Don’t Let Them Tear That Little Brown Building Down

outhouse

Old outhouse down the road a ways

I only used a real outhouse one time that I can remember. I was about five years old and was with Pap on a trip to a nearby country store. Pap was taking forever talking to somebody and I wanted to go home because I had to go to the bathroom. I kept whining about needing to go to the bathroom until Pap sent me to the store’s facilities-which was an outhouse. After visiting the outhouse I wished I had pestered Pap about having to go.

My friend Matthew Burns has a clear perspective about growing up with an outhouse:

“During a recent discussion with a group of Appalachian enthusiasts, nostalgia for the outhouse ran rampant. Speaking for hours on the noble privy and needed efforts to preserve the humble structure, it was obvious that most of these folks had never thought of the outhouse on any terms other than aesthetics. I felt otherwise. My family lacked running water until the spring of 1988, and I was perhaps the only person in this discussion who truly remembers the outhouse for its practical purpose. As such, I hold an entirely different perspective on the topic.

I vividly recall as a child answering the call of nature in the middle of many blistery nights and returning back indoors with both sets of my cheeks rosy red. I don’t ever remember anyone “relaxing” in the family privy during the winter months. There certainly wasn’t anyone who took time to read the local classified ads during his or her morning constitutional. I’m sure these wintry trips to the privy were the basis for the old adage “blue-ass cold”. The summer months were not much better due to the inevitable swarms of biting insects and flies that inhabited the privy. An occasional snake was not unusual. This was the everyday reality of life with a privy. I believe with every fiber of my being that this was the rule, not the exception.

I’ve been in outhouses of all sizes (one-holers, two-holers and even a three-holer at one point), and they were all pretty much the same regardless of the care given to them. Some were in worse condition than others to be sure, especially the ones that weren’t kept clean and the older ones that brought more fear than relief. My grandparents’ outhouse was so old that the floor gave under my weight when I was still quite young. It would have probably been safer for an adult to slip out into the nearby bushes. My parents outhouse was kept immaculately clean and hydrated lime was put in the hole on a weekly basis to keep down the stench and to prevent it from filling up. Even with the constant cleaning it was still far from pleasant by today’s standards.

My wife is always telling people that I am the “oldest” young person that she knows, and my childhood in the 1980’s is more akin to her mother’s childhood from the 1940’s. She finds it odd that a person my age in this day and time can still remember when they first got electricity, a telephone, running water and an indoor toilet. While I miss many things about growing up on the mountain, such as the farm itself, the livestock and all the family close-by, I certainly don’t miss the old outhouse. It is but a dim, malodorous memory in the faded recesses of my mind.”

—-

In the 1960’s Billy Edd Wheeler wrote a satirical song, “Ode to the Little Brown Shack Out Back,” about losing a beloved outhouse.

I ask Granny if she had any outhouse stories for me. Granny said she didn’t care to remember any outhouse stories at all! Even though I dream of days gone by and all the knowledge and goodness they hold, I don’t think I missed out on anything by growing up with indoor plumbing.

I hope you enjoyed the song.

Tipper

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29 Comments

  • Reply
    Marshall Reagan
    September 13, 2018 at 12:52 pm

    We still have a outhouse on the homestead. my brother lives in the homestead & had me build an outhouse for a number of reasons. #1 was with 3 females in the house & 1 bathroom. #2 was if the well pump quit you need a place to go as well #3 is just to have it if & when it is needed. I also remember when we got electricity . I was 4 years old. when you are used to kerosene lamps & then get lights with a 25 watt bulb , that was bright. now we think we have to have multiple lights in each room.

  • Reply
    Kipper
    September 11, 2018 at 1:31 pm

    My Aunt and Uncle had a vacation cabin about 60 miles from our big city homes. It truly was a cabin. The whole family loved the place. Grandma was in charge of the wood stove as no one else had her expert skills. Aunt was a very tidy lady and the cabin was always clean and organized, but comfy. The outhouse was as clean as possible. Both places smelled of PineSol, especially the outhouse. I still get a bit nostalgic when I smell PineSol.

