Digging to the Bottom of Outhouse Lore
By Curt Arens
Living Here Magazine, Winter 2005
If a manís home is his castle, then what is his outhouse? You would think that a little old building "outback" from the main house, used in bygone years before indoor plumbing to relieve something of lifeís necessities wouldnít rank up there in our collective memory. But the opposite is true.
Outhouses and the memories of using them are not only important to many folks, but the privy is actually revered, taking on something of icon status.
Link to Nebraska Farmer Magazine|
Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land - Introduction and Book Excerpts
Prayer for Farm Families
Farm To Family - Curt's Weekly Column
From Woolworth Avenue to the White House: For His First 16 Days, Gerald Fordís Home was Omaha Ė Nebraska Life, July/August 2001
Abís Place: I Didnít Know How Much I Appreciated the Old Farmstead until the Day it was Gone Ė Rural Voices: Literature from Rural Nebraska, Mead, Neb.: Dirt Road Press, 2002
Bergland Looks Back: Ag Secretary Who Served 30 Years Ago Has Very Modern Ideas - Successful Farming, April 2007
Strolling Down Privy Lane: Digging to the Bottom of Outhouse Lore Ė Living Here, Winter 2005
Lost Towns of the Missouri River: Searching for Tales and Ruins Along Nebraska's Northeast Border - Nebraska Life, September/October 2004
Select Articles and Publications 1996-2009
"People just know that I love little old buildings," says Gayle Neuhaus, proprietor and developer of the Board Walk Back in Time and Privy Path in Winnetoon, Nebraska.
Neuhaus, who has worked her creative talents along with local wood carver, Joe Serres, in collecting, restoring and in most cases, enhancing old buildings into an exhibit that mirrors a Western frontier community, which this Knox County town once was.
When she started working on this gigantic project, Neuhaus knew that outhouses would be useful in entertaining visitors and adding to the genuine feel of the old-style town she and Serres are creating.
Naming her outhouses after the people who donated or sold them to her, Kittyís Litterbox was aptly named after a former owner and is complete with toilet paper courtesy of Sears-Roebuck. But by chance, a mother cat must have read the sign, because she gave birth and cared for a litter of kittens one summer just under the holes in the privy.
There is Chesterís Castle and Edís John. John once owned it, but Ed sold it to Neuhaus for $10. Donít be peeking at the X-rated outhouse, where Serres carved a man Ė that Neuhaus named John Boy Ė who is still using the facilities. Another privy located near the old Winnetoon schoolhouse is dutifully restored, but it too has a visitor, this time the teacher at the school who is hiding from her students.
To remember your visit to Winnetoon, you can even poke your head through the holes of an old outhouse hung on a tree and have your photo taken.
Most of the outhouses on Privy Path were donated to the cause, Gayle said. Thatís a pretty good deal, because we read about one outhouse that brought $5600 on an auction in Canada.
Because of the creative enhancements on the outhouses featured along Winnetoonís Privy Path, they are probably not typical of most privies on the Plains. The average outhouse was about three to four feet in width and about seven feet high. For obvious reasons, they were usually located between 50 to 150 feet from the house. But you didnít want them too far away, because if the urge came in the middle of a windy, cold winter night, you just wanted the privy close to home.
Most outhouses had two or three holes; with some having holes of different sizes for the adults and children in the family. But we heard the story of one outhouse at a hotel in Montana that had twelve holes. Now thatís community spirit.
In the dead of winter, you might have to brush a little frost or snow from the seat before sitting. But summers were worse. Ventilation sometimes lacked in the outhouses, so the door was often left open when in use.
Many folks say that the odor from their outhouse wasnít all that bad. A lot of families kept a bag of lime inside the door and when you were finished with business, instead of flushing, you dumped a cup of lime down the hole. Worked like a charm.
Traditional privies often have the shape of a quarter moon on them. In the old days, two symbols were actually used to identify who should be using the privy. A masculine sunburst was used to identify the menís outhouse and a more subdued moon was used for the womenís comfort station.
Symbols were used because hundreds of years ago, a good share of the population was illiterate and in places like the U.S. where many nationalities lived, no matter what language you might read and understand, the moon and sun were universal.
As the years past, menís outhouses often came into disrepair, so the men would have to find a tree out back, but the womenís outhouse remained and the moon symbol evolved as the universal symbol of a privy.
When rural folks were devastated by drought and financial Depression in the 1930ís, President Franklin Rooseveltís New Deal program put lots of Americans back to work, building public structures through the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
WPA workers built thousands of buildings for the public good. But surprisingly they also built nearly two million pit privies, mostly in rural areas hardest hit by the Depression. It took a three man team about twenty hours to complete a privy and it cost around $17 in materials.
Of course, anti-New Dealers had a field day with the idea of privy construction at taxpayer expense, calling WPA-administered public works projects folly. They even came up with an anti-New Deal political button, featuring an outhouse.
But New Dealers defended their privy building as a way to put Americans to work and help build needed sanitary facilities around the country.
You donít have to tell Bob Kolbe that outhouses were important. The Sioux Falls man spends a good share of his spare time digging up the old pits from pre-World War I privies.
It sounds a little crazy, but to an historian like Kolbe, privies were the mirrors of society. "You get a lot of insight into the household," he said, "by digging up their privies."
In the composted, fertile earth that has resulted decades after the privies were abandoned, Kolbe and his digging partner, Kim Johnky have found all kinds of treasures.
Theyíve dug up rusted parts to antique revolvers. They found a three-foot-long clear glass morning glory vase. "It was probably an unwanted gift from a mother-in-law that got deposited down the hole," said Kolbe.
