Oh outhouse, where are thou?

Timeless but still usable structure “repurposed” for use at remote mountain cabin.

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by Clell G. Ballard
The cabin in need of an outhouse seen during winter. Snow was deep enough that most of the windows were covered.

My recent article about an old-fashioned cabin raising in the mountains (see Farm Collector, June 2020) described the process of creating a place to live far from civilization. Only one thing was left out. What about a bathroom? Modern folk just naturally expect some type of bathroom will be available if any time is spent away from the conveniences of home. That is where this article comes in.

Along, arduous “house raising” construction effort culminated in a house far from civilization that provided accommodations allowing one to live, cook, eat, sleep and keep warm. But the builder was so busy that it was late fall before it dawned on him that an outhouse was badly needed before snow flew. There wasn’t time to construct one from scratch.

Since I am a native of our isolated rural area and know a lot about it, the builder asked me to find an outhouse at some abandoned home site that could be moved to the cabin. His idea was that someone like me, who was friends with several local farmers, ought to be able to find a usable outhouse without too much trouble. Whatever money needed to buy such a small building was available.

It’s a seller’s market

It doesn’t take too much imagination to understand the difficulty of what was being asked. How does a person ask for an outhouse? Many local farmers farmed fields that were, in the past, parts of smaller farms. When the original residents lived there, they surely had an outhouse. When they moved away, the old farm buildings often deteriorated and fell down – but if anything survived, it would be an outhouse.

One doesn’t just go to a farmer’s place and blurt out the need for one of his outhouses. There is a slow, casual way of talking to farmers. First, you discuss the obvious issues of the day and the weather. The recent crop year needs to be covered in some detail and the price of crops often comes up. After quite some time is spent, the reason for the visit can be revealed. Even then, it is difficult to come right out and ask about an outhouse.

After talking to about a dozen farmers who I knew farmed abandoned places, I discovered that outhouses, even dilapidated outhouses, had amazing value. People who had such buildings out in their fields never explained why they wouldn’t consider parting with them. My request was turned down with statements such as, “No, I wouldn’t think of letting the one I have be hauled off” or “As far as I am concerned, it is just a part of the place.”

Looking the other way

Winter was quickly approaching when I finally talked to a guy farming a piece of land for a non-resident landlord. The old farm house burned down decades ago, but a decent outhouse remained. He wouldn’t sell it, but told me that if it just disappeared, he wouldn’t care. However, he made it clear if someone saw me taking it and reported that to the owner, the farmer would deny knowledge of the event. In other words, it was okay for me to take the outhouse but, then again, it just might not be.

In a small town with nothing interesting going on, if the gossips learned that an outhouse was hauled away without authorization, it would be big news. You can be sure that an absentee landlord, even one who lived several states away, would hear about it. Everything would be blown out of proportion and you can be sure misery would ensue.

I bravely decided to try to take the outhouse, but it would have to be a brilliant operation. After a quick check of the location and size of the outhouse, I determined I could haul it in my little custom jeep that has a pickup box on the back. Being small and painted green, it would blend into the background. Anyone coming down the nearby rural road probably wouldn’t notice it. Traffic on the road was only sporadic, but the loading had to be done quickly. I would work alone. If I failed, only I would face the consequences.

Banking on low traffic

One afternoon I went out with jacks, rope and other equipment. The idea was to tip it over sideways into the pickup box. I quickly found that jacking up an outhouse is almost impossible. The problem is the hole under it. It is hard to describe the creativity required and the fancy footwork needed, but after much fevered effort, it was basically loaded. Unfortunately, it was taller than I thought it was, and it wanted to drag on the ground since the pickup box was short. Some blocking on the tailgate alleviated that problem.

During the time I was feverishly working, only a couple vehicles went down the road, and they went by as if they hadn’t noticed anything. I had to get out on that small road and travel a couple of miles without being seen before reaching a more major road. If that was accomplished, anyone seeing me then would have no idea of where the outhouse came from (I wasn’t sure the outhouse was recognizable, but I wasn’t taking any chances). Since it was late in the fall, I had one thing going for me. As I traveled along, the dry dirt road billowed up with dust that would have made it hard for anyone behind to see me.

I heaved a sigh of relief when I reached the main road. It too was dirt and even my slow speed – I was obviously overloaded – still kicked up a sizable amount of dust. However, since there was some traffic, several vehicles caught up to me and had to follow along until they could pass. I’m sure that those motorists experienced something that they had never before and would never again: being face to face with the bottom of a “two-holer.”

The main road up into the mountains was pretty good. When the log cabin was built, it was extremely isolated because the small primitive road from the main road had washed out and was impassable. Fortunately, since then, road work had been done, making it possible to haul the outhouse in.

Range fire presents one more challenge

When set down, it looked like it really belonged there. Thus the “Outhouse Crisis” was over. But that is not the end of the story. Basically unnoticed, but often used, the outhouse was an essential part of the cabin site for decades. Then, in 2013, a huge range and forest fire swept over the mountains on the north side of our valley. Thousands of acres were burned and several cabins and other structures were consumed.

For some time, the log cabin was in danger. U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management firefighting teams made a special effort, using a large Caterpillar dozer, to clear a firebreak around it. Their efforts kept the cabin from burning, but a large woodshed only about 40 yards away was consumed. Amazingly, the little outhouse escaped the fire.

Too bad outhouses can’t talk. This one could relate how it was built as an important part of a farm homestead and how it endured after being abandoned. Its second life began almost like it was a “port-a-pot” and it moved on wheels 50 some miles to a mountain location. There it faithfully did yeoman duty, summer and winter, for decades. Finally, it escaped damage when buildings around it surrendered to fire. It continues to serve today. FC

A retired high school history teacher, Clell G. Ballard has worked on farms since he was in grade school, including 53 summers spent working on his uncle’s dryland hay and grain ranch. He also is a dealer of World War II-era military vehicles and parts. Contact him at (208) 764-2313 (and bear in mind the time difference with Mountain Time) or by email at cballard@northrim.net.

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