a story about the people's, the people that had back problems. The ink wells that I found like they were they would do how to write and they probably they were immigrants, and they probably was writing letters back to their homeland, or else even the shoe polish bottles that I found that you know, you knew that they went to church on Sundays. It was just so interesting when you started adding us all up. And it actually got me interested in my local history here in Huntsville, because I've done five or six articles. It was it was an interesting hobby, and I just loved it.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: How long have you been doing this?

Frank Harchak: I've been digging bottles for over 20 years. And I take a lot of bottles from the 1800s I find my bottles in old garbage dumps and in privies.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: What kind of tools does one need to be a privy digger?

Frank Harchak: You need a probe. Well actually what I do… well, I'll tell you about ours. How I find the privies is with a probe and a probe is just a long piece of metal and this is made out of stainless, and it's about four or five feet long. And it has a T handle on the top. And it's hollow. And what I do is I go out and look for old foundations or stone-case wells are what I really look for is old apple trees in the middle of nowhere, that usually tells you that somebody was lived in that area. And then I start looking for the wells or the foundations. And I look for little indentations in the ground, usually behind the house about 20 yards behind the house, or the foundation. And I'll get this probe. And of course, with this probe where there's virgin ground, I'll get on top and push down on it. And when there's virgin ground, it only goes in a couple inches. But when there's an indentation, I'll stick it in. And it's a void. So, and the outhouses was filled with ashes, wood ashes, and you once you start pushing down on this, it goes down a foot, push down a bit more, it'll go down another foot. And if you push hard, it goes all the way down. And then as you're probing, you can hear glass, the vibration coming up the rod, and the hollow end of the pipe, I can tell the difference, but I got really good with this, I could tell the difference when I hit wood. When I hit glass, when I hit brick, it was a really good indicator. And that's actually how I find them.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Just a heads up that Frank and I talked to via zoom, so in this next part of our conversation, he's describing some of his favorite finds as he shows them to me. And we'll have photos of some of these artifacts on our website so you can see, too. Frank, you have some bottles laid out before you that you're just dying to walk us through. So, keeping in mind that folks at home will be listening, just talk us through some of the items in your collection that you have to share with us.

Frank Harchak: This is an umbrella ink well. You can see the way its shape. It's from the Civil War era [inaudible]. That's 1860s the [inaudible]. This is a turtle ink. You can see by the way it's shaped. It looks like a turtle's back. This is a turtle ink from the 1870s and the counting. This is accounting from the 1890s and that they always set flat and then the baby bottle. Oh wow. This is a baby ball from the 1800s. Oh, the baby mama looks like a different kind of ball. It's [inaudible] feeder. A bottle with a nipple. It's fit on the top. The moonshine jug love digging the most. I love digging the moonshine jugs. They we make these now [inaudible] this is an original moonshine jug this. This is from the 1800s I have about seven of them that I dug. That's the moonshine and the mining I don't know if you know about carbide lights, carbide you ever hear carbide lights actually have but I don't know why this this is a miners light. Okay, yeah, no mine. This is the early 1900s. Here is a wick where they put on their helmet where they just put a [inaudible] light it that's from that. And there's torpedo balls, which don't stand up. They're round. See, they won't stand up, they're rotted on the bottom. This one is from Belfast, Ireland. This is probably one of the oldest balls that I ever dug. What happened? This is from Ireland. So, to ship it to the United States. The [inaudible] the sell ships would probably take three, four months maybe I mean, you know I really don't know how long but it took a long time to get across the ocean. And what would happen is the cork would dry out and the carbonation would leak out. So, they had to figure out how to keep the carbonation from leaking out. So, they rounded the bottle and Saturday here like this so the liquid would keep the cork wet. And that's See I won't stand up and then it actually helped the sailboat balance itself when it came over. It's called a torpedo bottle. And like I said and the clay pipes here's a clay pipe fan lot of clay pipes these are really neat. This is a clay pipe from Germany that I privy These are your pencils. These were absolutely gorgeous. I mean, they're all covered with patina, but are these forks the way they were designed… and the spoons. I mean it was so… they have a place for your fingers. I mean, it was just it's, it's neat. It's like I said, it's really neat. It's over 100 years old, and you will find stuff like this in the yard. So, like I said, it's really interesting about the things that you find in their [inaudible] from guns, the money. I mean, when you sift that you find Indian Head pennies and stuff like that. It's treasure hunting.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Lindsey Whissel. Fenton and our guest is Frank Harchak, a Hartsdale resident with a passion for privy digging. As you've said, this hobby of bottle collecting and privy digging has really sparked your interest in local history. What are some of the things that you've learned through this past time?

