Visiting the Backhouse

Backhouses of the North by Muriel E. Newton-White

Visiting the Back House


Many of us regret the passing of the quieter days, the pre-rat race days when everyone had to work much harder but yet had more time: The days when precious leisure moments were not devoured by television and organized entertainment, but could be spent in reading, story-telling, making things, or just plain looking and thinking”  — Muriel E. Newton-White


The classic backhouse --illustration by Muriel E. Newton-White



Our backhouse at Mule Springs has a sweeping view of the lower pasture and the trees lining Kickin’ Mule Creek.  Whereas modern facilities encourage you to get business done and move on, our backhouse –with its spacious pastoral “look” out– invites you to rest and think.  You have left the door open; a breeze touches your face, and juncos tweet. Then they alight on slender branches just outside from where you sit.


Jaime, one of the men who built the backhouse, placed a mule’s shoe on the inside wall to hold the roll of toilet paper.  The shoes he found around the old barn are not ordinary mule shoes, but are made from heavier metal.  These were work- mules, animals that pulled a plow through the field.

The view from inside our backhouse.


Toilet paper isn’t all one needs in the outhouse.  I just bought a fifty-pound bag of lime. I slit the paper bag open and placed a metal measuring cup nearby the bag on the floor.  As the lady at the feed shop said, “you use lime when you need anything amended.” She was so enthusiastic about the curative powers of lime, I got the impression the fine white powder could be used for everything– stall dressing, garden fertilizer, or even for that little something special in the farmer’s wife’s layer cake.  Of course I am kidding about the layer cake, but we do have great hope that a scoop for a poop will help keep the nose-plugs away.


Our wee little house masquerades as a wood shed, and unless you had the pleasure of using the farm’s bathroom, you would never know.  So, in this way it’s truly a back house—or more accurately a back-barn –the room for relief behind the barn.

Mule Springs backhouse.


Clever names abound for this once common building across the American farm landscape: outhouse, the “little house,” the “wee house,” the “outdoor inconvenience,” “comfort station,” “the John,” the “out back,” the “privy,” and the “water closet.”   These names and more are mentioned in Backhouses of the North, a delightful little book I found left for us, by our builders, in the newly finished sleeping loft on the upper floor of the barn.


Still for all its view, privacy, and style – as the book points out – outhouses may also come with “occupational hazards.”  Bears, snakes, wasps, skunks, mice, and even the donkeys could make utilizing the back house a bit challenging.  I imagine a bear rummaging around at 3 a.m. when I stumble across the barnyard to make a visit.  Surely wasps will make a nest above the entrance, and the donkeys, being affectionate souls, will try and follow me inside.

Occupational hazards of the backhouse--illustration by Muriel E. Newton-White


When all this is going on, I will remember that outhouses symbolize the “spirit of adventure” found in rural life.  And after all we bought Mule Springs for the adventure.



17 thoughts on “Visiting the Backhouse

  1. sher — a wonderful, warm piece! and, again, enchanting, fun, insight into your evolving mule springs adventures.

    but, so, irreverent one that i sometimes am, i can’t wait to hear what other favorite “back house” stories your readers can share by comparison? i will start….

    my most beautiful and inspiring pit stop was on a backpacking trip along the washington state ocean coastline. we were a large group, so were careful to dig a communal latrine at each night’s stop. on this night we camped on the beach, and the designated “diggers” for the day set to work with a camp shovel for a hole on a site farther upland, simple by most standards, yet complete with a lashed wooden seat over the hole, our most luxurious accommodation yet in the trip.

    and the view was magnificent! sitting comfortably high on a bluff overlooking the pacific ocean and sandy western beach, no other souls in sight, a quiet spot. i often think of that latrine when in need of a moment of beauty, peace, silence, reflection.

    i think there are also some possible suggestions that my dad participated in the overturning of an outhouse or two on halloween nights in his youth in minnesota, but i will need to check additional sources and statutes of limitations.

    1. Thanks Heidi. I can just imagine that peaceful moment. It is neat how memories often come back as moments. Our lives comprise millions and millions of moments. Funny about your dad. I bet it did happen. 🙂 Thanks for commenting and sharing your tale. Sher

