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Thursday, 24 February 2011

Outhouses I Have Known

By Lyn Burnstine of The Lynamber Times

I have no fondness for the outhouses I have known even though intimacy was definitely a part of the relationships. In the summers at my grandma’s farm, I was always afraid of the red wasps that buzzed around the inside of the roof.

Outhouses in summer in hot climates were miserable places to be, especially if your purpose there involved more than a quick visit. The only ventilation was provided by the small cutout windows high up on the walls, unless you were lucky enough to be able to leave the door open.

Since the door faced the house, I only did that when certain that nobody but family was around and company not apt to arrive suddenly. There was often an old catalog in the corner, but, at least when my parents were in residence on the farm, we always had real toilet paper.

Allegedly, before there were catalogs, there were corn cobs in that very facility. Well, they were biodegradable!

Our winter homes — several, small-town, Main Street apartments over the years — had the luxury of some level of indoor plumbing. Not again till we moved back to the country year-round, when I was in the eighth grade, did the specter of an outhouse and all it implied raise its ugly head.

We had not yet had much experience using a freezing cold outdoor bathroom all winter till we moved there. It was bad enough to have to sit with a bare bottom hanging over frigid open air, but guess who the lucky one was that got to empty the nighttime slop jars — thunder mugs, we called them.

My grandmother, by then, had difficulty getting around and my mother saw herself as a hothouse flower who couldn’t do heavy chores. And it was a fair distance out to the outhouse from the house, for obvious reasons having to do with the olfactory factor.

My father was busy from early morning till night, sandwiching a full-time teaching job in between the morning and evening chores of caring for a substantial herd of milk cows, pigs and chickens. All this was in addition to church and school evening meetings, all the family grocery shopping, and helping with cooking and other household chores.

I felt so bad that he had to work that hard, especially at times when he wasn’t feeling well, but his code of ethics did not include letting his “girls” do the heavy farm work for him: milking, hauling hay and mucking out the barn stalls.

So I probably didn’t complain too loudly about feeding and watering my own livestock — a small herd of sheep — or of emptying the buckets of nighttime effluent.

My problem was that I was smitten with a neighbor boy — the handsome Dennis — and lived in dread of being seen by him as I did that nasty chore. I tried to avoid that mortification by listening carefully for the putt-putt of his motorbike before starting down the path, then being prepared to duck down out of sight behind some bushes if I misjudged the time I had to maneuver from the house to the privy and back.

Happily for all, in the second year we lived there, my father installed running water, plumbing and a tiny shower, sink and toilet in a former pantry.

I went away to college, married, had children — all that time enjoying real bathrooms with real bathtubs. I became a folksinger; my husband, kids and I began to go to folk festivals which involved camping, which involved — you guessed it — OUTHOUSES!

The Fox Hollow Festival in Petersburg, New York, became an important part of each summer. A new outhouse, then a second, were built on the grounds. Songs were written in homage to them. Dedications complete with poetry, pomp and circumstance were held, including a naming ceremony.

Intertanglefolkinlockinwood was a magnificent specimen: a three-holer on the women’s side; a three-holer on the men’s side. (For those few of you who might not know – Tanglewood and Interlochen are two fine summer institutes of music — the first in Massachusetts, the second in Michigan.)

It had the best graffiti ever written — each entry inspired grander literary effort. One would linger to read the new entries and exit laughing. It was the first time I had been able to see the humor connected with an outhouse since back in my high school years, when my father got even with the kids who would drive the four miles out to our farm to try and tip over the outhouse at Halloween.

He simply moved the building back a few feet, then shot a rifle into the air when he heard the boys swearing as they realized they might fall in the hole rather than us — their targeted prey. Reports were that some of the boys ran the whole way back to town!

I hope that is the end of my story, but it may not be. My country-dweller sister has seen a big black bear snooping around her outhouse, even standing up against the side trying to peek in the window.

So here I am again, still afraid — with a police whistle clutched in my hand instead of a flyswatter and the door wide open to make a quick getaway if the bear comes near.

[INVITATION: All elders, 50 and older, are welcome to submit stories for this blog. They can be fiction, non-fiction, poetry, memoir, etc. Instructions for submitting are here.]

Posted by Ronni Bennett at 05:30 AM | Permalink | Email this post


Ahhh! I remember it well. :)My mother would not allow a "thunderjar" in our home at any time. If you had to go, you went outdoors.......that means that all of us children grew up with strong bladders & bowels & were "trained" to go first thing in the morning & last thing at night. She scrubbed it spotless every week & put lye down the 2 seater every week. I recall a fly strip too, during the summer. Ahhh! What character builders outhouses were! Dee

We had one of these at our cabin at the lake. We kept a bucket of wood ashes inside and dumped a scoop down the hole after each use; as I remember, it didn't smell because of the chemical action of the ashes. We rather enjoyed the solitude out there and the power of being locked inside when the other kids wanted in.

Thanks for the memories! This grown-up kid from the mountains of West Virginia had plenty of experience at my Granda's house and elsewhere with outhouses, too, ... also with Saturday night baths in a big copper tub in the kitchen next to the firewood/corncob burning cooking stove, and a few other fond memories of big, deep goose-down mattresses and quilts.
Our under-the-bed convenience was called a Peggy Pot in West Virginia ;-)

Lyn- What?! No pictures?!

Great memoir of a critically important American institution.

We recently moved to an historic (1802) McIntire house in Salem, MA. I marvel at the intricately carved moldings, mantels, balustrades, and archways. But, Thank heavens the privies were removed prior to the formation and empowerment of the Salem Historic Conservation Committee! - Sandy

Thanks for the comments and the chuckles! I had hoped to close that chapter of my life forever, but now I'm wishing they'd hurry up and put a composting one in the center of the Walkway Over the Hudson (1.24 mi. long) where I walk often. They are only at the west end, limiting how much time some of us can linger to enjoy the gorgeous view up there.

A favorite halloween story in my hometown involved the young lads who lived in "Jersey City," just outside the town, and "Shorty" Ruff,a small man
whose outhouse was a favorite tip-over target in the area.

One "gate night," Shorty decided enough was enough. He took a seat in his outhouse with shotgun in hand, ready to scare away the most dedicated vandals who might show up.

Legend has it that Shorty fell asleap. The tippers appeared and had their way with the outhouse. Shorty fell into the pit. He was said to be sadder, wiser, and considerably more aromatic when he emerged.

Lyn, I love this story!

Great story..my only outhouse visits were in the 70s when we bought a Volkswagen camper and toured all over the place, some campgrounds had outhouses. One memorable trip to far north Maine, my youngest son, 5 or 6, fell in and thank God his brother, 7 and sister, 8 were right outside and came like the wind to get their Dad, a Vermonter, who raced to the rescue..He didn't say until later how dangerous that fall could be, but laughed and laughed at how our dog, Sam avoided my son for days after "his fall." In the big city, we all thought toilets in the hall were a nightmare; we did not have that inconvenience, but had bathtub in kitchen..I can write safely about those experiences because anyone and everyone, who caught me naked, e.g., mailman, iceman, UPS man, friends of my little brother and sisters are all gone now...While others longed for in house "twink" I dreamed of a bathrub with a door on it...Thanks for the flood, so to speak, of memories...

This brings back many memories (not all good). Thanks for a wonderful story.

For a few short years after my mother remarried we lived in a house without running water and I remember freezing my you-know-what off in the winter when, as you so delicately put it, 'more than a quick visit' was required.

Kids of today don't have a clue as to what they are missing.

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