Hamilton County NEGenWeb Project

Rambling with Rex

Page 6

Table of Contents

Outhouse focuses country life to favorite hang out
The little shanty has a proper place in family history !

     The little one-door shack with a half moon out back charmed the pants off of many farm families!

     Yep, this prim and proper shanty was a welcome sight and a great friend in the time of need. It was the object of many hurried journeys in the days before plumbing found its way into farm houses.

     Many an old farmer still walking the sod today can revive vivid memories of these charming shacks out back. Why, very important functions were performed day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.

     Plus, they were performed in thunderstorms, blizzards, zero weather, and in the hottest heat of August. The only air conditioning was the fresh breeze allowed by those half moons and an open door – if only family were around. Hot and cold breezes weren't the only concerns: in the heat of summer, those will creatures buzzing about weren't butterflies!

     From the homesteading of Hamilton County in the 1860s to the 1950s, the outhouse could be counted among the buildings on the farm: the house, the barn, hen house, brooder house, silo, wash house and summer kitchen combo, hog house, machine shed, shop, corncrib, granary, garage, wood shed, ice house, and the faithful dirt cellar lines with bricks. The No. 1 rule for placement of outhouses and barnyards: they had to either be down hill or a certain distant from the windmill – if you didn't cotton to flavored water from your well.

     Before outhouses were invented, what was there? We read about the many sod houses in Hamilton County in the 1870s when the county was homesteaded, but did you ever see or hear of a sod outhouse? Me neither, so we'll leave that story to your imagination.

     I guess "toilet" was a given name for The Necessary – a title deemed proper if you raised your little finger while sipping hot tea in bone china. Some also called it a privy, but for my family, it was the outhouse! Whatever the title, if the mission got accomplished, who cared?

     The front of the outhouse faced away from the dirt road whizzing past the farm house. That way, by leaving the door open in nice weather, the occupant would have some light to read.

     Read? Read what? Toilet paper for most farmers came in the mail, printed with designs, photos, and words and prices. Pretty fancy, eh? Back on the farm when I was a young lad in the 1940s there weren't enough coins to jingle to buy that fancy soft-rolled fluff.

     So, last year's thick Sears & Roebuck catalog was put to proper use in last rites for that great steak supper. Or if you were a Monkey Wards shopper, it would be the choice of your reading material . . . and its pages would be properly put to use. It was years before I figured out that Monkey Wards and Montgomery Wards were the same store.

     Which pages of the catalog would be selected first for the task at hand? Well, the women wouldn't be ripping out the household, clothing, and shoe pages first. Those were the pages they read. The men wouldn't be ripping out the pages with farm equipment, harnesses, tools, and engines first.

     Somehow, it all evened out and there would be a need for another catalog next year. But, if you found an item you particularly liked, you had better tear the page out to take with you or it might become a prized offering for the pit before you returned.

     Back to the half moons: Somehow, outhouses and half moons went together. As a young farmer, I could never figure out the significance of the moon shape under the eves. I guess if it were a full moon, it would only look like a round hole up there. So, somehow the half moon was commonly used. Maybe the half moon was more romantic, but how romantic could the atmosphere be around the outhouse? Sometimes the half-moon would be sawed out on the door.

     Ventilation comes to mind as a reason for the designer holes in the walls, not to mention the seats. Oh yes, cracks in the wall boards of old outhouses also contributed to freshness of breath. But these ventilation factors also abetted the chill factor when the winter wind howled and the breezes came from below and exited the half moons. Guess what was sitting in the path of the rushing freezing breeze?

     In the winter time, the outhouse was not used much as a library. Little reading was done. It was full concentration. It was into the outhouse and out as fast as possible. At minus 10 degrees, you don't want anything frost bitten!

     Farmers during the midst of the Great Depression of the 1930s and 40s learned to get along without a lot of things, but the outhouse was not one of 'em. They sure weren't fancy, in fact, some were constructed from lumber salvaged from old buildings that great grandpa built in the last century. The weathered boards came with splinters, knots, built-in pinchers, and you name it.

