Elaine Held grew up in South Dakota at a time before the farms in the area had water for indoor plumbing, and using an outhouse in winter was a challenge. Throughout the year, outhouses were the source of much humor, or much aggravation, depending on one’s point of view. Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center. Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program. Curated by Carol Kearns For those who have not had the pleasurable experience of going to the bathroom in an outhouse I will relate some of my families stories.
Outhouses for toilets were necessary because there was no running water. I was in college when the farms in that area finally received running water in the houses. This also meant there was no running water to cook, do dishes or get a drink.
Grampa had a well and you pumped the water until it ran into whatever container you had to catch it. To get a drink, you pumped the water into a long handled dipper and everybody drank out of the same dipper. Obviously, we didn’t know about germs.
Grampa had a drain in the bottom of the huge sink and then he would take the bucket outside and empty it when it became full. Doing the dishes was a chore! Gramma would heat water on the stove and then have to wash the dishes in a large container and then rinse each one from the pump.
An outhouse is a small building about the size of a phone booth. A board has been laid at the right height to sit and two holes have been cut out of the board to sit over. The material that is deposited grows in a pile and the odor grows accordingly. In the heat of the summer that can be overwhelming. In the freezing of the winter the experience takes on a new meaning of survival. You must do what you have to do very quickly or important parts of your body freeze.
The inside of the outhouse lent itself to being a place of horrors for a child. Spiders found this a favorite place to live along with other insects that bit. The first rule a child learned was to check for rattle snakes before entering. A sears catalog was a must as a replacement for toilet paper.
During the night a trip outside was impossible to face for some people so they relied on a thunder jug, or a metal pot with a lid under your bed. This was emptied in the morning in the outhouse. When the hole dug for the outhouse was full the man of the house moved the outhouse and filled in the hole with lime and dirt. He then dug a new hole and placed the outhouse over the new hole.
Because of the nature of this appliance, it lends itself to many jokes and tricks. Halloween was a favorite for outhouse mania. My father told many a story of outhouses turned upside down, people harassed when using it and strange ways to paint them. All in good Halloween fun.
Then there were hi-jinks that were done for serious reasons. Carl Peterson had an outhouse behind his store on the main street for his customers use. The trouble was on Saturday night there was one drunk who always staggered by this particular outhouse on the way home and upon finding the door too difficult to maneuver would just use the side of the building to relieve himself. The result was an odor that could not be erased or washed off.
Carl did everything nice he could think of to stop the man, but to no avail. So he fell back on using a method not so nice. He wired an electrical wire to the wall and then to a battery. The next Saturday night Carl informed a nurse who lived in town he would like her to be in his store at 11:30 please. Of course, when the man relieved himself the arc of electricity went from the wall and followed the fluid to, well you know where.
Another popular prank was to wire a loud speaker system so when a lady would use Carl’s outhouse the prankster would come over the loud speaker with something like, “Lady, I’m working down here!” The pranks were inventive and done often.
In those days it was like toilet papering a house. You did something to the outhouse that would require the owner to fix whatever you had thought up. It was the first tagging done by teenagers and it was the perfect target for any kind of mischief.
If I had not needed to use the outhouse for a toilet you could never have gotten me to go into such a place, but as a farm child it was one of the things you had to do. Some people of that time had such an attachment to outhouses they saved them when indoor bathrooms became available. The outhouse on my grandfather’s farm sits just as the last Halloween prank left it, painted with white and purple swirls with faces mixed in.
I often think of what it was like to use an outhouse when I hear today’s mothers talking about how they sterilize their bathrooms so their children won’t come down with some disease. We have come a long way, baby.
Published: Dec. 25, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 37