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'Groundhog Archaeology' Reveals Backyard Treasures

A Kentucky artist's resident groundhog, Phyllis, expertly tucked away backyard treasures — from inkwells to piggy banks to thermometers — under the foundation of his house

By Angela Burton

When Kentucky visual artist Patrick Donley moved into his art studio in Louisville's Germantown neighborhood, he had no idea that his life direction was about to change from painting to mud larking — or, happily digging in his backyard for hidden treasures.

And he never dreamed that this new passion that he affectionately calls "groundhog archaeology" would be unearthed all because of a stubborn groundhog named Phyllis, who'd claimed the space beneath the basement of the former warehouse well before he arrived.

A man standing on a pile of dug up debris outside. Next Avenue, backyard treasures
Patrick Donley outside of the midden  |  Credit: Cooper Burton

Back in the 1920s, the ground at 1005 Mary Street had been used as a neighborhood dumping ground, adjacent to a saloon that eventually closed during Prohibition. The structure, then built for a local moving and storage business, soon covered the trash heap and likely a sinkhole took much "trash" further underground.

"She'd walk over, look at me and then go over to another hole where she had a tunnel and she'd just climb down."

In 2019, not long after Donley, 60, had moved in to make way for his artwork, he noticed a groundhog scampering across the backyard, away from the building. Groundhogs, known for their digging and tunneling prowess (and destruction to foundations), can be a nuisance. With that in mind, Donley tried three different times to humanely trap and relocate her, but "she just kept kicking the trap aside."

Soon after, Donley arrived to find a fresh pile of dirt she'd upturned in the cellar-like basement. In the mound of earth, there was something that caught his eye, glistening. He approached and found a bottle — it was actually one of the first of thousands — a turn-of-the-century beer bottle from the Dubuque Brewing Company in Iowa.

An Unlikely Friendship with a Groundhog

That first find began a journey of excavation for the years to come and continues to this day. But a friendship had to be made for Donley to begin the process — an unlikely friendship with a groundhog.

"For the first two years, she wouldn't get comfortable with me. I started putting plates of vegetables down and I started setting up videos, putting my camera on a tripod," he said, of his attempts to see the critter.

Later, he'd be laying on a slab of concrete with his hand feeling around in a hole, and Phyllis would appear — through the basement door!

"She'd walk over, look at me and then go over to another hole where she had a tunnel and she'd just climb down," he explained.

Eventually the two became fairly comfortable with one another. Donley notes that Phyllis has had two different litters during the span of this excavation — he was able to watch her raise and play with them in the backyard. Though he keeps his distance, she was never afraid to "whistle" and let him know with a warning not to get too close. Groundhogs are also known as "whistle pigs."

"Especially the first year, she was not afraid of me and gave me respect and a little bit of trust. But I have not seen her this year. There are footprints, but I've not seen her," Donley said. He isn't sure it's Phyllis — it could be her offspring, though. And that's okay with him.

A small groundhog holding a piece of cauliflower. Next Avenue, backyard treasures
Phyllis the groundhog enjoying a snack  |  Credit: Patrick Donley

So, a groundhog and an artist become friends. Both tunnel and search, one out of pure instinct and the other out of relentless curiosity for the past.

To date, Donley has found: 3,000-plus intact bottles, jars and inkwells; 100 or so jugs, plates, dishware/serving ware; 15 crocks in various states; several ceramic spittoons; and 100 milk glass cosmetic and cheese containers.


An Endless List of Finds

Some of the more unexpected finds include: chicken waterers; Vulcanite dentures with porcelain teeth; bisque baby doll heads with glass eyes; the butt plug (rectal dilator) from a set for constipation; a clear glass tomahawk head (probably a souvenir from a local attraction like Louisville's Fontaine Ferry Park, c.1905); a musket bullet, toy guns and piggy banks (broken, of course); several crucifixes; and a small stoneware spice container labeled in handwritten pencil on the bottom, "Allspice."

