Privy Memories

Every farm had one, but not all were equal. There were “one holers” and “two holers”. There were wooden ones and tin ones. There were permanent ones and temporary ones. There were simple ones and fancy ones. About the only things they had in common was that outhouses were cold in the winter, stunk in the summer and were darn nice to have when you needed one.

The common outhouse, if there were such a thing, were two hole affairs. The seats were built into the structure with the opening cut with a hand saw and shaped expertly with a rasp to eliminate the sharp edges. A frequent upgrade was a store bought seat that could be lowered into place for the comfort of the ladies.

As a point of pride, the structures were built to last. The floorboards were made from good quality lumber and were attached to strong 2×6 joists that could take the yearly move. White pine was used for the walls and roof. A good sized one was 6 feet wide, 5 feet deep and about 8 feet high. The roof was a simple affair that tilted from front to back to shed the rain. Shingles were optional. Windows were rarely installed and the only source of light was the obligatory crescent moon which was cut high into the door to identify its true purpose. Outhouses, if painted at all, were normally white.

The structure itself was placed over a hole that was dug just for that purpose. The building was moved as needed and the old hole was covered with soil. The new holes were dug down to about a six foot depth, or to the point where the second or third oldest child refused to dig any further. The key to a successful outhouse hole was to locate it on a crown of the higher ground with soil that had good absorption. Nobody wanted to have the run off from a thunderstorm come roaring down a slope and flooding the hole, allowing the water to lift the contents out of the pit.

Another key consideration for location was privacy. A lot of farms placed the outhouse on the edge of tree line. This gave shade in the summer and cut down on the wind in the winter. However, distance from the house to the privy always had to be respected. When nature called, no one wanted it too far from the house.

The last concern that needed to be addressed was ventilation. How much was a matter of much contention and usually came down to the owner’s preference. Obviously the more ventilation used, the cooler (and less smelly) the building was in the summer. However, in winter, a draft cause by the ventilation could be very uncomfortable and with temperatures hovering at minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit, wind chill was a risk that had to be accounted for.

The most important accessory for the building was paper. Years before the environmentalists ever heard of it, farmers practiced recycling. The best source for outhouse paper was the pink wrappers from peaches. But, they were a seasonal item and were normally saved for guests.

In most cases it was the Sears Roebuck Catalog that made the best impression, as an educational reference used to clean up the farmer’s bottom line. For farmers, the time spent in the outhouse let them keep abreast of new implements for the farm. For the wife, her daytime constitutional gave her a window into the luxuries of the affluent people in town. For the children, their efforts were rewarded with their first introduction into the secrets of the opposite sex. Many a young male was driven to distraction by the lavish description of corsets and braziers displayed in the drawings on the black and white pages of that book.

All of this information was provided by an ingenious marketing idea; that was recycled page by page by page.

Many people thought the worst thing that could happen in an outhouse was to run out of paper. However, it was not paper which caused the near tragedy on a nearby farm. It all came down to ventilation.

The farm was located a half-mile down the road from ours and was only a quick walk across the field. During those last few years there, our family had taken to moving into the cities for the winter. Our mother was employed as a teacher and we had stopped milking, so there was no real need for us to remain on the farm year round. Our neighbor farmed year round, so winter preparation was much higher on their priority.

It was because of this that the two farms subscribed to different theories of outhouse ventilation. Ours was loosely built to eliminate the heat, while theirs was built near the trees and was tightly sealed to stop all but the most persistent drafts. In fact, to help stop cold air penetration, a much stronger foundation was used on theirs which almost sealed the lower chamber of the outhouse.

Now this design has performed flawlessly for years on my neighbor’s farm and when we came out to visit in the preceding winter, their outhouse seemed remarkably warm. But during the summer of 1964 things had changed. It was much hotter than normal and the wind did not seem to blow as much as usual. It made for an uncomfortable June and it appeared that July would be following the same weather pattern.

As bad as that year’s weather was, we youngsters still had one thing to look forward to. It was the holiday second only to Christmas for us. It was the 4th of July! The 4th was a time of county fairs, watermelons, cap guns, potato salad and fireworks.

Now this was the old time Forth of July, when the firecrackers had much more pop. When you set off a Baby Gorilla firecrackers, you knew you needed to get away. The older children played with Cherry Bombs and Silver Salutes. (The Silver Salute was spoken about almost reverently and it was always mentioned that they contained a quarter stick of dynamite.) When my older brother placed a Cherry Bomb under a can and set it off, the can was blown fifty or sixty feet in the air. Cherry Bombs and Baby Gorillas were way too powerful for the smaller children.

Little children were given Lady Fingers, while not as powerful as a Baby Gorilla; they still made a nice bang. If you placed them under a can, they could easily launch it about 5 feet into the air. It didn’t take the those same kids too long to find out that if you set Lady Fingers off in a more confined area, the noise produced was greatly enhanced. So it was common for children to blow up their fireworks between the out buildings, trying to get the loudest bang from the reverberation.

This particular Fourth of July seemed routine until nature called one of my neighbor’s younger daughters. Unlike her brothers, a little girl could not just stop and run to between the lilac bushes; she would have to use the outhouse. So off she went, carrying her lit punk and the package of Lady Fingers with her. It was hot in there, but being the proper lady she was, she closed and latched the door before dropping her trousers and plopping herself down on one of the two seats.

It didn’t take but a few seconds for her to put this spare time to use and imagine what a great sound it would make to drop a Lady Finger down the other hole. The noise would be sure to be deafening in this small of a place! She resolved to try it before telling the other children about her great idea.

Still seated with her pants down, she took her punk and lit a firecracker and threw it in the hole. Nothing! — It had been a dud. Something must have put it out as it descended into the pit. So, she lit another and waited to be sure it caught properly before dropping it down the shaft. Moments after the firecracker went into the outhouse pit, a tremendous explosion was heard across the farm.

It was a combination of the hot heavy air and the sealed foundation that trapped the methane gas down in that hole. When that little firecracker went off, it ignited that sour gas and blew that outhouse and the little girl right off that foundation, twisting it off to the side.

Luckily, she survived her physical injury but still shudders when attending our neighborly gatherings, knowing that someone will have to bring up the story of her launching the outhouse.

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