Anything folks didnít want anymore went down the pit. If the father of the household liked to drink, you would probably find whiskey or beer bottles. "You might learn of País addictions," said Kolbe. For instance, one of their digs yielded 92 unbroken whiskey bottles and probably as many that were broken.
You can tell what medical malady mother might have experienced by the type of medicine bottles deposited in the pit.
The type of toys found down the pit often reveal if the family had boys or girls. By digging up their old privies, Kolbe and Johnky are getting an incredibly personal look at the unedited lives of families that once lived on the property.
Theyíve had digging excursions all around the Plains, but still confine much of their digging to local communities and neighborhoods.
They got started because they like to collect old bottles. Kolbe, who has served as county commissioner for seventeen years and who also owns a clock and repair shop in Sioux Falls, is a collector of historic bottles, books and photography. He also serves on the state historical society board.
He and Tim Wolter, who completed a medical residency in Sioux Falls, but now practices in Wisconsin, initially began searching old privies for bottles that were embossed with the name of the bottle maker or the business that sold them.
By 1910, automatic bottle making machines displaced the antique; specialty made bottles that Wolter and Kolbe started their hobby to find. Since Wolter departed to Wisconsin, Johnky is Kolbeís new partner at digging to the unknown.
They are often asked to come to a particular home to excavate the privy, but they have also walked up to residents and asked to seek out the spot of their former outhouse. These days, the spot where the privy once stood is often paved over by parking lots and driveways, said Kolbe. Or their backyard is in a manicured landscape that they would never think about digging up.
But once they receive permission and start digging, usually the neighbors come along out of curiosity and might invite them to dig up outhouses on adjacent property. "They are intrigued by it," Kolbe said. "People come along and give us water. Itís a lot of fun. One lady even brought out a fan and plugged it in because she was worried we were getting too hot."
Using a T-shaped steel rod as a probe, they push it into the ground until they locate an area that has been disturbed. They might use the probe 75 or 100 times on a single site before they locate the old privy.
Usually they dig around six feet, but they have dug as shallow as four feet and as deep as fourteen feet.
But Johnky and Kolbe still havenít hit the mother load of privy digs. Their "ultimate dig" would be behind a house of ill repute. "They drank better booze," said Kolbe. "And they had more exotic diseases."
There is a better chance that gentlemen patrons of such a place brought along their own local libations, so the bottles left behind might be from a local brewery, Kolbe said. And they might find some interesting pharmacy bottles that once held potions to cure the health problems that might typically plague ladies of the night, he said.
"The people who do this regularly are often professionals," Kolbe said. "They are interested in education. When they find something, they want to know more about it."
If they find a name of a merchant, they want to research that business and learn more about the people and the community of that time period, he explained.
With all this attention, it should come as no surprise that outhouses are still being memorialized. Retired carpenter, Richard Papousek collected a number of unique privies for his South Dakota Outhouse Museum, located appropriately behind his Naperís Emporium in Gregory, SD.
The prize exhibit for the privately owned collection is a two-story outhouse. It sounds and looks goofy, but the structure is quite practical because guests in a two-story hotel wouldnít want to stumble up and down the stairs and outside to use the facilities in the middle of the night. Besides, it is built to deposit material from the upper level properly in the pit.
When Norma Wilson of rural Vermillion compiled stories for her book, "One Room Country Schools, South Dakota Stories", she too learned that outhouses are pretty important to residents.
"Basically, stories were submitted by people who attended country schools in South Dakota or who had some connection to South Dakota," said Wilson.
"My grandparents lived on a farm in Tennessee," said Wilson. "I spent a good deal of time on the farm and they didnít have indoor plumbing." So Wilson knows of the privy experience firsthand too.
"It may not be as cold in Tennessee as it is in South Dakota, but in the winter it was still chilly" to make a trip to the outhouse. It must be such a common experience among folks of that certain age, because Wilson received so many stories about outhouses, that the book includes a whole chapter on the subject.
Generally, country schools had two privies; one for girls and the other for boys and each were strictly off limits to members of the opposite sex. Some of the privies were down right sophisticated, with a calendar on the wall or even a wall hanging of the Lordís Prayer.
But Wilson related one story about some 7th and 8th grade boys who somehow crammed a cow in the girlsí outhouse as a joke. When the culprits were discovered, it was no small trick to back the cow out of the space.
Wilson said snakes were a problem in outhouses. In one of her stories, a teacher sits down in the outhouse and immediately notices a rattlesnake curled up in the corner. She flew out of the building in a flash to elude the unwanted visitor.
Another story talks about a rattlesnake curled up in the pit of the privy. The teacher and one of her older students were able to prod the snake out of the pit and take care of it with the business end of a shovel.
From frosty seats, Sears-Roebuck toilet paper and the open door policy in the summer months, a good share of our residents have memories of their own of using the outhouse. Indoor plumbing might have spelled doom to the revered outhouse, but it certainly hasnít dulled our memories of them.
Sometimes it isnít the lofty things in life that we remember most fondly, because when it comes down to it, the practical things, like the old privy out back, carry a lot more clout.LEARN MORE ABOUT THE OUTHOUSE EXPERIENCE
Winnetoonís Board Walk of Time and Privy Path, Winnetoon, NE Ė Open for self tours daily. Call 402-847-3368.
South Dakota Outhouse Museum, located behind Naperís Emporium, Gregory, SD Ė Call 605-835-8002.
One Room Country Schools: South Dakota Stories by Norma Wilson is available through the SD Humanities Council. Call 605-668-6113.