An assortment of old doll heads and body parts. Next Avenue, backyard treasures
Patrick Donley has found an assortment of odd items, including many bisque doll heads and body parts  |  Credit: Cooper Burton

Other items include Optic Molds for glass blowing; small brick sales samples; a stack of terra cotta seedling pots; a three-inch hard Booth's Hyomei rubber inhaler (for Catarrh of the head); an "Our Turn to Crow" miniature ceramic beer stein, an embossed black shoe-shaped whiskey bottle with the big toe projecting through a hole; patent medicines, some of which have since been proven to have killed patients (Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup for Children had so much morphine in it, many died); combs (nit combs); marbles, pie weights and ceramic advertising tobacco pipes; and syringes and thermometers from the Spanish Flu epidemic.

The list is endless. Even at the writing of this story, Donley is finding something new every day.

Donley, who has been documenting his "Groundhog Archaeology" on Instagram with 800-plus dedicated followers who are as curious as he is to understand the mysteries of the treasures he's turning up, says his curiosity took precedence over all else and he continues to explore. He went for a year-and-a-half without creating his own art and was consumed with figuring out what more was beneath his building. "I'm on a mission. I'm getting as much of that out of there as I can," he said.

Some of the more unexpected finds include: chicken waterers, Vulcanite dentures with porcelain teeth ...

"I'm the master 3-D puzzler now," he jokes. He often uncovers pieces that he must reconstruct as he finds more. Looking at a plate, for example, he'll recognize a piece he'd turned up days or weeks prior. He instantly knows where the piece belongs. He works to restore and put back together, as if solving many puzzles.

He has a clear system of digging, cleaning and organizing so he can keep straight the many objects and pieces he's finding. It's quite a labor of love and "takes up a lot of real estate." He built his own shelving to maximize space to store all his findings. In a cettain way, he has truly become an archeologist.

Creating a New Museum

Donley is finalizing the formation of a nonprofit, 501(c)(3), The Mary Street Midden Project & Museum, whose mission is to provide "an accessible resource to all members of the community for purposes of education, research, cultural understanding and historical preservation. Through its permanent collection, as well as revolving exhibitions partnered with related entities, the Museum will serve as an educational institution, living memorial and a bridge of ecological understanding between today's world and working class immigrant American life at the dawn of the 20th century."

A man holding up an old glass bottle. Next Avenue, backyard treasures
Patrick Donley in his studio, organizing the found items  |  Credit: Cooper Burton

Plans are underway to have the museum house the artifacts unearthed from the 19th - early 20th century neighborhood midden (refuse heap) that laid hidden beneath the floor of the warehouse basement. This era was rich with clues about the Influenza epidemic, distilling and brewing in Louisville, as well as the history of early glass manufacture for storage and promotion of beverages and patent medicines. The dinnerware, toys and tools all tell a story about everyday existence.

And an art exhibit, featuring Donley's "lightbox photos" of some his most unusual finds, will be on display through the month of October 2022 at Garner Narrative, a Louisville contemporary art gallery.

"Through the exploration of the refuse of the past, we may gain greater insight into how we as a culture today need to address the way our waste is impacting the world and beyond," Donley said. "I envision the exterior to be preserved as it is and even restored to how it looked in 1920, but the interior is a dazzling array of light-filled, contemporary displays."

More importantly, he's rescuing what was considered trash and are now historic markers of a life and time long past. He's digging to preserve and keep human history.

Phyllis the groundhog gave Donley this gift and for that he's grateful. "She's immortal," he says.

Angela Burton, a 2020 Next Avenue Influencer in Aging, is the Founder & Chief Writing Motivator of Feet to the Fire Writers' Workshops®, a creative program that inspires adults to challenge themselves through expressive writing. Her particular brand of helping people find their voice and write authentic stories earned her a spot in Louisville's WILD Accelerator for Female Founders program; Feet to the Fire Writers’ Workshops® launched nationally in 2018. Burton holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from the University of Louisville. Read More
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