     Most shanties were home-grown shacks with wooden floors, but some farmers had professionally built privies -- complete with concrete floors, and a little glass window about five feet up.

     Richer farmers ordered 'em from a catalog. I have no idea how they arrived on the farm, but I do know that farmers could even order their house from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. The lumber came all cut to size, so the farmer only had to follow directions and connect A to A, B to B, and so forth. Some of these nicer privies had two larger seats and one small one, but most important of all, they were beveled and sanded for a perfect fit. There was no pinching from these fancy store-bought varnished seats – even complete with hinges.

     Some farms were fortunate to have workers from the Works Project Administration pour concrete foundations for their outhouses, and even provide hinged seat covers. WPA was a Depression Era project of the 1930s and 40s to get millions of jobless people working again in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration. WPA also built bridges, theaters, sports arenas, and public buildings, to name a few.

     The outhouse would zigzag in your back yard. It didn't remain in one spot for years and years, because it had to be relocated when the objects being dispensed came too close to the dispenser.

     The farmer would have to dig another pit about 5 feet deep and a short distance from the pit that the family and its guests successfully filled. The new hole had to be dug smaller than the dimensions for the outhouse, or it would be down house . . . down in the pit.

     OK, so the pit is dug, now what? The outhouse had to be dragged over the top of the new pit? Think horsepower. Besides burning hay in the winter and pulling equipment in the field, that's why horses were invented -- only one horsepower was required for this job. Harness Ol' Dobbin and attach the singletree to the skid on the outhouse and gently slide it over the new pit. Half of the job was done.

      Then, the pile of dirt from the fresh pit was used to top off the old pit, making sure to heap it up because soil settled. The rest of the dirt went into the garden or maybe it was used to fill a washout along the wire fence at the pig pen. In the spring when weeds popped up around the farm, the ones growing over the old toilet pit were always the greenest, the tallest, and the fastest growing weeds. Hollyhocks – the old farm favorite flower -- liked the pit, also. Somehow the 6-foot-tall hollyhock produced blossoms which were darn right purtty, despite where their feet were stuck.

      Speaking of the pig pen, the animals on the farm naturally didn't require an outhouse. In the barn, the animals expended used provender without any thought to ethics or cleanliness. Nature just took care of itself. It was the farmer who had to pitch the fresh pancakes and road apples into a heap out the barn door.

     When the stack got high enough, the farmer got enough incentive to remove the stack. He would load it into his faithful manure spreader and then direct his team of horses to a hungry field seeking nutrients to grow another crop.

     It was a sight to see the byproduct flying through the air. The wagon was called a spreader and it did just that. Its gears would drag the manure to the rear and then a wide circular spiked paddle would toss the manure maybe 15 feet up and out across the field. It was a job for days not windy because showers were possible when that stuff was flying – and wind returns the favor.

     That's enough said about barnyard leftovers. Let's get back to the little house out back.

     Every farm had a worn path in the weeds leading from the back door of the house to the only door on the outhouse. It was a path well trodden by young and old and by day and night. Any time you saw someone on the path, they had that look of determination and intent to take care of their pressing concern.

     But sometimes when they pulled on the door knob, they discovered someone beat them to the seat of relief. There'd be some jumping and hollering about hurrying up. It was a time of frustration piled upon expectation without execution.

     Most farmers had an outhouse with two seats, one for the little tyke's bottom and the other for more mature behinds. For the small tots, they had to be held up in the sitting position to make sure they didn't fall through. The larger crafted hole in the shanty's plank seat was a one-size-fits-all for customers. Or would it be more correct to say client, or patient? By the way, what is the term for one using the outhouse? Attender? User? Ocuppier? Seater? Producer? Maybe occupant is best?