  • Reply
    Susie
    September 10, 2018 at 12:28 am

    I was born in the early 1950’s and until my sister and I were around 5 and 6 years old we lived at our maternal granny and granddaddy’s house… they had an outhouse and like others have described I remember it well. They had electricity, and a waterline to their property and a hydrant outside, but no indoor bathroom. Didn’t ever get one until the 1960’s when they tore down their old house and had a whole house moved from the other side of town to their property.. I’m sure I didn’t enjoy some aspects of that outhouse, yet I was thankful to have it because their weren’t any woods nearby, only a few good climbing trees, and a big ole Oak that had been there long before I was. In the winter we had that little porcelain red and white slop bucket with a lid. What I dreaded about it was that it was COLD. Later when we moved away from them we had a bathroom and surely it was appreciated but we never had a phone in our house growing up, only in our grandparents houses. We still will use porta potties when we have to, and yes some are worse than others and some I wouldn’t go in and headed to the nearest gas station. My sister did get locked in one at a ball park and the only reason I happened upon her hollering to get out was when I went to get something to eat… we still haven’t forgotten that one. All in all though back in the day when our outhouse was really needed, it was still a good thing, and pretty normal in those days to have…. even with all the …. well most of the time anyway .

  • Reply
    aw griff
    September 9, 2018 at 8:03 pm

    Couldn’t get here till late.
    The first house we lived in didn’t even have an outhouse. We went to the woods or a pot. We lived in Columbus Oh. for a few months when I was a boy and all the apts. shared a common outhouse and each apt. had an icebox and the ice man delivered a big block of ice and put it in the box. Don’t remember how often. This was in the early fifties. Papaw mentioned the toilets over branch rows. There were many like that in e.ky. Ever time there was a heavy rain they got flushed down to the main creek. Us kids played in those creeks, built dams and swam in it. It’s a wonder we didn’t come down with some gosh awful diseases.

  • Reply
    Charline
    September 9, 2018 at 4:34 pm

    I am fascinated by these outhouse stories- especially the ones in more recent decades. I have heard many family stories from long ago. My own experience is limited, as I visited Aunt Shirley’s facility only once. On the other visits to her home, I waited til we got back to town.

  • Reply
    I P Dailey
    September 9, 2018 at 4:13 pm

    I think the use of outdoor facilities is more of a problem for the ladies than the men. Most men actually had rather pee outdoors than try to hit a little porcelain bowl that’s anchored to the floor. It is so much easier to hit the ground. A little shake and you’re good to go. No worries about having to read little poems about sprinkling, tinkling and leaving the seat up. The complaints got so bad here that my son and I conspired to tell everybody that if the lid was up, it wasn’t us, we had been peeing in the sink. We actually didn’t, of course, but we do go outside as much as possible which means after dark mostly since we have neighbors on three sides.
    Then there is the matter of “hitting the woods”. Any true outdoorsman knows what that phrase means. It has nothing to do with golf but golfers are obliged to do it too at times. Outdoorsmen learn early on what kind of leaves are good to use. Heaven help you if you don’t know what poison ivy looks like.
    There is something gratifying about not only hunting, gathering, cooking and eating things from nature but also returning it to the very soil from whence it came.
    Ask Matt if he has ever had to “hit the woods”.

  • Reply
    Rachel Babitz
    September 9, 2018 at 1:37 pm

    I enjoy reading your great articals thank you for shaing with me and meeting your family and listening to their songs. It sure makes for a swell day! Sure wish that I had grown up Appalachia. G-d bless!