Frank Harchak: Oh, Mrs. Winslow's. I have lost stories on his bottles. It was the baby killer. This killed more babies in the United States than you could imagine. It was morphine. And they used to put it on the baby's teeth when they were teething. And, and the mothers were also get addicted to but they could never understand why the babies had their teeth and they kept on crying was because it was almost 90% morphine. They became addicted to it. If you would look up Mrs. Winslow's syrup, Mrs. Winslow syrup. You'll see that how many babies this killed. And then there's another thing I want to talk to you real quick. It's called Jamaica, ginger. This was never in the history books. Jamaica, Ginger has 90% alcohol. And during Prohibition you know, the rich had to speakeasies and they could get the alcohol or prescription. But the poor the Appalachian the Midwest, the blacks, the South couldn't, they couldn't get the alcohol. So they would drink Jamaica, ginger, because it had 90% alcohol, it was a medicine while the government found out about this, and they changed it. They want to bring take down the alcohol and bring up the bass. While these two guys put, I can't pronounce this. Put a chemical in it. It's the same chemical they put in turpentine. In a paralyzed thousands of people. It was called Jake leg. And these people got away with it. They paralyzed thousands of people. There's even songs written about it. But did you know about that?

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: No, I didn't.

Frank Harchak: They didn't check what they put in for the base. They just checked the alcohol content. Well, these guys what it's called, is [inaudible]. It was a chemical they put in turpentine. It was the base and it paralyzed thousands of people.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: I know you found a ton of stuff. What's the most unique thing that you found?

Frank Harchak: The most interesting thing that I found? Well, first of all, I want to tell you that the premise held a lot of things. In my area, there was a lot of mining strikes in the 1800s. And there was some violence with guns. And we had to call an iron police here. They were company police, that what more or less came the strikes down. But there was some violence and there was probably there was some shootings. And a lot of times they would get the gun. They would throw it in an outhouse. To hide it. Nobody was gonna look in the outhouse. A lot of people would steal things. You know, you were the last one here, it's gone. It's missing. The guy got word, threw it in the neighbor's outhouse or throw it in his outhouse. When people would use it, they would pull their bib overalls down, or lift up their dress, the money would fall out of the pockets go into the hole or through the cracks. I found a lot of money to send pieces, three cent pieces from the 1800s fall in the crack. They wasn't going to dip it out. One hundred forty years later, when we dig out the outhouses we take our metal detector or sifter, and we actually sift the dirt. We found rings money, make people go on about their business and the ring would come off their finger and go down the hall and they didn't even though it's just like how people lose their rings down sinks now, but 140 years later, you find them and here's one item that I thought was very rare or different for finding an outhouse. I'll start I'll let you guess as I'm going along here. I was digging out an outhouse and I was probing at first try to find glass and I found metal. Tink, tink, tink, tink I could find out, you know it was metal. Well, I have a little three-pronged digger that I use besides the shovel when I'm getting down into the interesting stuff. I take a little bigger, like a garden digger. And I started digging, and a lion's head was sticking out. That's all I could see was a lion said, Well, I dug some more. And I seen that the line had wings. And I thought, wow, this is pretty neat. What is it? Well, it was really tight, and I kept digging and digging and digging. And I pull and pull and I got [inaudible] dug some more. And as I pulled more of it out, I could see the footprint. The footprint is a lion with wings with Griffins. It's a Griffin. And there was grapes and look like pine cones. And I dug some more. And I found three angels. So, I dug some more. And I was yanking and yank. yank, and I was really excited. Uh, wow, what is this? Lion heads, griffins, angels, you know, what is this? And I got down some morer. And I finally pulled it up out of the ground. And what it is it's an altar cross, stolen out of a church. Of course, I got really paranoid. I thought, “Oh, my God, what is this still [inaudible] and I was paranoid. I was really excited to find in it. And I took it down to my parents, my mother said, “get out. It's what it’s cursed.” You know? “What you're doing in the house?” Well, I went to my priest. And he had he does he clicks crucifix. And he dated about 1880. It's a Catholic crucifix. And we both You know, it was stolen. It was stolen out of the church. It's just absolutely beautiful. I mean, I know you can't see very well on it. But bthe patina on it. The patina, is this beautiful. It's not fake patina. It's real patina. And the floor delays around the cross. The Griffins, the angels, it was absolutely a fantastic fine. And, I mean, I felt a lot better when he said, you know, you took it, it was buried for 120 years. And you released it, you brought it back out into the light. And that made me feel good. And that was probably about the neatest thing that I found.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Frank Harchak. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Frank Harchak: Okay, thank you.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Frank Harchak is a bottle collector and privy digger, a resident of Houtzdale, Frank estimates he has dug about 100 sites over the years; that's about 60 dump sites and 40 privies. To see photos of some of Frank's collection, visit wpsu.org. slash Take Note. Also, keep an eye out for a limited web series on Frank's adventures in privy digging coming soon to WPSU Digital Studios.

Andrae Holsey is the new President of Blair County Chapter of NAACP.
Courtesy of Andrae Holsey
Blair County's new NAACP President Andrae Holsey

You are listening to Take Note on WPSU. Now we'll shift to something more serious. We'll hear a conversation with Andrae Holsey. We talked with Holsey in June shortly after he was named the new president and CEO for the Blair County Chapter of NAACP. He now leads a slate of new officers after a longtime president Don Witherspoon passed away, and three other senior positions were vacated. WPSU’s Min Xian talked with Holsey about his background and activism and his vision for the role.

Min Xian: Andrae Holsey, thank you for joining us.