     Using the outhouse could be a social affair if you knew each other well enough and didn't mind company and conversation while you were doing your business.

      In the village of Giltner like many other towns in our rural nation, each house had a little two-seater out by the alley. It wasn't until around 1960 that a sewer line was installed and residents were able to build a bathroom somewhere in their house. It might be on an enlarged back porch or else a big closet was adapted.

     My grandmother, Lizzie Hannah Detamore Miller Salmon, lived in Giltner and had a wash house by her outhouse. Neighbor could keep track of her goings and comings even while rocking on their porch – if they were so inclined. Or sometimes, neighbors passed the time of day as they passed in their comings and goings to their out backs.

     At Halloween, the outhouse became a favorite object of affection, so to speak. The wood floor models were an easy mark. Most weren't fastened down with steel stakes, but just resting over an open pit.

     Sometimes, the culprits would wait until they saw someone enter the outhouse and then tip it over backwards. Four or five boys in their mid-teens were strong enough to give the outhouse a heave-ho. Then they'd split the scene to a safe distance behind trees to watch the victim push the door up and see a head pop up looking around. I was never involved in any tipping. It never entered my mind to do anything destructive on the farm, unless it was tearing down sparrow nests where I thought they weren't appropriate.

      Some called their outhouse The Library, or I mentioned earlier, The Necessary Room. On the farm in the winter time, it was necessary to have a portable outhouse: the Honey Bucket. It was a 5-gallon bucket placed in the hall near the bedrooms of the children. Oh, what a relief it was having not to venture out back during a blizzard, or subzero howling winds. A bucket was often available even in the summer because youngsters were afraid the boogeyman might get 'em outside in the dark.

     We got electricity on the farm in 1950, but didn't get a comfy white throne until 1952 when we moved into Aurora at 1219 8th Street. My dad started working at the Farmers Union Co-Op Creamery and he rented a house from a great old gent named John Schaffert. (His granddaughter Myrna was my classmate at Aurora Hi and sat in front of me for 4 years in the study hall.) The rent was $60 – I think -- for the 4-bedroom house equipped with a tub on legs and a white throne in the bathroom.

     Indoor outhouses? As a young farm lad, I'd seen them in the Hamilton County Courthouse on the basement floor, but trying to configure an indoor privy in our farm house was beyond my imagination.

     Houses were not designed for something called a toilet room. Really now, where would it go? Into a corner of the big country kitchen, the living room, the parlor, in a bedroom, or on an enclosed back porch?

     Later in my young life, I found the little rooms were designed to fit into the house from the get-go and they were called bathrooms . . . and included the white throne.

     Today, in public places they're called "Rest Rooms," which I chuckle over – rather then calling a spade a spade, it's a toilet. Tell me, does anyone go into those little rooms and just rest? Just a fancy, smancy polite term in "restroom?" It's like people pretend they don't know what other people do in those little rooms. OK, I'm tired, so I think I shall just rest a little bit in there.

     Oh, yeah, many years later in the Marines at Camp Pendleton I cleaned heads (toilet rooms) at the Staff Non-Commissioned Officers Club. It was a job for extra cash that I did on weekend nights. To my surprise there was a foyer in the women's room with several easy chairs and couches, along with pretty pictures and flowers. So, I do have to agree that the Women's Room can be a Rest Room. Anywhere else in civilian life, I don't know.

     OK, kids, it's back to the farm.

     If we didn't have a "bathroom" on the farm, where did we take baths? Good question. Why, baths were taken in the kitchen, of course.

     What? In the kitchen in the sink? No, no, we didn't have a sink, a faucet, running water, or a drain. The bathtub was the wash tub which Mom used for rinsing clothes in on wash day – which was always Mondays.

