As a kid growing up in the moss-covered boondocks of the Puget Sound, outhouses were a place of mystery, intrigue and abject terror. These compact, primitive structures, most long forsaken and gone to seed, served as haunted houses in minima forma on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula. And these dilapidated latrines — roofs half-collapsed under the weight of with felled branches, facades rotting and crescent moon-stamped portals sealed shut with rusted padlocks — were everywhere.
Naturally, the boogeyman lived in an outhouse. And the boogeyman that lived in the decaying outhouse hidden deep in a wooded ravine on my parents’ summer property on the Case Inlet — alongside bats, banana slugs and spiders — was a hook-handed monster named Ivan. “Don’t sneak out of the cabin late at night,” my father would warn my younger brother and I. “You might have a run-in with Ivan.” The outhouse was off-limits during the daytime hours, too “… unless you want to wake up Ivan.”
We were wise enough to know that Ivan — a murderous escaped mental patient who drifted from abandoned outhouse to abandoned outhouse per the ridiculous campfire tale mythology created by my father — didn’t really exist. Still, my brother and I stayed far away from the dilapidated structure that appeared to be collapsing from within.
The outhouse: Filled the artifacts of rural American life or home to the boogeyman? (Photo: Darron Birgenheier/flickr)
Borne from my dad's concern that his young sons would stumble upon a rusty nail, a sleeping animal or something far more unsavory than a water-damaged Sears catalog (rough as a cob!) if we got too close to the old outhouse, the scare tactic worked like a charm. We continued to play in the woods, just not anywhere near chez Ivan. A couple of times, I mustered up the courage to throw heavy rocks at the dilapidated shed. Would anything — or anyone —emerge if disturbed?
I’ll never know because I was to busy running like hell in the other direction to find out.
While the humble outhouse played a formative role in my childhood development (even though I actually never set foot inside of one let alone used one for its intended purpose), Richard Melzer, outhouse aficionado and professor of history at the University of New Mexico-Valencia, is championing the outhouse and its key — yet often overlooked — role in the development of the rough ‘n’ tumble American Southwest.
Outhouses taught me to respect the rules and keep clear of the dangers lurking deep within the woods (spiders, crumbling structures, make-believe lunatics, etc.) while setting my already wild imagination into overdrive. For Melzer, they're much more than a rudimentary leftover from an era long ago.
All that's missing is a well-thumbed Sears catalog. (Photo: Valerie Hinojosa/flickr)
“They had a tremendous cultural impact on the region," Melzer, New Mexico’s, ahem, number one outhouse fan, recently explained to the Associated Press.
Melzer notes that outhouses not only provided shelter, a place of refuge and, more important, relief, across the oft-harsh frontier landscape. They also helped to protect water resources while assisting in “establishing norms on sanitation and personal hygiene.”
In New Mexico, they served residents such as ranch hands tending to cattle and rural teachers educating the children of chile pickers. And they did so while protecting the environment and important water resources.Inside, one might find a Bible, old tools, or catalogs from Montgomery Ward or Sears, Roebuck and Co. Two seats meant a higher economic status for owners, and the walls might be plastered with wallpaper to keep away insects or unwanted audiences.Such items can still be found in some abandoned outhouses. ‘They tell the story of the past,’ Melzer said.
Melzer, who could previously be found exploring New Mexico's cemeteries, hopes that his research-intensive outhouse love will prompt the preservation of these potential archaeological goldmines found on historic ranches and homesteads across the Southwest.
This outhouse in Montana has see better days. University of New Mexico professor Richard Melzer is hoping to preserve endangered historic latrines. (Photo: Jim Handcock/flickr)
While many old-school outhouses across the country are collected (yes, collected) by rural history buffs, others remain attached to properties listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Still, it’s the “big” houses that get most of the attention while privies remain largely ignored, likely because of their simple, compact nature and our collective cultural squeamishness over bodily functions.
On the topic of bodily functions, Melzer explains that as indoor plumbing become more and more commonplace in remote stretches of the Old West, many residents resisted doing their business in new lavish loos located within the main residence and continued to prefer the hole-equipped shed out back. "People thought it was just gross," says Melzer. "That's what the outhouse was for, they thought. For out there."
And to return briefly to the outhouses of the Pacific Northwest, don’t forget to mark your calendars for the 2016 Conconully Outhouse Races.