  • Reply
    Cheryl Christensen Bennett
    September 9, 2018 at 1:20 pm

    I lived in the California desert back in the 1980s. We finally hooked up running water to our cabin 9 days before our son was born. It was only to a sink – no other indoor plumbing. We lived in a remote location. We bathed outside after dark with water from the water tank which was fine in the summer and VERY COLD in the winter. We had an outhouse. My worst experience was going in there shortly before our son was born. It was early in the morning and really windy. I went inside and the OUTSIDE door latch (to keep the wind from blowing the door back and forth) fell down and locked me in! It was winter so we had the noisy heater going inside where my husband peacefully slept for the next 2 hours. We now have a gristmill in Tennessee and while it does have indoor plumbing, the old outhouse still stands behind it.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    September 9, 2018 at 1:19 pm

    Tipper,
    When we moved, Daddy and Alex Nelson built us an Outhouse, leaving a plank out of the door to let some light in at the top. My Mama was paralyzed in her left side, but she never complained about having to go outside to use the facilities. That’s just the way it was, until we got indoor plumbing. I guess I was in the 7th or 8th grade then. But we experienced things that not many others have. We didn’t know any other way, but we were happy. …Ken

  • Reply
    Leon Estes
    September 9, 2018 at 12:03 pm

    Our home was only two miles from town, but Dad did not install indoor plumbing till I was about 7 or 8. I’m #7 of 8 kids and could.tell you the location of the 3 different sites where the 3 outhouses sat. I remember Dad digging a new hole for the 3rd one Sure, “city” water ran down our street, but consider what it took to bring water to the house. Dig ditch (by hand) to back of house. Decide how many feet of pipe and connections were needed. Buy piping from lumber yard. Do the job with help from a couple of half grown boys. Remodel the pantry —- close off one door, cut another door in another wall. Change necessary wiring; buy light fixtures, tub, sink, medicine chest and commode. Prepare drain for sink, tub and commode to drain into NEW Septic Tank, then cut a new door in outside wall so one could get to it direct from outside! There’s more, but I think you get the picture….

  • Reply
    Garland Davis
    September 9, 2018 at 11:27 am

    The house I grew up in could best be described as, “Five rooms and a path.” The first place I lived with indoor plumbing was the barracks at the Naval Recruit Training Center, San Diego, CA.

  • Reply
    Gigi
    September 9, 2018 at 11:12 am

    Growing up we had a out house. I didnt like going in there at night cause i couldn’t see . You never know what might be in there, so if i had to go, i would go beside the house. I didnt know what it was like to have a in door plumbing until i got married. It so nice to be able to use the bathroom and take a shower or bath. Just this morning, i was telling the 93 yr women i sat with about taking a bath in a tub. One of those metal round tubs. As kids in the winter time we would fill it up and heat it and take our bath in it. In the summer we would take our bath at the creek. Not having to go out to the outhouse is so much better and you really appreciate what you have. I sure do. Thanks Tipper!

  • Reply
    PinnacleCreek
    September 9, 2018 at 10:44 am

    Back in the day, the Coal Camp houses came complete with electricity, running water (cold), and yep an outhouse. They were not too bad because the populated area prevented running across a snake to a degree. There were no phones in the house, but the coal tipple had one. I had to be hospitalized, and was thrilled when my dad called the hospital from the tipple to talk to me. I promptly put the phone up to the ear with the ruptured ear drum. When I finally got the phone switched to my good ear it was so thrilling to hear my Dad. Mom was home with the kids, and he had to work, so I had to become a mature 6 year old and stay at the hospital by myself for a week. That seemed fine because they visited and brought me “funny books.” I got to eat strange foods such as poached eggs. Memorable!

    Folks may feel bad for children growing up without today’s luxuries, but it was so exciting to get that black and white tv, hot water from the tap, indoor plumbing, and a party line telephone. Now they take things for granted and have trouble with “boredom.”

    Good rendition of that old song, and love that you touch all areas of Appalachian life. Some had an unusual attachment to the old ways. My sis had to leave their outhouse intact because her elderly father-in-law when visiting enjoyed going to the outhouse rather than the convenience of the indoor plumbing.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    September 9, 2018 at 10:27 am

    I am one of the last of the outhouse users, I guess. We had electricity but no running water or indoor plumbing until the late 70’s or early 80’s. I hated it then and won’t even use a modern porta pottie now unless the case is desperate.

