Jan 10, 2015

The Little House Out Back

It is an outhouse. You do not see as many as you once did. Thanks to modern day technology most cabins, shacks, and hunt and fish camps have running water, showers, flush toilets and the other luxuries of today’s world. But it wasn’t that long ago when outhouses were the norm rather than the exception; especially, it seemed, when we went “up north” when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s.

In those days, there were still homes, usually in rural northern areas, where flush toilets had not yet arrived. When I was a kid, I had an aunt and uncle who lived near Amberg in northeastern Wisconsin. My uncle had a small herd of beef cattle and they lived in the woods for the most part. It was always an adventure to visit them. They had a hand pump for well water in their kitchen and although they had electricity they did not have a flush toilet.

They had an outhouse out back and in the silly way kids are, it seemed “neat” as we said then. It is only as I have gotten into my sixties when I now need to use the bathroom three or four times a night that I realize how unpleasant those nightly trips to the outhouse must have been, especially when winter temperatures got below zero. Both my aunt and uncle have passed away and their little farm has been abandoned. A few years ago, I drove past their old farm and their house and the sheds out back were still there and so… was the outhouse.

Again, in the days of my youth, I remember stopping at a small store or gas station in the back woods areas of northern Wisconsin and when asking where the rest room was I was directed to an outhouse behind the store. That was the way life was then and had been for long time.

Waste disposal has been one of the great problems man has wrestled with from the dawn of time. When people began to live in cities getting rid of waste became critical. Many of the great plagues in the Middle Ages were a direct result of too many people living too close together with no place to get rid of their waste. I recall once seeing a castle in Germany with little outhouse type rooms hanging over the moat. The waste was then deposited in the moat. Can you imagine how that moat must have smelled on a hot summer day?

Throughout history, entire military campaigns were lost not because of weapons or tactics or armies or military leaders but by not disposing of waste. During our own Revolutionary War the Battle for New York failed in a no small part because our soldiers were getting incapacitated from various diseases resulting from indiscriminate waste disposal.

I do not know when the first outhouse was devised but for centuries that is all the world had. Modern sewage systems and septic tanks we know today have been in existence since somewhere toward the end of the nineteenth century.

George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon had outhouses. In its day, it had all the modern conveniences of its time but they had to use an outhouse. I saw our first President’s outhouse when I visited Mount Vernon a few years ago. It had three holes so he could take care of business and conduct business with two of his advisors at the same time if he needed.

Originally all houses in the civilized world had outhouses. Even the White House once had outhouses. When Abraham Lincoln was in the White House there was a row of outhouses on the east side of the building. I wonder if the president had one specially designated for his exclusive personal use or was it first come, first serve for everyone.

All of our large cities such a New York, Chicago and all the others had outhouses out back of residences. Today there are people digging in the locations of those outhouses to find artifacts from those old days to tell us how people lived then. It is amazing to see the things they have pulled out of there. As our country expanded west, outhouses were part a distinct part of that movement. Looking at any of the old photos of the west you can see outhouses throughout the boom towns of those years.

Today, of course, we have all those modern waste disposal systems such as municipal sewage systems for cities and septic tanks for the country folks. They truly are marvelous. In one city of about 50,000 people sitting on the banks of the Mississippi River the sewage department takes in the waste, separating the sludge from the liquid. The sludge is stored and provided to farmers for fertilizer while the liquid is treated and within less than a half day is deposited back in the Mississippi River cleaner than the river water itself.

For people, who like me, live in the country, we have septic systems and it takes my family’s waste, again separating the sludge from the liquid and eventually disperses liquid waste through a drainage field in my backyard without contaminating my water well. This may seem simple but it is not and having a reliable waste disposal system and fresh, clean water at the same time in our country is a luxury many people in the world do not have. I have been to a number of countries where water is contaminated from poor waste disposal and you dare not drink the local water or you could spend a lot more time in the outhouse.

Although we have these modern waste disposal systems in our country, outhouses are still a necessity both in our country as well as around the world.

In northern Minnesota I go to a fish camp for the opening weekend of their fishing season and later in the fall for another weekend of fishing.
Although we may have a television with a dish so we can watch sports,
(Hey, we are guys. What would you expect?) the rest of camp is rustic. We get our water from a hand pump and we have an outhouse. The outhouse had to be rebuilt a few years back and it is a lovely piece of construction.

