Ye old outhouse has become a collector’s item in most communities.
Homeowners relish the idea of displaying a colorful outhouse in their backyard as a kind of conversation piece.
A half-moon on the door and a hanging flowerpot is all that is needed to recall a simpler era.
For many, though, a trip the Johnny-house is a real thing. “If you have to go, you still have to go,” quipped one area resident. “I enjoy being out in the country, but it’d be easier with running water.”
The woman is not alone when it comes to toiling at the outdoor toilet.
Nationwide, more than 530,658 households still do not have complete indoor plumbing.
Growing affluence and a host of private and government programs, however, are helping West Virginia outgrow its reputation as a state where outhouses dot the rural landscape.
Kentucky ranks first among states in the number of households without complete indoor plumbing with 30,921, and Virginia ranks second with 30,003, according to census estimates.
In the percentage of homes without a toilet, sink and either a shower or bathtub, Alaska topped the list, with 3.68 percent of homes without plumbing, followed by New Mexico, Maine, West Virginia, and Idaho.
The Mountain State appears to be in good company: in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida—97,132 homes do not have full plumbing.
And though many people in the region still think of outhouses as quaint throwbacks to a simpler time, the buildings outback are environmental hazards—they pollute groundwater, and they are obstacles for the elderly and infirm.
According to a study released a few years ago, West Virginia remains one of the top outhouse states in the nation. But unlike outhouses themselves, the people who use them often remain tucked away from the public eye.
The Mountain State is regarded by many as one of the nation’s best places to live. Still, it has its share of homes without indoor plumbing.
Of the estimated 15,000 households without complete plumbing in West Virginia, nearly two-thirds of that number is headed by someone 65 or older.
“It’s embarrassing that thousands of West Virginians cannot take a shower or go to the bathroom indoors in an era when a goal is to have Internet access in every home,” said one local health official recently. “I had no idea we had so many water and health problems in this part of the country.”
And that’s not just poppycock, either.
A 76-year-old Virginia man had a brush with death last year when the floor of his outhouse collapsed.
The World War II veteran reportedly survived 70 hours suspended above the muck of his backyard john.
As it turned out, the story drew national attention and the old-timer no longer lacks indoor plumbing, unlike half a million homes in the USA, according to the new U.S. Census Bureau figures.
So much for happy endings.
There is not much you can say for someone who falls through the floor of an outhouse.
Except maybe he/she was lucky to come out of it.
I remember the first news story I was assigned shortly after I graduated from high school and joined a small-town newspaper.
The saga only merited a couple of paragraphs, but readers responded with a deluge of clothes and groceries for a family that had experienced a similar plight as the man in Virginia.
One afternoon, an 8-year-old girl took her 3-year-old sister to the two-seater outhouse. When she got there, she politely plonked the toddler on the edge of one toilet seat and went on about her business on the other.
Suddenly, the toddler disappeared.
Down the hatch, so to speak.
The child literally was fished out of the muck by a quick-thinking neighbor who used a hoe handle and a piece of his mining belt to perform the rescue.
The youngster recovered from her traumas at a local hospital. Later, the parents sent me a thank-you note and a $2 bill for mentioning the episode in the newspaper. I kept the note, and the grisly-old editor kept the money.
But the plot thickens.
Apparently, there are several similar accounts in rural Appalachia.
Some we cannot go into here, for obvious reasons. But one stands out in my mind rather vividly.
I remember stopping at a hamburger joint in Southern West Virginia in the early 1980s while I was making my rounds as a feature writer and photographer with a certain newspaper.
I inquired as to why the diner had closed its doors and gone out of business. I knew the hamburgers and steaks were above par for the area.
“Why, don’t you know?” responded a local gas station attendant. “A woman fell through the floor of the outhouse and had to be hauled out by a wrecker truck.”
No kidding, I said.
“Yeah, it stirred up quite a stink,” the man cracked from the side of the road. “Anyway, it shut the lid on the fellow’s drive-in.”