Seeking solitude in a venerable institution

The trademarks of a genuine model were easily recognized by most prairie dwellers of a certain vintage

WINNIPEG — Houses came and houses went, but the old outhouse retained its Spartan lines, a familiar piece of architecture on the rural landscape.

Although the outhouse was called many different names, most unprintable, prairie dwellers recognized the trademarks of a genuine model, like the one we had on the farm where I grew up: the grey, weather-beaten exterior peppered with knotholes, the jagged half-moon carved in the sagging door, the shanty roof bared defiantly to the elements.

Over the years, prairie winds forced the structure to lean slightly back on its haunches. To postpone the inevitable, or maybe as a necessary precaution against Halloween pranksters, the “House of Parliament” was propped up from behind by a couple of poplar poles.

The location of many outhouses in relation to other buildings depended entirely on the constitution of their owners. I have, on occasion, visited those that were just a few steps from the back porch. At other times, I have discovered, almost too late, others far enough removed from civilization to necessitate a brisk walk. Usually, they were located somewhere between the two extremes.

Regardless of location, the furnishings were always basic to the outhouse’s purpose.

When I visited the outhouse on our farm, I twisted the swivel button on a rusty nail, allowing the door to creak open and then swung it closed behind me. Privacy was secured with the aid of a wire hook made out of an old clothes hanger. It scratched a perfect arc in the board to which it was fastened, the depth of the scratch being an indication of the building’s age.

A shaft of yellow sunlight peered through a knothole, illuminating the cobwebs draped in every corner.

Beside me lay an ample supply of obsolete newspapers and the second last Eaton’s catalogue. As a child I would peer down the other hole and realized if I ever fell in, it was a long way down, which would be followed by a long way back up.

As time marched on, the outhouse underwent remodeling. The shanty style gave way to a peak roof and the half-moon in the door became diamond-shaped. There was even a store-bought hook and a spring that snapped the door shut behind me.

A light bulb hanging from the ceiling by its twisted cord was powered by the farm’s 32-watt generator. The moths ticked against its feeble light and I ducked for the big ones.

The place smelled of creosote disinfectant and there was a real roll of toilet tissue hanging on the wire holder.

In spring, I sloshed through the water on the path to the outhouse, breaking the crusts of ice from the edges of puddles. The floor of the “bang shanty” was covered with muddy footprints, and rain had trickled in around cracks. The dead leaves in the corner soaked it up until they were a sodden mess, but outside the first pussy willows brushed softly against the roof.

Come summer, I dawdled along the path until the mosquitoes swarmed up grey before me, and with flailing arms I ran the last few steps, grateful for the relative protection of the outhouse. Safely within, I could hear my tormentors seeking their revenge. A shiny black beetle crawled about the floor, and I amused myself by blocking its movements with my big toe. A red squirrel skittered across the roof, scolding me for intruding on its domain.

And then it was fall. The smell of harvest hung in the air. Leaves were turning colour and spiraling to the ground. A few of them found their way into the outhouse, along with an acorn or two.

In the corner, a shallow box with a B.C. fruit label contained a fresh supply of peach-scented paper. An enterprising mouse (or was it the squirrel?) had chewed the cover of the spring and summer catalogue that had only recently expired.

But then came winter and only a martyr could forget those memorable trips to the outhouse in the middle of January. Blowing against the frost on the kitchen window, I squinted through the little peephole, trying to decide whether I could make it over the snow banks or whether I would have to shovel a path.

The door of the outhouse strained against a snowdrift as I squeezed myself in. The bare branches of the willow scratched and clawed at the roof. Wisps of snow swirled around my feet. Then came the ultimate test of courage: I took a deep, deep breath and sat down on the hoar-frosted seat.

Spring, summer, fall and winter: the stoic old outhouse stood its ground as one family member or another sought asylum within the privacy of its four board walls.

The call of nature was an accepted part of daily life, so no one ever questioned the propriety of anyone’s visits.

Consequently, the outhouse became an oasis for amateurs, where, far removed from the critical ears of the family, a 4-H member could wax eloquent on a prepared speech. Many an aspiring musician, banished for practising his instrument indoors, removed himself out to the ready-made studio where he could play with undiminished enthusiasm. A dreamy-eyed teenager could pore over the tender contents of that first love letter or a laggard student could cram for tests at the last possible moment.

Totally immune from outside distractions, it seemed time stood still in the old outhouse. Whether concentrating on the urgent or taking a brief respite from all responsibility, it was the one place on the farm yard offering time alone, no explanation needed.

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