  2. Once upon a time in Hyder, Alaska I worked on a Chum Salmon weir for Fish and Game. We had a lovely outhouse. It was surrounded by trees on three sides, the door faced the spawning stream. The upper portion of the door was screen. Not only did this provide ventilation, we also had a fine view of the chum spawning, and the abundant bear population as they fished.
    I spent many a constitutional observing a brown bear sow and her three cubs as they played, ate, and learned to catch fish. All from the comfort of our outhouse.
    The bear visits were so frequent, we quickly were able to identify each bear…and of course…we named them all.
    One such bear earned the name “Weiry” due to his habit of crawling over the weir instead of going around. Weiry was an unassuming black bear. He would only come by when the larger brown bears had left. This often meant that Weiry would come in the afternoon…in the heat of the day when the other bears were napping. Once he’d had his fill of salmon, he too would toddle off into the woods for a nap. I just never knew where he went.
    Where he went was about 3 feet into the shaded underbrush right in front of the outhouse. I discovered this because he stumbled out one day as I was poised on the potty. He walked right over to the outhouse door…plopped down…and stared at me…and I stared at him…this went on for a while…I forget who blinked first.
    Fifteen minutes is not a long time…unless you are in an outhouse on a very hot day with mosquitoes launching attacks, and a curious black bear staring at you as you pull up your pants.
    At some point one of my co-workers yelled to see if I was ok as I had been gone a while. Yes I was ok, but Weiry was not budging I said. This brought a few snorts and chortles, but no advice. I tried shooing him away…I slammed the door…I even let out some false threats. Nothing would convince this bear to move from his spot with his nose practically touching the screen.
    I was in there for about half an hour before Weiry decided to give up his vigil. He let out a big sigh, stood up, and waddled off. I am pretty sure I heard him giggle as he made his way up the trail.
    Bears have a good sense of humor.

    1. Great story Ardy. Made me laugh out loud, and I could imagine it all. Thank you so much for sharing this moment in Alaska. My goodness, I wonder if I will have a good come back story in a few months–hmm it must have something to do with the donkeys. Stay tuned. Thanks for stopping by, Sher

  3. Darling, next will look forward to seeing you in adjoining bathtubs! 🙂
    After spending two years using Turkish toilets in the Peace Corps a spell ago, your accommodations look down right cozy & the best view anyone could ask for in the hinterlands!

  4. This brought back a lot of memories Sher! I don’t recognise the roll of white TP by the door, all we had was Sear & Robuck, Montgomery Wards or J.C. Penney’s catalogs, dual purpose, reading material and neccesary paper, tear out a page, crumple it up and un-crumple it up, several times to improve the texture! LOL
    Warning!!!!! Remember never to push an Outhouse over from the up-hill side, it won’t take but once and you will remember forever!

    1. Hi Roy– The ol’ Sears and Roebuck catalogs. Bruce can recall those too. All that terrific reading material while you get some relief. LOL Thanks for checking in and your comments. Sher

  5. I love your ‘wee house’ – it looks amaaaazing… though I confess that I too think it likely that you will soon share it with all kinds of critters! Keep us posted! 😉

  6. hi sher good to see all the snows gone but how will you reach the backhouse when it returns lol you best get a bucket ready.Its such an amazing adventure your having i look forward to your blogs to ,just an almighty shame discovery channel werent around to film this adventure it would be so amazing to see it for real !!!! continue your hard work but dont work to hard you dont have time to relate anything to us ardent followers.

    1. Hello Maxime– Great to hear from you again. And thank you for your kind words. Yes, we are just about thawed out here unless we get a last snow. This year– I hope not. More soon. 🙂 Sher

  7. When I taught in the San Juans on Waldron Island, I had a long hike to the outhouse. In the middle of the night I was often too lazy to make it all the way, so either used a chamber pot or peed near the rhododendrons until they started looking a little yellow… The five acres I rented had, during early settler times, been quite marshy- a canoe-able lake I had heard. When I moved in that fall the back acreage was full of blueberry bushes and cranberries planted right into the old lake bed, which was now a rather dry sort of bog.

    Well… these things have memories. After a long spell of island rain, upon waking, I went out for my first-of-the-morning visit to the outhouse. Using it was typically a quiet event- the flutter of birds, the wind murmuring in the trees. Nothing much more than that. The hole was a deep one. This day, however, was different. As I sat doing my business there came an unexpected SPLASH! Close below the seat where the water table had risen, there was everything that hole had held for years before my time. I jumped up in a panic, visions of a lake of old poop chasing me down the path and polluting my drinking water. It took a good day and a half for “things” to settle down again with a reminder that sometimes the ground beneath your feet isn’t nearly as solid as it appears…

    1. Oh my goodness, Valerie, that does indeed sound harrowing. That type of mystery I could avoid. I am glad you weren’t sucked under. Thanks for sharing the story. Heidi had a good idea inviting everyone to tell their outhouse story. 🙂 Sher

  8. Hi Sher

    Coming to this a bit late, but the story reminded me of an outside toilet at the home of some friends of my parents, many years ago. This had two seats – so you could sit there with a friend, looking out over the beach and the wild sea beyond.

    Today’s paper has a story about the world’s most expensive (and perhaps most beautiful) outdoor toilet, on a remote Scottish island. Posting the link here, hoping others can access it:

    Love, Joanna

    1. Hello Joanna– thanks very much for sharing the link and for sharing your memory. Outdoor toilets prove to be more common than I realized – at least in folks’ memories. 🙂 Sher

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