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February 21, 2004
Recently someone by the name of “John” paid me a compliment. He said that I certainly couldn’t be old enough to remember outhouses, let alone use one. I had the pleasure of saying not only do I remember the venerable outhouse, but I actually had, on occasion, used one during the 1940's and early 1950's when visiting country cousins. Raised with modern indoor flush facilities, I found the old fashioned “hole” variety an experience, especially tramping the long path to the “little building” in the middle of the night. I do remember when staying with these relatives that before retiring, the girls would go to the outhouse as a troop. Safety in numbers? Truth of the matter was that there was only one flashlight and no one wanted to make the trip in the dark.
As a child, I remember a lop-sided outhouse with its porcupine-gnawed seat - grandmother called it “the thunder shack” - behind the barn on Tower Street. The barn still stands on the property at 505 Tower Street S. The outhouse is long gone. Both homes, grandmother’s and ours had indoor plumbing so the building, during my early childhood, didn’t serve its original purpose. What it did serve as was the hiding place for all the empty wine and liquor bottles left after neighbourhood parties. You see, most of the our neighbours worked for Beatty Bros. Ltd, and a good few were members of Fergus Curling Club - Rusty White, Lloyd and Cliff Anderson, Mose Yantzi, John MacDonald. Because “Beatty Spies” as they were called, tended to check garbage cans periodically to see who had been drinking, bottles had to be creatively disposed of. The two-seater behind the dad’s barn became the local collection depot. Everyone knew that “the spies” wouldn’t go onto private property. The Lord alone knows how many bottles that hole absorbed.
When we purchased “Stonehome” in 1965, we undertook an expansion of the vegetable garden and found a treasure trove of items in one particular area of the yard - old bottles, some with the names of local physicians, broken pottery and china, the occasional arrow head. A neighbour, who during the 1930's had rented the Young property, said that the area was the site of a one-seater outhouse that graced the back yard until the early 1950's. He said that the Miss Youngs and subsequent tenants, including himself, threw “odds & ends” down the hole, even after it was no longer used for its intended purpose. Not daunted by the fact we were basically digging in a cesspool “of-sorts”, we occasionally spent time “mining the hole” for antiquities. We never came up empty handed. Today a garden-house marks the spot.
And for those who remember very well the pluses and minuses of “attending an outhouse”, I present, for your reading pleasure, material submitted to Volume One: “Looking Back Through the Years”, published in 1983. To quote Vera Phillips true account of the old privy on the home farm, when she was a child:
“We called it the “backhouse”. When thinking back on childhood and youthful days, on the farm at home, the contrasts of the privy then and now are sharp. Our bathrooms are a thing of beauty and joy forever. The delicate tinted tiles, and shining chrome, the fluffy bath mats and really beautiful eye-catching matching towels are a far cry from our old backhouse, and yet, laugh if you will, it was the most satisfying place for many different reasons.
It was a safe retreat from washing dishes, or bringing up the cows, or getting the wood box filled. After all, if nature called, one had to obey. No one could say you mustn’t go until you had the work done, and no one could tell for sure if nature took a long time, or if you were really killing time. Actually it was a wonderful place to kill time, especially if the Eaton catalogue was fairly intact.
There was quite a difference in backhouses. Aunt Marion’s was very sanitary for she sprinkled lime down the seat practically every time she went to it. No flies in Aunt Marion’s backhouse. The backhouse at Grandma Warmington’s was built over an old well. I guess they reasoned they would not have to clean it out, for everything went down. My cousin and I had many a good visit in that little building, and a great deal of serious speculation as to what would happen if we fell in. In fact, I still wonder.
We also liked to ponder the old tale that one of the hired men had been murdered and thrown down the well, many years before. In fact the story went that they built the house over the well to help disguise the crime. We were quite sure that if anyone was interested enough to investigate, they could find the gruesome remains.
To sit and dream on a lazy summer afternoon with the door open
to the orchard, and the summer breezes, was a real treat. It wasn’t
quite so comfortable in the winter time. One usually had to plow through a
drift of snow to get there, and if the fellow before you was careless and
left the door open, the snow-piled seat was not too pleasant. I had a younger
brother, who had a complaint - shall we call it chronic complaint - who never
went to the backhouse in the daytime, at least if he could help it. Usually
his rendezvous with nature was around 9:30 in the evening and it seems looking
back that the night would invariably be cold and stormy, or probably in the
late fall, a driving rain.
I had an uncle who once in a while had a night out with the boys which caused my aunt a great deal of annoyance. She never could be sure what took place. The backhouse was a great deal of help to her though, for when he made his morning trip out, she followed close suit. I heard her tell my mother she knew the night he had been drinking for the odour was different.
Dire events took place in backhouses. More than one poor guy who had been over indulging lost his false teeth down the hole, and more than one recovered them and wore them again. More than one mother gave birth to her baby in the same place. Usually both mother and child survived. Some good housekeepers kept their backhouses in immaculate condition and used real good wallpaper left over from the parlour to paper the walls. Some hung pretty last years calendars on the walls. Some had lids for the holes and some didn’t. Some just had one hole; some had two big ones and a small one carved out for the youngsters. They were the “super-deluxe models”. Some were built in the woodshed which was considered real handy. But others preferred them farther away from the premises of the kitchen and dining room.
Sometimes the catalogues would run down except for the coloured pages and it was a good policy to grab a few nice big burdock leaves in passing. They served the purpose quite well.
Vera’s reminiscence continues - Outdoor privies are a thing of the past now. Even the summer cottages have indoor plumbing. But often I feel I wouldn’t mind a bit if I were somewhere where they still had an outdoor privy, and I could sit and dream awhile and look over the meadow, and listen to the birds in the orchard, and the frogs in the creek back of the swamp, or watch a spider spinning a web in the corner, always sure of his food supply of fresh flies.”
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