    I had a friend I roomed with at college and she came from similar circumstances but she always said she missed using the outhouse. But she also said she missed drawing water from the well, too. All I can say is “Bless Her Heart”!

  • Reply
    Cynthia
    September 9, 2018 at 10:04 am

    The country church I grew up in had a women’s outhouse and a men’s outhouse out back of the church. I avoided it at all costs but sometimes it was a necessity. The church did have running water in the kitchen but no hot water, unless it was boiled on the stove. Some friends of the family had a place on the water and it had an outhouse. When I was in school, there were still families with outhouses.

  • Reply
    Dana
    September 9, 2018 at 9:54 am

    I remember using the outhouse at both my grandparents’ Iowa farms. One was a three holer. The middle hole was smaller than the other two so that kids would be less fearful of falling through. And yes, slick-paper pages from last year’s Sears Roebuck catalogue were not for reading. There was also a bucket of corn cobs for those preferring a rougher touch. Charmin? Never. Charming? Only as nostalgia.

    I don’t remember when indoor plumbing took over, but I was a teen.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    September 9, 2018 at 9:51 am

    Daddy built our outhouse on runners like a sled. Eventually the hole underneath began to fill up or the whole thing would get unbreathable. Daddy would just dig a new pit, hitch up the horse and drag it over the new one. The dirt from the new pit was used to cover the old one. I remember seeing bunches of volunteer tommytoes growing there the following several years.
    The neighbors downstream all had toilets built across the branch which was convenient, cleaner and less odoriferous for them. Their kids still played in the creek but we weren’t allowed to play in the creek with them. “Don’t you get in the creek! Do you hear me?”Nobody lived above us except an occasional bear so no worries at home.

  • Reply
    Richard Moore
    September 9, 2018 at 9:39 am

    We had an outhouse and I remember using it but my father put in running water and a bathroom while I was a preschooler. Our church had an outhouse longer. At some point a deacon would stand guard while girls were using it to prevent the boys from playing pranks (such as throwing rocks on the tin roof while it was in use). The biggest outhouse I remember was at the Rock Eagle 4=H camp near Eatonton, GA. I was there with a group of Royal Ambassadors (Baptist boy scout type group) and the facility we used must have had at least ten holes.

  • Reply
    Papaw
    September 9, 2018 at 9:27 am

    But how can one appreciate the luxury of the Charmin unless they be familiar with the roughness of a corncob. As with the sunshine, one cannot appreciate it without first the rain. Not of sprinkles do I speak but of a thorough drenching.

  • Reply
    Shirl
    September 9, 2018 at 9:21 am

    My outhouse is still standing but I don’t know how much longer it will last. We don’t use it any longer. My ex-husband used it almost daily to avoid coming in the one bathroom house and finding it occupied. I suggested it’s use if he had been bailing hay or bush hogging. Besides, he grew up without indoor plumbing and it made him feel right at home.
    The school I attended in the 60s had outhouses. As I recall, one building was for girls and one for boys. They had six or eight seats each. The lack of privacy didn’t seem to bother us.
    I heard it’s illegal to have an outhouse now unless it is “grandfathered in”. If that is true, I had better get started on repairs.

  • Reply
    Jay A Clark
    September 9, 2018 at 9:18 am

    My grandparents still had their outhouse at least until the 1970s. They got an indoor bathroom around 1964. My grandpa still used the outhouse, as he said, “It just don’t feel right doing my business indoors.”

  • Reply
    harry adams
    September 9, 2018 at 8:53 am

    People who are nostalgic for outhouses never used one. I totally agree with Mathew.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    September 9, 2018 at 8:46 am

    Thanks Matthew, your outhouse story sounds like the honest truth! I’ve had a few outhouse experiences in my life and I can’t say I appreciated any of them! It provided only the relief of a necessity.
    Once, in my distant memory, we visited my great grandparents and I, as usual had to go. They sent me down a trail in the almost dark and told me that I was to us use the little square wooden building. I was afraid but I had to go so into the building I went and let me tell you it smelled like nothing I’d ever smelled before, I eased back out of that smelly place and found myself a nice spot beside the outhouse and did my thing. All the adults were waiting to see my reaction to the the little square house down the trail. They had great fun at my expense without ever knowing that I had made other arrangements.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    September 9, 2018 at 8:31 am

    Us three kids grew up using an outhouse. I was in college, my brother in the Army and my sister on her own before Mom and Dad got indoor plumbing. None of the churches we went to had it either. I suspect most around there still don’t. We were not unusual really.

