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Sunday, July 9, 2017

Ode To The Outdoor Toilet

Outdoor Toilet Photo By Bucharest Life

A recent exchange between my cousin, Jack D. Terry, and I led me to do some rumination about outdoor toilets in general and about one in particular.  Jack, myself, my half-sister Barbara, and three of Jack's siblings all spent several years of our lives living in a combination house and store on Steele's Creek near Wayland, KY, in Floyd County where over several years our fathers both operated a country store.  My father, Ballard Hicks, bought the property sometime in the early 1940's after his first wife, Ora Wicker Hicks, became ill with an undetermined and fatal illness.  Daddy bought the store and left the coal mines at Wayland in order to be able to care for his seriously ill wife.  He operated a store there for about fifteen years until he built a new combination store and house at Dema, KY further up Beaver Creek in Knott County.  I was born at Lackey Hospital while my parents, Ballard Hicks, and his second wife, my mother, Mellie Hicks, were living in the building on Steele's Creek.  We continued to live there until I was about six years old and moved to Knott County in the summer of 1957 just as I was due to enter school at Salisbury Elementary. My half-sister, Barbara, lived there from the time our mother married my father which was nearly the entire time he operated the store on Steele's Creek.  On the same day we moved up Beaver Creek from Steele's Creek, Jack's parents, Corbett and Ellen Hicks Terry, and their children moved into the house and store on Steele's Creek.  They also operated a store there for several years and partially raised five children in the building.  

Outdoor Toilet Photo By Scary For Kids

The property on Steele's Creek was a markedly small lot jammed between the highway and a cliff at the back of the house.  When Jack, his brother Johnny, and I were old enough to run around at night, we could actually slip up the cliff, step over onto the roof of the lean-to kitchen and climb in their upstairs bedroom window in order to avoid waking their parents whose bedroom included the entrance to the stairs.  The lot was nearly as narrow as it was shallow.  A hand dug well not more than thirty feet deep provided water for us all the entire time we lived in the house.  It did go dry in drought years. The well had been dug just off the edge of the porch which could be accessed from the family living quarters by either the living room or the kitchen.  To draw water, you just stepped out the kitchen door, stood on the porch, and drew water straight from the well without leaving the dry porch and its roof.  On the opposite side of the building, accessed directly off the store's feed room via a door cut in the exterior wall of the building was the one hole outdoor toilet. The feed room in a country store was used to store items like livestock feed, tools, fertilizer, and other items too large to place on display shelves. There was no exterior door to the toilet and you literally stepped out of the feed room into the toilet which was no more than fifty feet maximum from the well and probably about ten feet deep.  By today's health standards, that setup would be considered a health disaster just waiting to happen.  Yet four adults and seven children in our extended family spent years living in that house and none of us ever had a serious sick day in our lives.  The building is long gone and I have no photographs of it to add to this blog post.  I surely wish I did.  Corbett, Ellen, and their five children spent several years in the building until Corbett received his Social Security and Black Lung and bought a small farm and house further up Steele's Creek near the mouth of Hammer Tight Hollow.  I have marveled many times that none of us ever got sick in that situation.  I have no idea how many other people lived in that building before my father bought it. After Corbett and Ellen moved out, it was abandoned until it fell down from neglect.

Outdoor Toilet Photo By Video Blocks

When we moved to Knott County and Corbett and Ellen's family moved to Hammer Tight we all finally got indoor plumbing.  But I entered grade school at Salisbury Elementary that same summer we moved and my school had two outdoor toilets and a drilled well in a set up very similar to the one we had on Steele's Creek.  Each of the toilets was a two hole situation, located about thirty or forty feet apart near the upstream left rear corner of the school. One was for boys and the other for girls. The drilled well, which had a hand pump was located about ten feet from the right side of the school on the down stream side of the building.  This was also a situation, by today's health standards, that was a disaster in the making.  But there were apparently no state or federal regulations which required indoor plumbing, running water, actual bath rooms, or any significant distance between school toilets and wells.  Once again, hundreds of children attended Salisbury Elementary for probably forty or fifty years and no one ever exhibited any kind of serious illness which could blamed on the toilets and the well.  In today's world, either of those situations in the store or the school would be illegal and stopped the first time a passing health inspector became aware of them.  

In the 1950's and 1960's when I was growing up, most of my neighbors had outdoor toilets in Knott County.  I am certain that in most of the entire region of Central and Southern Appalachia in those days that the majority of citizens were using outdoor toilets.  I can remember seeing many toilets built on the sides of hills near houses, yards, and gardens with the structure hanging over the edge of a hill without even a toilet hole or pit dug beneath them.  Raw human waste would just drop, drip, and slide down the hill into the weeds and woods. There were also other such toilets which were literally built hanging over a creek bank with human waste falling directly into the running stream which usually had people fishing no more than a few miles down stream.  Fancier set situations, in some cases, had two hole toilets, deep pits beneath them, clearly downstream from all homes, gardens, yards, and play areas and relatively far away from creeks.  But they were rare in that time and health problems seemed rare to intermittent at most.  I don't recall ever knowing anyone who became seriously ill due to a disease which was known to be caused by human waste contamination.  

We have actually progressed in Kentucky today to the point that we have a state law which prevents public utilities from connecting electricity service to homes which do not have a state inspected and approved sewage system already constructed.  But in some remote areas, I still know of a few cases where a serious loop hole in that law is sometimes exploited.  You can have electricity hooked to a barn, garage, or outbuilding which is not being used or intended for human habitation.  People who don't intend or can't afford to build an approved sewage system sometimes build an outbuilding very close to the site where they intend to build a house or set a trailer.  They have electricity hooked to that building via a power pole with an attached meter base and fuse box which is large enough to operate a home.  Then when the power company turns their back the home is built or a trailer installed within a few feet of the pole and fuse box and the power is wired to that structure without informing the power company. Then the customary sewage situation is usually a straight pipe into a creek. I do not say this to imply that I believe it is either correct or acceptable.  I am simply commenting on a common practice.  I know quite well we are all better off with and should all have complete sewage systems, indoor bathrooms, running water, and the best of sanitation.  But I am also saying that outdoor toilets did not kill us all and many people have fond memories of the "little brown shack out back", "four rooms and a path".  I even remember my father telling me of how, when he was a child in the late 1800's that he and his family kept a one by twelve inch board about two feet long leaned up against the wall near a hearth and they carried it to the toilet in cold weather to put their feet on it while they did their business.  We often hear toilets mentioned in southern and Appalachian literature, country songs, and stories told by old men near coal stoves in country stores.

The outdoor toilet played a major role in the lives of millions of poor people all over the country and more still exist than you might believe.  Many of them may now be used only as tool sheds, storage buildings, or dog houses.  But as you drive the hills and hollows of all the states of Central and Southern Appalachia keep an eye out and you will see them still sitting somewhere near the edge of more properties than you might have believed.  

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