Slimy ash heap of history

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal



Lucky residents of the 21st century usually don’t worry about where the next glass of water will come from. Unless there’s a plumbing emergency or a wilderness expedition gone horribly wrong, quality H20 is as close as the nearest tap.
But that’s a relatively new state of affairs for human beings.
“When settlers moved into this area, one thing they needed to have was drinkable water,” said Julian Riley, a 69-year-old Verona resident. “It had to be good water.”
Tupelo was founded on low, swampy terrain, so it didn’t require much effort to dig a well. Verona, a few miles south, is a hilly place. Dig down 15 or 16 feet and you’ll hit about 300 feet of limestone, Riley said.
“They had to build cisterns, which are big containers for water. They dug out dirt until they reached limestone, then chiseled it out,” he said. “Water didn’t seep into it. They put it in there with gutters from the house or barn or whatever building was close to it.”
Cisterns served their purpose until the advancement of civilization and modern technology made them obsolete. They went from life-saving containers of water to potential death traps for children and animals.
“Big concrete slabs are a dead giveaway,” Riley said.
Before capping their cisterns, people filled them up with ashes, bottles and other things they no longer needed.
“They’re garbage dumps,” he said. “What was garbage 100 years ago is our treasure now.”
That’s a slight exaggeration because his searches of old wells and cisterns have turned up plenty of stuff that still qualifies as trash, but he’s also found items that some would consider treasure.
“I’ve pulled up spoons and forks, costume jewelry, brass buttons, a lot of old bottles,” he said. “One tin can, you could read the writing on it 100 years later. You never know what they threw away.”
On the hunt
Riley’s holy grail is a Civil War cannon, which is what started his explorations about six years ago. He heard a story about a man who had his head blown off by a cannon in Verona in the early 20th century. According to legend, the cannon was thrown into a cistern.
Riley owns a piece of property that was once the site of the Verona Hotel. It’s practically across the street from Old City Hall where Riley believes the unfortunate man was killed.
“I know there is a Civil War cannon in a cistern in Verona,” he said. “I thought it would be this one. I haven’t found it so far.”
The first step in exploring a cistern is to remove the concrete slab, then the water must be pumped out.
Before entering, it’s smart to lower a candle into the cistern. If it keeps burning, everything’s fine. If it goes out, Riley lowers a leaf blower attached to a dryer hose to blow out the bad air.
“Methane gas does not have an odor,” he said. “If you’re down there breathing it, you die.”
He’s learned another step is to re-mortar the bricks at the top of the opening because one fell and smacked him on the shoulder once. He wears a bicycle helmet, knee boots and good gloves. A light bulb connected to an extension cord illuminates the messy cavern.
“Before you go down, you need to think about how you’re going to get back up,” he said.
Riley built a scaffolding over the entrance. A cable runs from a thin seat and through a pulley. He connects the other end of the cable to a car, so a partner can lower and lift him.
He used an electric winch once, which worked great until it overheated and quit.
“I was having to holler up and tell them how to get me up,” he said. “That wasn’t fun.”
In the muck
It’s good to keep some of the water, otherwise the accumulated ash dumped over the years becomes too hard to sort through. He said the chisel marks are clearly visible in the manmade caverns, which usually are about 12 to 15 feet in diameter.
“Once you’re down there, you go about getting stuff. A little at a time, you don’t know what you’re getting,” Riley said. “You put it in a five-gallon bucket, and then sift through it when you get back out.”
He’s found egg shells from a cistern that probably didn’t have much oxygen over the years. He’s uncovered leather shoes, wooden spools and old phone equipment. Buttons are relatively plentiful, and since one of the cisterns was located near a hotel with a restaurant, he’s found forks, spoons and an old McCormick spice container with a perforated lid.
Bottles, though, are the finest treasure so far. Riley uncovered a milk pitcher in perfect condition and can’t figure out why anyone would’ve tossed it away.
One of his prizes is a wine bottle that has an American eagle crest on it with what appear to be Confederate flags on each side. Riley suspects it was meant as a peace offering to Confederate soldiers in the days leading up to the Spanish-American War.
“They drank the wine and threw away the bottle,” he said.
Riley has access to several cisterns in Verona, and he knows more treasure awaits. He still wants to find that cannon, as well as other quality cast-offs from a century ago.
But the messy, somewhat dangerous enterprise requires a girding-up period. A man needs to be in the right frame of mind before digging into a slimy ash heap of history.
“A lot of people would love to go down one once,” he said with a laugh and a shake of the head. “They might not want to go back down, though.”
scott.morris@journalinc.com