    Oddly enough, I don’t remember any particular winter trips. They were not fun but they just had to be.

    I wonder sometimes now about people who have always lived with indoor plumbing coming out on the National Forests and finding pit toilets. I expect many of them think that is terribly primitive.

  • Reply
    ROGER GREENE
    September 9, 2018 at 7:53 am

    I was born in a house without an indoor bathroom, although Dad built a new house with indoor plumbing when I was a very small child. I don’t recall much about using the outhouse then, although I do recall the galvanized bathtub sitting in front of the wood stove surrounded by blankets hanging on straight chairs and the danger of bumping into the hot stove while drying off! Maybe because being a boy, I probably just “went” in the yard. That outhouse was used until the mid 1960’s by “renters” Dad let live in our old house.

    We did have a divided outhouse at the Meeting House (Church) when I was a kid. It had 4 holes and a divider. Right side for men, left side for women. We put in some indoor facilities in the early 60’s but the outhouse remained until about 1984 or 85. The floor was starting to fall in, and having two young, adventureous daughters, I was afraid some child (probably one of my girls) would have to be rescued from the pit one Sunday. I convinced the men during a Saturday workday it was time to tear it down and fill the pit, so we did.

    I don’t remember not having electricity, but do remember “helping ” Dad cut cedar poles and set them so that the phone company would put a telephone line to our house, and Dad bring home our first TV. And I remember Dad farming behind a mule while I road on its back, and after he got a tractor, Mom driving the tractor while Dad walked behind wrestling the 2 horse plow to turn ground!

    Dad told me more than once that the old days wern’t always as good as people remembered them! I suspect growing up in the 1950’s in this country was the best tim in history to be a child. Times seemed simple, but safe and comfortable. (except for the Cuban Missle Crisis).

  • Reply
    Janis Sullivan
    September 9, 2018 at 7:52 am

    I grew up with outhouses until 1968 or so. We also used “slop” pots for inside during the night or during storms. Often, it was my job to clean them after carrying these to the outhouse. Always grateful for indoor plumbing, but I do miss the good taste of our well water.

  • Reply
    Jackie
    September 9, 2018 at 7:47 am

    My family had a well drilled and added a bathroom after I had been married at least a couple of years. I was shocked when I visited a cousin and found they did that stuff IN THE HOUSE!!! I think my family still had a 4 party phone line when I left home. I think it was the Summer before I started 3rd grade when we got electricity.

  • Reply
    Tmc
    September 9, 2018 at 7:22 am

    O yea I remember the out house adventures, I think we were the only family on our road that still had an out house until I was, I think around 10 or 11 years old, and as was described not a pleasant thing to remember, I also remember taking baths in a wash tub, and I think the same time we got an indoor throne, we also got a real tub. We had 1 bath room that only had a shower and a sink, and for some reason, my brother and i had to use the wash tub to bathe in.

  • Reply
    Don Byers
    September 9, 2018 at 6:41 am

    I sure remember that little shack. We got running water in 1955 at our place on Murphy Highway. Not county water, but a pump in our well. The last time I was on Ivy Log Rd my Grandfather Nick Byers’ outhouse was still standing even though the home had been replaced with one with running water. The residents at the time were making grape jelly from vines that my grandfather put out in 1930. Charlene Gray Sullivan and husband were gracious enough to donate Granddad’s old log house to the Union County Historical Society. We left the outhouse in place. Along with the grapevines, a monument to another place on time.
    I remember Billy Edd Wheeler’s song, and later on knew him in Nashville.

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