One image that seems to be associated with Ozark hillbillies more than any other is that of the humble, rustic outhouse. Countless cartoon images have been drawn of hillbillies with a Kentucky rifle in their hand running to take cover behind the outhouse. During the 1960′s, this was an image on every bottle of Mountain Dew soft drinks. If you grew up in the rural Ozarks and you’re over forty, or if you visited your grandparents in the country, then you are probably well acquainted with that little old shack out back.
One thing about them that might come as shock is that in reality most of the hillbillies of the nineteenth century Ozarks did NOT have an outhouse. Folks that lived in town or prosperous farmers are the ones that always had one. So, what did the backwoods folk do?
Well, the answer is what the old timers referred to as “going to the woods.” Sometimes, especially in bad weather, pa and boys would run to the barn (if they had one). Ma and the girls would sometimes run to the chicken house. Otherwise, you went into the bushes and picked a place to do your business.
Dig a Pit
As the 1900’s rolled around, most families did build an outhouse. They were usually built with unpainted boards of yellow pine, with split white oak shingles on the roof. Sometimes a pit would be dug under it and sometimes a piece of tin was nailed over the lower back end of the little building. This was so it could be cleaned out. There was a time when the clean out was considered fertilizer and it was spread on the garden. However with the advancement of the times, even hillbillies came to realize that was not a healthy thing to do. In fact that was a major cause of dysentery in the 1800’s.
When the outhouse was built over a pit it could be moved. When the pit started getting full, or was too stinky, a new pit could be dug and the outhouse was moved over it. Then the old pit was filled in with dirt.
Most of the outhouses were what they called “two-holers.” That is, there a choice of two holes to sit. There may have been times and situations when folks were very social with their outhouse time, but just like today it was mostly time spent alone. Often the two holes were cut in different sizes–one for adults and another one for smaller bottoms.
A common expression in the old days was, “Don’t fall in.” It was something that small children worried about. There were lots of jokes and stories from the old days about that.
The door was hung on a couple of barn hinges. Sometimes a makeshift lock was made by cutting of the end of a man’s belt. The piece of leather was nailed to the door and on the inside was another nail. By hooking one of the belt holes over the nail, you had a lock that could not be opened from the outside.
Of course, there usually wasn’t any kind of lock on the door. Proper etiquette dictated that when you approached the door you were supposed to knock and say, “Anybody in thar?” I have also seen an outhouse with the door made purposely short with a gap at the bottom. This is so you can see the feet of the occupant and know you need to wait.
Sun and Moon
These days you always see cartoon pictures of a hillbilly outhouse with the moon on the door. The fact is that there were two symbols in the old days. Churches usually had two nice outhouses. The one for men had the symbol of a sun with rays cut into the top of the door. The one for women had the quarter moon symbol. This was a time when many people could not read or write. The symbols were understood by all.
There were times when the weather was so bad that no one wanted to go skipping down the path out back. Folks kept commodes, or a “thunder mug” as they were affectionately known, under their bed for times when they too sick, the weather was too bad, or when it was just too dark out there. No one had flashlights before the 1940’s. Nobody wanted to step on a snake or kick a bobcat out in the dark.
In the old days, Halloween was more about tricks than treats. If there was someone in the community that folks didn’t like much, then that person’s outhouse would usually be a target. The least that could happen was for the outhouse to get tipped over. It was an especially good joke if the owner happened to be inside it when it happened.
Other than that, anything could happen. It could burn down. You could find it in the barn loft or your front porch the next morning. If someone really had it in for you, it could end up in the middle of the road at First and Main in the nearest town.
Well, I could tell you a lot more about outhouses but I have to stop sometime. Chances are that I have told you much more than you wanted to know already. Feel free to leave a comment and share your own outhouse stories.