     On Saturday evenings, Dad would bring the tub in from the wash house, along with a 15-gallon copper boiler and fill it with water pumped from the well. The cook stove would be stoked first with cobs for a fast start, then with chopped wood to bring the water to a boil in about 25 minutes. More wood would be added to keep the water hot for 8 baths. A pan was used to transfer the hot water to the wash tub. Another bucket of cold water was standing by to adjust the water to the correct temperature.

     So far, so good. Where was the wash tub placed? And did everyone look on? Please, we were civilized! Chairs circled the tub in a corner of the kitchen. Blankets were tossed over chair backs to provide privacy – if you were old enough to need it-- and to reduce chilly breezes.

     One tub of water was good for all baths. Usually the cleanest went first, which meant the youngest. Additional hot water was added for each bather, but there was no problem of the tub overflowing. The youngest sat in the tub with about 10 inches of water, while older kids and parents sat on a wooden kitchen chair. Only their feet would be in the water. They would stand up to rinse by squeezing the water from the wash rag over their heads.

     In the winter time, the tub was right next to the hot stove. Sometimes the tub would be placed in the living room near the fire place or the heating stove. The blankets again on chairs stopped the winter winds whipping in under the doors and in around the windows.

     On the farm in 1950, there were 6 of us kids and my parents who took baths in the same water. Was it healthy? Who knows? We all lived to be adults. I do know that I haven't taken a bath for many years because I prefer showers. I don't want to sit in a tub even filled with fresher water!

     So, before I flush this story on the outhouse, I have to ask myself if I miss the shack out back? I prefer the white throne with the little magic handle that makes it all disappear.

     Today, 50 years later, I still love to check out the features of outhouses. They're rustic and provide lingering symbols of years past.

     Oh, one more thought: handwriting on the wall.

     In 1979 I visited one of Dr. J. M. Woodard's farms where we lived in 1944-45. The only building standing was the outhouse. Oh, once again I would have loved to walk again through that barn, where the cows were milked on the north side and horses had stalls on the south side. Barns served about three generations of Nebraska farmers, then horses lost out to tractors which had hundreds of horsepowers. The barns were left to fall down among themselves. Today, it's rare to see a barn, especially a functioning barn on any farm. There's also no chicken house, pig pen, or milking cows. Chores have been eliminated from the farm.

     In the Woodward farm haymow I would climb up as high as I could get by clinging to the wall and tip-toeing along the 2x4 framing. Then I'd turn and jump into the straw pile, which we used for bedding for the animals. This one time I jumped and my lower lip was covering my teeth. My jaw hit my knee and my teeth cut a gash below my lower lip. I'm living with this scar to remind me that I was once a dare devil when spurred on by neighbor kids.

     I was 6 then and one of my jobs was to hunt in the mangers and around the barn to find where hens were laying their eggs. It was important to find as many eggs as possible because eggs were a cash crop. Mom would take them to Shaneyfelt Produce in Aurora on Saturdays to sell. She got maybe only 9 or 10 cents a dozen, but that would buy a pound of navy beans at Safeway. The chickens were free to roam the farm, and while most of the hens laid their eggs in the nests in the chicken house, there were several who liked to play hide and go-seek.

     Rex, you mentioned handwriting on the wall. Yes, well, as I was walking toward the outhouse, I was wondering if there would be any evidence that I was ever in this outhouse 30 years earlier. I opened the door slowly. No animals jumped out at me.

     Of course the door opened to the south away from the road view so there was plenty of sunshine lighting it. I walked in and sat down (No, I didn't need to!) and looked around at the walls at eye-level. Sure enough. I saw Rex, Steve, and Pauline, plus Kenneth and Janis written very plainly on the white walls.

     It was a WPA toilet, so it was well built with a concrete floor. Steve and Pauline are my siblings. Kenneth is the boy who would one day become Mayor Kenneth Harter of Aurora. So now you know the rest of the story about the handwriting on the wall.

     And this is all I know about outhouses. You're probably flushed from reading all of this, but thanks for sitting through the memories with me!

©: Rex L. Salmon 2009

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