The arrival of a Christmas catalog in the mail recently revived memories of when the Sears and Roebuck “Wish Book” saw double duty around our house.
Those big, thick catalogs with the soft, newsprint pages were welcomed both for the dreams they fired in the months before Christmas, and for their utility in the weeks that followed. In fact, they served both purposes even as their thickness was diminished a few pages at a time, day-after-day in that most private of retreats--- the outhouse.
Outhouses--- or privies as they were more delicately called--- were commonplace in the Ozarks of my youth, and a simple fact of life on our place. Though hot and cold running water and indoor bathrooms were built into most new homes of the time, many families yet lived in pre-war homes--- or with pre-war ideas--- which just didn’t include indoor plumbing in necessities of life.
In the real estate vernacular of the time, many homes were “modern.” Ours was not.
Yet, in the 1950s, we were not much out of step with much of the rural Ozarks. It was about that time that my grandparents on the north side of Springfield connected to city sewer, and though Grandma welcomed the improvement, Grandpa still trudged to his neat outhouse--- which always smelled of lime and seemed abuzz with mud daubers-- at the back of their long city lot.
As I recall, Elkland’s only public toilet in those days was out behind Jim Andrews’ store, as is still the case at many old churches and camp meeting grounds today.
Aside from the wasps, spiders, foul odor and distance from the house in bad weather, outhouses weren’t so bad. Even the most ramshackle privy was better than none at all, as long as it was well-stocked with newspapers and old catalogs.
Ours, in those days, always seem to list one way or the other as it settled into the earth around the pit (we moved it several times--- but never far--- as new pits were required, covering the old one with dirt from the new).
Originally built of green oak lumber which had been sawed on the place, in its maturity our outhouse was an airish affair, with half-inch cracks between the boards. Its door hung loosely on rusty barn door hinges, and its tin roof flapped when the north wind blew.
Yet, it was well-ventilated, and at night when a trip to the privy required a flashlight, I could tell in a quick glance from the back porch if it was occupied.
It was not the sort of place, though, where a body was inclined to linger when an icy north wind blew.
I knew folks with better privies--- sturdy structures with barrel bolt latches, painted boards and regular toilet seats. Not too many years ago, I built and outhouse to replace the half-century old one of my youth. It had no cracks between the boards, the roof didn’t leak, and I put screen wire over all the places in the eaves where wasps might like to buzz through. I even put a latch on the inside of the door, and a modern white seat with a lid.
And, as with all toilets I’d seen before, I cut two holes in the bench, not understanding why. In all the years I used an outhouse, I was never blessed with the company of anyone.
In years since, I’ve come across a good many variations of outhouses--- mostly in parks and campgrounds far from the amenities of city life. Some have been no better than that old, gray oak privy between the house and the barn. Some have been much better. The most memorable of these was up on the Pecos. It had a concrete floor and a little fan in the pit which generated an interesting breeze across the netherlands.
I imagine this public park variety of outhouse is about the only sort known by most folks today--- truly a “necessary” room used under only the “most necessary” of circumstances.
As I look back on the outhouse of my Ozarks childhood, though, I can’t see that I might have fared better with indoor plumbing, and I sure wouldn’t have gotten in so much reading if I’d had a roll of Charmin at hand, rather than Sunday’s newspaper or the last Christmas “Wish Book.”
RFD “Favorites” are previously published columns selected by author Jim Hamilton while he takes a break from the weekly routine. Read more of his works in “Ozarks RFD 2010-2015,” available online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or from the author. Copyright 2023, James E. Hamilton.
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