I grew up in a house with only one bathroom! Can you believe how deprived we were? We had to take turns and there was a defined priority among users with #2 beating out #1. We were used to that setup and never knew there was another way. Taking turns was how families coped. I can still recall a visit to my Grandma Nichols’ house where the entire family had convened for a funeral and at times there were as many as 10 lined up on the steps in a queue waiting for a turn in the single bathroom. Whew! I bet Pop’s water bill was high that month!
Shawn and I live in a modest house by the standards here in Raleigh but we have 2.5 bathrooms. Can you believe that much bathroom capacity is deemed basic functionality in a 3 bedroom house? Now that the girls have moved out on their own and our nest is empty, we have a choice of rooms with no waiting in line. Ever! Talk about luxury. I rotate visits so no bathroom feels lonely and unloved.
Homer Miller was ahead of his time when it came to bathroom design. With 12 kids and 2 parents sharing the facility he had to be concerned about throughput. Grandpa designed and constructed a 2 seat outhouse. Talk about togetherness. Now for the city folk who have never had to rough it and never spent a summer vacation engaged in primitive camping along the Holly River, let me explain the concept of an outhouse. An outhouse is a toilet facility located in its own little structure a short walk from the main house.
I am not going to try to address the why of outhouses on the American frontier but will share a little bit of how. How would I build one?
1. Choose a spot downwind and not too far from the back door of the main house. But not too close either.
2. Dig a hole in the ground, 3-4 feet in diameter, and as deep as you can make it. Remember the deeper the hole, the longer the facility can operate without maintenance.
3. Erect a shed over said hole. This can be a fancy structure built from lumber provided for the purpose or it can be constructed from scraps.
4. Inside the shed install a floor made from flat stones gathered from the local creek or scraps of lumber. Helpful hint – termites love to eat wood placed in contact with dirt.
5. Create a raised platform that allows the user to place his or her backside in a comfortable sitting position above the hole. A nice splinter free seat like we consider the norm today is optional in an outhouse.
6. Add a door and install a latch so the wind doesn’t blow the door open while an occupant is finishing up the paper work.
7. Consider adding a ceiling light so the facility can be more accurately used at night.
8. Cut vent holes near the ceiling and install some screening to prevent wasps and other critters from gaining access.
9. Provide a Sears catalog or some store bought toilet paper and you have addressed the family sanitation needs.
I know you see drawbacks with such a creation such as how do I visit the facility when it is raining? Well, the best way is to run down the path, real fast, and hope no one else is in there with the door latched shut. How about in winter when it is cold and snowing? Timing is everything. Wait until another party has just warmed the seat, then go. Grandpa Miller had large boards laid end to end from the back porch out the outhouse so feet never got muddy in the rain but I can tell you from experience those boards were slick in wet weather so we had to tread carefully.
Using the outhouse in the dark was not one of my favorite experiences at Grandpa’s house. There were bugs in there, some hanging out just under the seat hole waiting to pounce on bare tender buns. There was a one bulb ceiling light but the switch was inside the back door many feet away. Seems easy – turn on the light, take the walk down the path, do your thing, walk back, and turn the light off. But Grandma had a light fetish. It was her goal in life to “cut off” every light she could, perhaps because electricity cost money. One would be down the path sitting in the little shack and … splat! No more light because Grandma looked out, saw the glow, and hit the switch. You do not know scary until you sit in a WV outhouse in total darkness having just seen all the critters hanging on the walls. My brothers and I would stand guard by the light switch if one of us had to make the hike in the dark. Brothers should look out for one another and it was an unwritten code that no brother would put another in the dark in the outhouse. We trusted one another.
One day I visited the outhouse and there were dried corn cobs in the toilet paper box. You have to be kidding! Mercy sakes! Grandpa was one tough guy!