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Saturday History: The Two-holer Out Back

Two-holer outhouse

by Letty Owings

It was a ridiculous argument, the kind I try to avoid at all costs. I had been asked to submit an article to a local publication in Portland. They had a picture of me and my first baby, a copy of one I had sent to Ray when he was in the Pacific War and had not yet seen our daughter. They wanted to feature a story concerning what life was like for me on the home front while he was gone. Since we had no indoor plumbing where I was living at the time, in the article I submitted I mentioned the two-holer out back. That did it! The young woman putting her stamp of approval on my writing could not allow such an obscenity to go to press. I told her it was not an obscenity. She could only bring herself to print the word “toilet” – which the structure was not. I suggested more common names- backhouse, privy, or outhouse but not “toilet” since that was not a word used to describe the structure back in the day. Should a chicken house be called a “dwelling for fowl?” Folks are making big money selling pictures of old outhouses which are not toilets. Leaves me to wonder what room is right for hanging such a photo.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s alphabet soup, REA, WPA, PWA, CCC, and so on brought improvements to rural areas. Electricity came to some outlying places, but plumbing was another thing. Stringing wires could be done without much disruption of standing buildings, so some farmers got the use of power to run lights and heaters, but no changes came in access to water. As long as the farm houses stood, outhouses remained. Years later when the price of land skyrocketed, often the houses, privies, barns, and chicken houses fell to the bulldozers. They were dozed along with lovely old trees and flower gardens. The face of rural America changed, and much was lost in the process. The use of herbicides and pesticides on a grand scale hastened the transition. Old folks died and took their memories with them to the grave. The new generation of farmers demanded conveniences. Outhouses became history.

I wonder if the folks printing the Sears and Roebuck catalogue – and it did carry both names- knew they were assembling paper to be used in the privies. I probably saw my first real toilet paper when I saw my first flush toilet.

Although the two-holer on the farms may not have been the best for comfort or convenience, families took pride in keeping them clean and presentable. Ours was especially decent since my mother was long on cleanliness. It stood behind a shed, behind a peach tree. The peach tree had a limb that made a perfect seat for me to sit and dream. Dreams were not about foreign lands, since I knew of none. Dreams were not about getting rich and famous since I knew of nobody rich or famous. Perhaps they were about my getting to visit somebody. Perhaps they were about how I would dress the next Halloween or what role I would get in a school play or when we would go see my grandparents. Those were major topics that got my attention.

My cousin who lived on a farm up the road caused a family commotion related to their two-holer. With a couple of kitchen matches he had with him and no plans for the matches, he pulled a page from the catalogue and lit it. When a fire flared up way beyond what he expected, he threw the page down the hole where it ignited the other pages already there. The fire that resulted engulfed the privy which fell over onto a chicken house. Luckily, the chickens were out scratching in the dust. By then the family members rose to the occasion and formed a bucket brigade to douse the flames. The incident led to the building of a new two-holer and an embarrassed kid.

Halloween tricksters consisted of the young men of an area. Girls did not lower themselves to such foolishness, and youngsters celebrated Halloween at school during the day. Those doing the tricks preferred outhouses as objects of their mischief since they were easy to tip over while the members of the farm family slept. Many stories of outhouse tipping circulated every early November. I especially enjoyed this one since I knew the culprits involved. The group turned out their car lights as they crept up the lane to the farm house and buildings. As they were about to begin their foolishness, the farmer, clad in long underwear and carrying a shotgun came racing out the door. The tricksters climbed in their car and roared away before he fired a shot. In their hasty departure they left the local school teacher behind in the barn alone. What mischief he had in mind to do in the barn never got carried out. There he was alone in the dark with all his companions busy saving themselves. They were not about to go back and get him and risk facing the irate farmer. The trickster left alone in the barn waited a time and then he did what he had to do. He jumped out of the barn loft and walked three miles in the dark until he got back to the place where he was boarding. By then it was about time for him to appear at his country school teaching job, more than a bit frazzled and embarrassed. The story became a legend among the Halloween tricksters, and I can assume they grew up a bit from the experience.

When WWII came along, the tricksters were scattered hither and yon and forced into instant maturity. Their roles changed when they got back home. They married and had kids and adopted a more sophisticated approach to Halloween. The youngsters dressed in costumes, knocked on doors, and asked for “trick or treat.” They got the treats but had no tricks in mind. Halloween tricks were shoveled into the dust bin of history, along with two-holers and kerosene lamps, and picking wool on long evenings and dreams hatched on peach tree limbs.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of greg westfall on flickr.

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