A small group of curious passers-by watched as a member of the Los Angeles County marshal's office, a deputy district attorney and a sheriff's deputy dug a four-foot hole near the rear entrance to the old San Fernando Municipal Courthouse.
"Looking for dead bodies?" one man asked.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Maureen Duffy-Lewis, who traded her usual prosecutor's attire for a sweat shirt, jeans and tennis shoes one day last week, said jokingly, "I'm going to convict them one way or another."
Bits of History
The three courthouse history buffs were not looking for a body. They were searching for pieces of old wood and glass and a bit of San Fernando history saved in, of all things, a 100-year-old abandoned outhouse site.
Two weeks ago, county employees and a prison work crew, who had been digging a five-foot trench between the old courthouse and the new courthouse, stumbled onto what might be the city's first major archeological discovery.
In the trench, which was dug to carry telephone lines, workers found a wooden-sided square hole that was covered with bricks and filled with an assortment of glass and ceramic artifacts believed to be about 100 years old.
That find led to the discovery of what is believed to be another outhouse a few feet away, the site that the three diggers labored over last week.
"What people would do after an outhouse was filled and would not absorb anymore, they would fill up the hole with bottles and seal it shut," said Lt. Ed Powell, a county marshal who became the informal director of the courthouse digs.
Duffy-Lewis, who said she began digging for artifacts when she was growing up in Eagle Rock and continued the hobby while studying archeology at USC, explained that what people discard "tells a lot about what they were like."
Souvenirs of the Wild West
So far, Powell has salvaged two boxes of artifacts taken from the original find. Perhaps indicative of the Wild West atmosphere in San Fernando when the outhouse was used as a dump site is the fact that most of the artifacts were handblown hip flasks and quart liquor and beer bottles.
Also found, however, were handblown glass quart bottles that once held Sylmar brand olive oil, a hand-painted Japanese egg cup, a Watkins tonic bottle, E. P. Durkee & Co. salad dressing bottles, a two-gallon seltzer bottle and an assortment of glass-stoppered medicine vials. The oldest artifact found was a piece of a black powder horn that Duffy-Lewis estimates was used in the 1830s.
One of the bottles, a vial of Vapo-Cresolene with a date of 1894 in the glass, still has a small amount of the green, odorous inhalant inside protected by a serviceable, though badly deteriorated, cork. A perfume bottle, its cork also intact, still has a few drops left.
Powell said he plans to donate most of the find to the city and the rest to the county, which owns the property, for a historical display. Carolyn Riggs, chairman of the San Fernando Historical Site and Preservation Commission, said the city is interested in acquiring some of the artifacts and assessing their historical significance "before they end up being sold to an antique shop."
Riggs said that 100 years ago there were a couple of residences, a church and a doctor's office near the corner of Brand Boulevard and 1st Street, where the courthouse stands. The outhouses could have been used by any of those, she said.
After an hour of digging at the second site last week, the group had found only bits of glass, old nails and some ceramic shards. The crowd had dispersed, and Sheriff's Deputy Mel Labate said he was ready to trade his shovel for a lasagna dinner and a bottle of wine.
But Powell continued to dig out a few more shovels full of dirt, certain that a great find was still only inches away. Explained longtime digger Duffy-Lewis, "This can get addicting."
Finally, after the group dug up a ceramic tobacco pipe, Powell conceded that the spot was not likely to yield much more. But, he said, surveying the empty courthouse parking lot, 'I'll bet there's a lot more stuff buried around here."