Monday, September 16, 2013

The Appalachian Outhouse Part 1

Photo Courtesy of Barbara Woodall. The owners named it Mrs. Murphy.
First, I want to start this article out by thanking Mr. +Johnny Depp  for mentioning his mother, Appalachia and outhouses. Johnny Depp's Mother is An Appalachian? is one of my most well read blog posts. The stereotype of outhouses and Appalachia is so predominate in our country, it is sad that Mr. Depp's use and perceptions are the norm instead of the exception. A perception that needs to be changed if we are ever going to solve the problems we have in Appalachia. I am really thankful that his popularity and his just mentioning it, is giving us a basis to talk about it and be heard.

This is going to be a two part blog post. This first part is just a discussion of the reasons we have relied on this system in Appalachia. The second part will be some stories of Appalachian outhouses from my family and my experiences.

 I don't know why the outhouse stereotype is so prevalent for Appalachia when you could find an outhouse or something similar as a necessary function for crap in every part of the world at one time or another. I personally think it is because we have been relegated to use them in Appalachia longer than most places.   The same stereotype doesn't seem to exist on outhouses say in the Colorado Rockies or in the Midwest in the same way. The reasons this is true could be a research paper.

I think it is just the Appalachian region itself is so close to much more populated areas in the East that any unusual thing out of the "modern" ordinary, like an outhouse, especially when I was growing up, stood out like a boil on the butt of humanity in our region.  I was always upset as a child when those from outside the region would ridicule, stereotype, or tell us we are backwards just because in our region we had outhouses and did without modern plumbing for so long. My family, for the most part, did not see it that way.

Some say our people were just "too poor" in our region to get rid of outhouses and put in proper plumbing. Working in the field of Appalachian history for a living, it was amazing to come across this stigma of thought that even many of our older residents still suffer from the shame and the thinking of that stereotype. Yes... in some instances lack of money might have been true.

If we had enough money to throw at the problem we possibly could have solved all of Appalachia's plumbing problems long ago. After all we sent men to the Moon, so most definitely we could pour massive amounts of money into Appalachia to put in defying feats of engineering, creating septic systems in challenging, inaccessible places with low populations....if we had the money of say Dubai.  Some say we should have had those riches with all the coal we sold but let's not go there.

But those of us from here know that Appalachia is a special place in more ways than one. We understand the main reason for our failure to keep up our plumbing with the rest of the world, in the oldest mountains in the U.S., for so long, is because of the mountains geological make up and geography. Why should we ever feel ashamed of things really beyond our control?

Knowing this place as I do, I'm not so sure all the money in the world would buy a good system for some of these places in our mountains. In our area, we have a river that appears to defy gravity and flows North up the Appalachian mountain chain. The New River. I learned in economic development of our area it has a great BIG effect in how you engineer a system. Number one rule for a sewer or septic system, crap runs down hill and we are fighting a water shed that is defying that.

Explaining this to newcomers to our area has been amusing. I mention that in the "Gentrification of Appalachia" another blog post. This is where folks move to our beautiful mountains and it has been amusing to watch their demands for septic and water and trash pickup. Usually in areas that it would be an engineering feat to put in a septic system in the first place and secondly, the population won't support many of the systems they are used to having in larger flat land populated areas.

After owning and renting many homes over the years in Appalachia I know it has nothing to do with being poor. It has to do with working with what you have, where you are!!! Many of us were glad if we bought property that would "perk" and drain to put a septic system in. Never mind the life of those systems is around 20 to 30 years if you are lucky and creates other problems. Many of us were lucky that their area of Appalachia is an area where a town could locate a sewer system to cover many homes. Yet those systems have their own unique problems still.

Personally I know the problems we have are unique. Especially after paying to sink 3 different wells and knowing the water table dropping can turn your sweet water into iron or sulfur if you don't dig it extra deep enough to allow for extreme droughts. After living with septic systems that gave out after 10 years being hooked up to a public water supply system that destroyed them and paying to have them pumped on a regular basis.... I personally know it's not money that is the problem. It's LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!  Especially the soil in my neck of the woods is ROCK with clay, limestone, granite and more rock!!!  You would not believe the rock (actually small boulders) that came out of the ground while digging a 40 foot water line.

It is so serious a problem that a lack of access to good water and septic closes down our economic development in many areas. Yet Appalachians are really resilient and we get creative trying to solve these problems. We have a modern version of an outhouse that you would not know exists in many areas when you visit a bathroom at a modern business. It's called pump and haul. It's just a tank in the ground that you hire someone to pump and haul the contents to the closest sewer plant when it gets full. One business I worked for that haul was 40 miles away.

I was going to take a picture of one of my favorite little watering holes. It's a Cabin that is a bar called the "Bulls eye". They had outhouses out back. Found out in recent years they were forced to put a septic system in. Think it's pump and haul. Anyway their outhouses are now cinderblock mansions.

My point is we are fighting a stereotype that exists because of the geography of our mountainous hollers.  We should never be ashamed in this day and age for having an outhouse in any way.  Many modern situations still use outhouses in other areas of the country and the stereotype of Appalachians being backwards or ignorant because of our people ever used an outhouse needs to go AWAY!!! It's not true and never was.

 I love that you can find how to build and maintain one on the internet.

In Part II are my stories of our outhouse exploits.  The link is Appalachian Outhouse stories - Build it Downwind