Unearthing history: Pot could date back 150 years

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Jasmine and Justice Olmstead helped unearth this cast iron pot on Diane Benson’s property along Ash Street, in McGregor, in early July. Marty Kahler, owner of the Past 100 Years antique shop, said it’s a pig scalding pot, and could date back to the 1860s.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

From its historic downtown to the tales of former residents that continue to fascinate, the past remains very much a part of McGregor’s present. No matter where you look, there’s always something unique to discover. 

Sometimes, you don’t have to look farther than your own backyard. 

“There used to be more houses along here, all the way up to the [McGregor] Heights,” remarked Diane Benson from the deck of her home along Ash Street. “And people used to just throw things out in the back of their houses.” It makes sense, she said, that some things would be left behind. 

Around eight years ago, Benson first saw what she assumed was a pot, sticking partway out of the hillside behind the rental property she owns next door. Over the years, she’s entertained ideas of unearthing the item, but never followed through. In early July, however, she decided it was time to solve the mystery. 

Brother and sister Justice and Jasmine Olmstead, whom Benson has dubbed her “adopted niece and nephew,” were making a regular visit from their home outside Prairie du Chien. At 14 and 11, respectively, the two often help Benson with tasks around her home and property. Armed with shovels, they headed over to the site, ready to perform their own archaeological dig. 

“It was really hard. There was mud all over it and it was really far in the ground,” Justice recalled. “It took an hour to get it out.” 

Together, Justice and Jasmine lugged the pot over to Benson’s home, where she inspected the large, cast-iron piece. 

Benson said she could tell the pot was old, but just how old, and what it was potentially used for, were impossible to gauge. So, she called in an expert, Marty Kahler, owner of the Past 100 Years antique shop in McGregor. 

“It’s a pig scalding pot,” explained Kahler, who said deciphering the item wasn’t too difficult since he’s seen many at farm auctions over the years. Today, they’re popular flower planters. 

He suspects this pot could date back to the 1860s. They were made until the early 1900s. 

“Many people had them because they did all their own butchering back then,” Kahler said. “After they dressed the pig, gutted it and cut its feet off, it still had this coarse hair on it.” 

As the name of the pot implies, when filled with heated water, it could be utilized to remove that hair from the pig’s skin. 

Kahler said the pot was likely even made in McGregor. 

“In that day, how you got things here was by boat or mule,” he said. “It was so heavy, they would not make it in Chicago. They would bring the iron down from northern Minnesota,” then items would be made in town. 

Today, the piece is worth around $150 to $250, Kahler estimated. 

Benson said she’s unsure yet what she’ll do with the pot. But it has made her wonder what else could be hiding on her property. 

“It’s inspired me to get a metal detector,” she said, laughing. “Lord knows what we might find.”

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