An Ode to the Lowly Outhouse


The title of my new book, The Seventy Thousand Dollar Outhouse, got me thinking about - outhouses, the lowly privy.  Well, this is not exactly an Ode.  An Ode is a lyric poem focused on a single subject.  This is not poetic, but the single subject fits.  Those of you who’ve spent your lives in the civilized world may not have had any experience with the lowly outhouse, or if you have, you probably found it unpleasant.  But not so many years ago, certainly within my lifetime, the outhouse was in common use.  

When I was a child my Grandpa Yackel’s camp had an outhouse out back.  It wasn’t really used any more, as the camp had installed running water and flush toilets.  But it was there and looked remarkably like the drawing here.  It, like most outhouses, was a two seater.  I used to think this was so you could share the experience with a friend, something that seemed disgusting to me.  However I now believe that by users shifting sides the outhouse could be used for longer periods of time before it needed to be moved. Tha'ts because in creating an outhouse, a pit would be dug in the ground and the outhouse placed over it.  Once the pit was full, the outhouse would have to be moved over a new pit and the old one filled in.  So a bigger pit, necessitated by a two hole outhouse meant fewer moves.

The crudest outhouses had a simple hole cut in the bench like box inside.  The hole was generally covered by a board, usually hinged; a trap door if you will.  But most privies affixed a common toilet seat with a lid over the hole.  The lid kept flies and other creatures from congregating.  Sometimes in the dark of night a loud chewing sound could be heard coming from the outhouse.  It seems that over time, the wood of the inside bench would become splattered with urine.  When urine dries it leaves a salty residue.  Porcupines want the salt, so if the privy door isn’t closed tightly the salt loving animal would get in and chew on the box, the sound being amplified by the echo chamber of the empty outhouse.  It’s kind of spooky if you don’t know what it is. 

Surprisingly, outhouses didn’t stink.  Folks at that time knew how to keep the odors down.  Some held a bucket of ashes from the fire place.  After using the outhouse the user was to take a small shovel full of ash and dump it in the hole.  It did a remarkable job of reducing unpleasant odors.  Others kept a bucket of sawdust for the same purpose.  I’ve even seen instructions to put a handful of dry leaves in the hole.  I was told that the natural bacteria in the leaves would help break the solids down and reduce unpleasant smells.  

My wife Lisa’s first home lacked running water for some time after they moved there.  The family used the outhouse year round, summer and winter, and pumped cooking, washing, and drinking water with a hand pump.  A camp I visited many years ago on a remote Lake in Maine had the most elegant traditional outhouse I have ever seen.  It was a three seater with a big door that no one ever closed.  It sat on a rise away from the residence and was screened from the lake by trees.  The view while using the facility was spectacular.  I think some of the women made using it a group activity, but not the men.  This was the outhouse that used fireplace ash to keep it pleasant. There was never a bad odor in that place.

The most interesting outhouse I’ve ever seen was on an island on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain.  It was called a mouldering outhouse.  Picture this if you can: a single hole outhouse perched three or four feet off the ground, sitting on a frame that was exactly twice the width of the outhouse.  There was no pit.  Just the frame surrounded by hardware cloth to keep critters out, with the outhouse on top at one side and a small roofed cover on the other half.  When the outhouse was used, the feces fell to the ground and were covered with a handful of leaves from the surrounding forest.  When the pile got too high, the roofed covering  was removed, the outhouse was moved sidewise into its place, and the roof was replaced where the outhouse had been.  The park rangers would seed the pile with red worms that, over time, would break everything down into material that could be used as fertilizer.  Ingenuous!  You’ve got to hand it to those Vermonters.  

I’ve come across two hi-tech outhouses on my travels.  The first was on a paddling trip on the Colorado River.  Lisa and I stopped for the night at a place called Nine Mile Camp.  It was said to have an outhouse.  After some hunting we found a medium size fiberglass building, tucked back behind some trees so it couldn’t be seen from the river.  It was so big and of one piece that it must have been brought in by helicopter.  It was clean, solar powered, and odorless in the hot Colorado sun.

The second hi-tech beauty is the one that gives the title to my second book, The Seventy Thousand Dollar Outhouse.  It was located on a Canadian Park island in the St. Lawrence River.  Folks at  the park’s boat dock told us about the outhouse with great pride, saying that it cost $70,000.  And I guess, given its location and design, it could have cost $70,000.  But you’ll have to read the book to get the full description.

Chickee mounted Porta-Potty in Everglades National Park

These days, what most of us know as outhouses are the ubiquitous Porta-Potties we see at concerts and ball games, and even at some state and national parks.  They’re efficient and not unpleasant if well maintained.  And, like the one in the picture above, they are self-contained, and can be placed and serviced anywhere.  However, efficient as they are, they’re very sterile and  industrial looking, totally lacking the ambiance of the originals.  

The Seventy Thousand Dollar Outhouse is available at

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your local bookstore.




 © Don Yackel 2020