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These days, when you hear “outhouse” it’s likely the punchline of a joke about rural life. Until you have to pee. Urgently. Some of you can step out to “check a tire” just about anywhere. For the rest of us, it’s a little more complicated: We race down rural roads late at night, regretting that last cup of coffee because we know every gas station between here and home closed at 9 p.m. When the mosquitos are bad or the snow is deep, or you have failed to stock your car with even a partial roll of toilet paper, that’s when an outhouse sounds pretty good.
At one time you could find a convenient outhouse many places besides someone’s back yard. Rural ball diamonds and old one-room schoolhouses had them, as well as wayside parks and 4-H camps. My mother, who grew up without indoor plumbing, knew every country church with a clean outhouse out back for miles around. And she knew the etiquette of outhouses:
Number 1. Lower the lid and shut the door. That keeps the flies down and prevents frost on the seat in winter.
Number 2. Throw a cup of wood ashes on your contribution when you’re done. And lower the lid and shut the door.
You find modern plastic or fiberglass portable toilets now at events and sites where there’s no indoor plumbing. Or the facilities aren’t sufficient for anticipated attendance. Or you don’t want all your brothers and cousins peeing on the neighbor’s shrubs. A friend calls them “SortaPotties.” But outhouses are still around and some are quite nice. I recall fondly the beautiful outhouse at a friend’s wedding reception in a barn converted into a banquet hall: When an outhouse is set up for a bride to potty in full rig without help, it’s memorable. But the bride never told relatives they would have to use an outhouse, because she was afraid they wouldn’t come.
Still, an honest-to-goodness outhouse is rare these days. Many small parks, waysides and campgrounds have closed them because they don’t have the resources to maintain them (which is harder to do when people keep leaving the lid up and the door open).
Backyard privies are subject to zoning ordinances that often prohibit their use to keep diseases like cholera from leaching into the groundwater. In my county, outhouses are only allowed at structures that do not have any indoor plumbing. Zoning waiver requests for other situations inspire spirited discussion at meetings of the county board’s water and land use committee.
Once the symbol of poverty, outhouses are now somewhat more likely to be found at cross-country ski trailheads or hunting camps or small cottages where visitors know you won’t be doing laundry and the kids will be “bathed” in the lake before bedtime. (Such knowledge tends to weed out the needy visitors, or at least shorten their stay.)
If you’re buying property to site the treehouse or tiny home of your dreams and plan to put in an outhouse, you’ll want to check local zoning regulations carefully first. If not, the cost of compliance may surprise you. Not that you can’t find an alternative. Friends who converted an old caboose into a lovely screened-in summer bedroom instruct their guests on where to rinse out the bucket that stands in the corner. For those of us who remember chamber pots under the bed, it’s a bit nostalgic. But then, we’re old enough to have to get up several times each night to pee, which gives us time for that type of reflection.
For years after other friends built a beautiful off-grid cabin, they used a mound latrine. It had a great view. They kept a coffee can with toilet paper on a post down the path. The can’s absence let you know not to disturb someone who was already enjoying that view. The mosquitos could be fierce enough to curtail your reverie, though. So when they had collected the right materials, they put up an actual outhouse built with proper ventilation and a design aesthetic inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright. Going to the toilet there is such a lovely experience you might linger with your thoughts for a long, long time. When you hear someone on the path whistle, you know your time is up.
The view was also nice from the half-door privy behind the old farmhouse my husband owned when I married him. The ambience, though, was more Hee Haw than Pinterest. Still, it was handy for parties, and during that winter when the septic froze. When we built a new home on the same property, descendents of the previous owner asked if they could have a memento from the old homestead. They took the outhouse.
I appreciate having a nice bathroom now. We have a real door instead of an accordion door, and you can touch the faucet and medicine cabinet at the same time without getting shocked. But when that nice bathroom is still 40 minutes away and I have to go now, I would gladly take the outhouse.
When my luck finally runs out as I’m racing home, I sure hope it’s a female deputy who pulls me over. She can watch my back while I cop a squat on the shoulder, and maybe lend me some toilet paper. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll tell me where she goes to answer the call of nature. I hope she knows of a nice, clean outhouse behind a small country church and can drop a waypoint on my GPS and tell me which lilac bush to look behind.
In the meantime, I’m always on the lookout for a good outhouse. When I find one, I’m like a three-year-old who has just been potty trained: I want to use it, whether I really need to go or not. When I find one that’s locked, I might have to duck behind it for a squat. That’s where I once found a gorgeous stand of Indian pipe, which I would have missed if I could have done my business inside. The boat landing where that privy is located is so out of the way I can understand why it’s not economically feasible to maintain it. And I suspect the relatively few people who squat behind it pose a minimal threat to the watershed. But it’s always nice to have a chance to go before you go.
Donna Kallner is a fiber artist and writer from rural northern Wisconsin. She says “outhouse style” is an actual thing on Pinterest.