Perils of the Outhouse

July 30, 2013

The editor for the newsletter at The Place, Laundry Edie, has been pushing Alice for a new story for some time. Alice has been hard pressed to satisfy this request, but she finally dug deep and came up with something. She had second thoughts after writing it. What will people think?

It turns out they liked it and shared some experiences of their own with her. Maybe you’ll like it too.

(Pictures added; they’re not in the newsletter version.)

“Perils of the Outhouse”

by Alice Carlisle

Here I am again. I am still in a little prairie town in North Dakota. I am twelve years of age. It is almost Easter and we are still very poor because of the Depression. But somehow my dear mother has saved money to get each of her five daughters a new hat for Easter Sunday. Mine is blue with a ribbon that goes around the crown and has a beautiful bow with blue streamers that fall down my back. I love it.
straw hat

When Easter came, my sisters and I put on our new hats to go to church. My parents were Lutherans, but there was no Lutheran church in Carson. The Presbyterian church was across the street from our house, so when we went to church we went there. (When asked, I still call myself a Presbyterian.)

One of the churches in the prairie town where Alice lived as a child.

The Presbyterian church in the prairie town where Alice lived as a child.

After the Easter service, Nature called, so my sister Mattie and I went to the outhouse.


I don’t know why I took off my hat and laid it down on a board next to me, but somehow it fell you-know-where. We tried to reach it but finally gave up, and I had to go tell my mother what had happened.

She came to the outhouse and removed the floorboards with a hammer, then she took my once beautiful hat inside and washed it and washed it with her home-made lye soap and put it outside to dry.

Making lye soap - not easy.

Making lye soap – not easy.

It was no longer the beautiful blue hat with the lovely bow. It was faded now, and it had white spots here and there.

Lye soap is hard on straw and ribbons.

Lye soap is hard on straw and ribbons.

Because of those spots, my mother decided to paint the whole hat with black shoe polish after it dried. When she was done, she put it over a gallon pail to dry again.

A black hat did not appeal to me. I missed my blue hat.

I never wore that hat again.

That was not the last time I had trouble in an outhouse. Some neighbors took my sister Lillian and me to a carnival in a small town nearby called Elgin. There was a Ferris Wheel and a Merry-Go Round, but we had no money so we could only watch people get off and on.

As the day went on, Nature called and we went to an outhouse. I could not believe that I saw a quarter and a fifty cent piece lying on one of the boards inside. That was enough to go on more than one ride!

I picked up the quarter and the fifty cent piece and showed them to Lillian, but then I had to take care of why we had come into the outhouse in the first place. I laid the coins down on a board, but it was so dark I didn’t see that the board had a knot hole. You can guess what happened. My mother wasn’t around with a hammer. There was no way to get that money back. I cried and cried.

I should have learned from the experience with the hat that bad things can happen when Nature calls, but it took two big mistakes to figure out the dangers of going into an outhouse.


In case you thought North Dakota might provide some lonely spots for outhouses, here are thirteen more in a series called “The 13 Loneliest Outhouses on Earth.” outhouse_Hood River County

How about you? Any perilous outhouse stories in your past?creative outhouse


Folk song: “Trimmed with Blue”

I have a bonnet trimmed with blue.

Do you wear it? Yes, I do.

I will wear it when I can,

going to the ball with my young man.

My young man has gone to sea,

but when he comes back he’ll play for me.

Tip to the heel and tip to the toe

and that’s the way the Polka goes.

I have a bonnet trimmed with blue.

Do you wear it? Yes, I do.

I will wear it when I can,

going to the ball with my young man.

Trouble – Part Three coming soon. There have been a few setbacks. Apologies for the delay in regular programming.


16 Responses to “Perils of the Outhouse”

  1. dehelen Says:

    Yes, I do. My favorite Aunt and Uncle lived in Kansas and had lots more money than we did. (We were dirt poor in Missouri.) When they came to visit us, they almost always brought me a present. My favorite was my first swimming suit. I couldn’t choose a color, so Aunt Ada bought me one striped in many colors. I wore it until I absolutely could NOT fit in it another time, then my little sister inherited it from me and did the same. But one time, Aunt Ada and Uncle Clyde brought me a turquoise ring back from their travels out west. I loved it so much I wouldn’t take it off. So one time, it came off while I was using the facilities in the outhouse. I cried and cried. My Dad went out and dug it out. That was above and beyond! Remember, we had an outhouse because we didn’t have running water. Poor Dad had to clean up with hand-drawn well water, heated on the stove.


  2. When we wd go camping i wd have nightmares about a big purple spider biting my behind when using a one seater….mom knew i was a creative writer when i told her that stoty!


  3. Beth Says:

    I am glad to know Trouble part 3 was still in the works.