Andrae Holsey: Absolutely. It's my honor and my pleasure.

Min Xian: You're an outspoken advocate for racial justice in Blair County, being the political Outreach Director at progress for people of color and volunteering at the Alliance for police accountability. How have your experiences prepared you for the role of President of the Blair county NAACP chapter?

Andrae Holsey: So not even just in my own experiences, but where I'm coming from? My father was born in segregated Washington DC, my family subject to various forms of slavery until 1918. At five, six years old, the Ku Klux Klan showed up on my front doorstep in Paige County, Virginia and brought my family here to Pennsylvania. And it's been a passion of mine all through school growing up, my you know, my senior project revolved around Black Lives Matter the movement and what we can do to take steps forward the solutions we can offer. So, coming from my roots and expanding my experience with the ongoing protests and, you know, co-founding the organization, progress for people of color, working with the APA out of Pittsburgh, I feel well equipped.

Min Xian: You have talked about how you hope to work with the county's District Attorney's Office to ensure fairness in bail and incarceration. What do you think needs to change when it comes to these issues?

Andrae Holsey: So first and foremost, the district attorney's position is the single most important position in the entire criminal justice system. The district attorney sets the precedent for how proceedings will go in court. They decide what charges are going to be applied to a defendant. You know, they choose who gets subpoenaed to court as witnesses, they set the narrative for the jury in terms of prosecutions. So, the DA is incredibly critical. But the district attorney's office is also where discrimination can occur, you know, the most frequently. We see that right now going on in Pittsburgh with the challenge to district desert attorneys Apollo, with you know, the Attorney General's Office being involved multiple other attorneys, multiple judges locally, speaking out about blatant racism and systemic racism coming from his office. So, what I would like to see in Blair county and beyond is Fair Sentencing, fair application of the law, equal application of the law and a greater consciousness from district attorneys, regarding defendants of color defendants below the poverty line, greater accommodation to make sure that they get a speedy and fair trial that is constitutionally guaranteed.

Min Xian: The chapter lost his longtime president Don Witherspoon in December, and its Secretary [inaudible[ in January. Can you talk about their impact on Blair County, and maybe on you personally, as well?

Andrae Holsey: With Blair county chapter being the oldest chapter in the State Conference of the NAACP, Mr. Witherspoon had an incredible influence on the decisions of the state NAACP, and State President, Reverend Houston, Kenneth Houston, even credits dawn as being a mentor to him. He influenced racial policy and equity policy across the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And with this state being such an influential state, in turn, he helped influence you know, the decisions of the country. He was a father figure to everyone in this community. Man never missed a sports event, a concert and opportunity to go support young people, including myself, and it won't be on him and my dad being golf buddies, it was to the point that he personally invested in my education, and my success going forward because he saw the passion that I had for this topic. And it meant a great deal to me when he asked me if I would, you know, if he could pass on the torch to me, I'm incredibly grateful. They're big shoes to fill.

Min Xian: Yeah, and now the torch has been passed to a new generation. You're 22 years old. And the youngest president in the history of this chapter, which like you mentioned, is Pennsylvania's oldest NAACP chapter. Both of the new vice presidents are the first LGBTQ officers there. What does this generational change mean to you? A,

Andrae Holsey: It provides an opportunity for new perspective. Now granted, the executive committee provides oversight to the officers. So, we've made sure that members of the executive committee have had some longtime experience, at least in activism, if not just with the NAACP. But having this new generation puts a new lens on the social spectrum, because there's new issues that affect us. That didn't affect people 5060 years ago, even 2030 years ago, it adds a new lens, it adds a new voice, Dr. King believes strongly in the power of youth. You know, he's 26 years old when they started the freedom rights. And we intend to continue the work that started then and set up success for the next generations after us.

Min Xian: There are a lot of political divides nationally, including with activism and voting rights. How do you see them play out locally? And what does it mean to you becoming a local leader at this time of change?

Andrae Holsey: It is of my personal opinion that the major parties profit greatly off of conflict and major corporations that are invested in those politics all to profit, off of conflict, it is my goal, to reiterate to people that we're not all that different from each other. And that the sooner that we come together and stop beating each other down for our differences, the sooner that we can accomplish change to put everyone on the same path. Ultimately, it's my organization's job to hold both sides of the aisle accountable. Regardless of personal leanings, you know, we're here to make sure that the entire government process is transparent. And, all of its interactions with the citizens who it is meant to serve. I hope to continue to influence those things locally, show people that just because you voted for somebody in the presidential election, doesn't determine the entire rest of your life. I care about where this community goes, I care about where both of the parties are as far as they represent people. And it concerns me that we're in a culture of a lot of people aren't pro anything. They're just anti the other side. And so that's our opportunity to offer what I would call common sense solutions that allow us to continue to move forward, you know, in in bipartisan ways.

Min Xian: Andrae Holsey is the new president of Blair County's NAACP. Thank you so much for talking with me.

Andrae Holsey: Thank you.

Min Xian: I’m Mian Xian, WPSU.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: That was WPSU’s Min Xian talking with Andrae Holsey, the new president and CEO of the Blair County Chapter of NAACP. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU.

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