In the true tradition of outhouses in fish camps all across the northwoods, it has pin ups on the wall and even a bracket holding a small library of magazines. That was a nice touch. Once a group from the camp discussed adding running water, a shower and a flush toilet until someone pointed out that could possibly encourage women to visit the camp. There was a long moment of silence as everyone pondered that and then someone changed the subject and improving the camp was never brought up again.

There are some outpost cabins on fly-in fishing trips in Canada where we have found showers and even running water with the help of solar powered pumps. Now the water isn’t drinkable since it is taken straight from the lake but we can always boil or filter water from the tap. It is nice not to drag buckets of water up to from the lake and even to take an occasional shower. However, we still have the outhouse. In one camp there was even two outhouses. That was especially luxurious. However, the outhouses were loosely constructed allowing air to blow through. This was beneficial to reduce any odors but also permitted the bugs easy access to those sitting in the outhouse. This certainly reduced lengthy stays which did not permit a lot time for reading while in there.

Another camp in northern Minnesota was once a friend’s family homestead. When it was originally built in the early 1900s it had an outhouse. During the winter, when temperatures have dipped to 20 below and colder, we don’t see anyone having lengthy stays in the little house out back. My friend’s family ran a power line to the outhouse to install a small electric heater, but when it is twenty below zero it helps only minimally.     

When I was in Desert Storm in Saudi Arabia, I stopped at what was called a Convoy Support Center somewhere between Riyadh, the country’s capital, and the Iraqi border. It was a sparse grouping of tents consisting of those for sleeping, a mess tent providing food and beverages 24 hours a day, several fuel tanks, and a long row of outhouses. They did not dig trenches under the outhouses but instead cut fifty five gallon barrels in half. Half of the barrels were slid under the outhouse. Once they were full they were pulled out, gas poured in them and lit on fire to burn off the waste while the other half of the barrels were slid back under the outhouse. It was effective and worked, but I imagine there weren’t a lot of volunteers for the burning detail.

On several of the lakes, such as Red Lake in northern Minnesota, sleeper ice houses are rented. The idea of having a sleeper ice house is so you can ice fish all day without having to leave the ice. You sleep there and your ice house becomes a little cabin. No one wants to leave the ice to go find a bathroom, especially when the fish are biting, so outhouses are provided on the ice.

There will be a cluster of sleepers with a single outhouse located close by. They are designed similar to the ones I encountered in the desert. There is a half barrel inserted under the seat, lined with plastic bags. Every day or so someone comes out to remove the full bag which is eventually disposed of later on shore, replacing it with an empty one. When it is below zero the temperatures discourage lengthy stays and no one seems to take a magazine in there with them.

In a lot of places today, we have the modern version of the outhouse in portable potties. We find them whenever you have a large group of people at any outdoor activity such as state fairs, ball fields and others. I find them often at boat landings and in parks. The waste is deposited in a holding tank which is periodically pumped out while adding a new supply of toilet paper.

I have a memorable outhouse experience. My company was deployed to a large, barren air strip in Turkey near the town of Corlu on the European side of the country. We were there for an exercise and once it was over everyone else was transported out, except my company. We were held there for a couple of extra days waiting for our airplane to take us back to Germany. One morning I was sitting outside our tent when one of my sergeants went over to use the outhouse. The outhouse was a row of individual outhouses nailed together. Contractors came in before the exercise started, dug the trenches for them and placed the outhouses on top as well as setting up the camp with large tents.  The contractors were now dismantling the site, dropping and folding tents and getting ready to put everything in storage until the next year for this particular exercise. I forgot about my sergeant until I saw a contractor driving a forklift over to the outhouse, pick it up and drive off. I jumped up and started running after him, yelling at the driver to stop. I finally got his attention and got him to lower the outhouse and back off. The door opened and my sergeant stepped out with a bewildered look on his face. I didn’t ask him if he was finished using it.

Even with all the modern improvements in waste disposal, outhouses or their equivalent portable potties are here to stay. There are places where they are just as important as they were hundreds of years ago. Besides, it is hard to imagine a hunting or fishing camp without them where the iconic outhouse is part of the adventure.