    I do not have an outhouse story but I have a hat story. My grandmother Lily was born in the Lower East Side of NY to Eastern European Jewish immigrants. She left school at 14 to help support her family. She knew some bookkeeping, and was hired by Mr. Irving Dolan at the Manhattan Hat Company. She learned how to trim hats there and, during the Depression, her combination of bookkeeping and hat trimming skills made her valuable enough to keep, even when he had laid off everyone else.

    I met Mr. Dolan when I was living in NY in the early 1980s for law school. My grandmother had told me this story on a visit to my grandparents’ Brooklyn apartment, where my grandfather was suffering with Alzheimer’s Disease and my grandmother was trying to hold things together. I looked up The Manhattan Hat Company in the directory, and reached Mr. Dolan. He was, it turned out, living illegally in his factory space. His mind was as sharp as a tack. The factory, however, was a commercial version of the Miss Havisham scenario. The industrial elevator gate opened directly onto the factory floor, a big space in a Garment District building, dimly lit by bare bulbs and the daylight that filtered in the filthy, chicken-wire reinforced windows. The floor was littered with decades of dust and a mulch of ribbon clippings, felt scraps, bits of veiling and feathers and pieces of ornaments intended to take a hat into the realm of the extraordinary (cherries, tiny birds, glass jewels). There were hat making machines, bolts of cloth, towers of cardboard boxes of buttons and trim. In the “office,” there was a cot made up with a gray woolen army blanket, and a hot plate.
    Mr. Dolan asked me if I would like a hat. I have a very large head and had experienced great frustration trying to buy a women’s hat. At the time, Helen Kaminski raffia hats at $200 a pop were flying out the door at all the better department stores. They gave the women who wore them a sporty yet cosmopolitan air. I lusted for one, only big enough to fit me. I confided my hat troubles to him, and confessed that I would love a brimmed hat. We agreed on natural straw, trimmed in navy grosgrain. I asked him if he needed to take any measurements and he gave me such a look, like I had asked the Mayor if he knew how to shake hands.

    I returned several weeks later. My hat was ready. The ribbon was medium blue satin. There was a white chin elastic. That turned out to be a good thing, because the hat was too small. It sat on my head like an upside down cereal bowl with a stiff brim. I was so disappointed. I never wore it, and never saw Mr. Dolan again.


    • Beth, I want to talk to you more about this little hat tale, but for now I will simply say thank you. It’s completely clear to me – your indispensable grandmother, Mr. Dolan, the factory floor with its “mulch” of hat ingredients, your own custom-made hat fitting like an “upside down cereal bowl.” I can picture your beautiful head of red hair waiting for the perfect hat to turn even more heads than you were already turning, and I’m so sorry for the disappointment. Alas, no hat. But a lovely story.


  4. Mousey Brown Says:

    As always, thanks for reminding me/inviting me to think of Easter hats; and making lye soap (at the Pioneer Museum in Yorktown Heights, New York in 1974 and was amazed at how long that soap lasted!); and the best outhouse I ever used (at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas in 1983 – one’s waste landed on a pile of sawdust, and the outhouse smelled, amazingly – like sawdust); and a funny, interesting conversation I had Sunday with my twin 5-year-old neighbors about poop.


    • Sawdust – brilliant! I suppose they had very little of that in North Dakota, given they had few trees, but it would have been just the ticket. And I hope you wrote that poop conversation down. Those neighbors might appreciate it a few years from now. Thanks so much for stopping by.


  5. (WordPress keeps telling me it cannot post this comment so apologies if it appears umpteen times)
    Ah, poor 12 year-old Alice! We had outside toilets, as well as the inside variety, as a child. The former were definitely NOT the place to be being spider-ridden and cold. The worst outside toilets were in France – mere holes in the ground over which one squatted. I believe they still have these in parks and the like. Give me shiny porcelain anytime! :-)


    • There are the same kind of toilets in the Middle East (as in France). It seems very practical, and it’s actually better for our bodies. Elders are more nimble because of it, they say. But I’m with you, Deborah. Porcelain.


  6. Cheryl Says:

    Nature calling has indeed provided me with more than my fair share of troubles, but never in outhouses. Although Leb’s property in Monroe where I lived with him for a year before I told him I had had just about enough of that sort of thing had an outhouse. A creepy outhouse that I could not get to on the day the neighbors greyhounds got loose and stormed our property arousing the goats for what seemed like at least several hours. And I am not sure but I am going to claim to have had a bonnet with a blue ribbon. It sure sounds like something I would have had! Or wanted. One last quip: Alice’s coin tale gives a new spin to that old chestnut about throwing money down the drain!


  7. I’ll tell Alice your little spin. She’ll appreciate it. Thanks, Cheryl.


  8. Oh, what a great story. I must be more diligent at writing down more of my mother’s stories. I don’t think she can write them herself at this point.


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