An ode to the old outhouse and its magic

Karen Wils photo Ye old outhouse all decked out for the holidays.

ESCANABA — The most important things about deer camp is… good food and drinks? No. Comfy beds and a good warm woodstove…? No.

A good bunch of guys, cribbage board, cards… No.

The most important thing deer camp needs is a good sturdy, clean and cold outhouse. Deer camp just wouldn’t be deer camp without that good old outhouse.

The privy, the can, the “John,” the “little house in the big woods” — call it what you like, just make sure it is swept out, mice evicted, and then stocked with paper.

Call it rustic or roughing it, many Upper Michigan deer camps still have on outhouse.

In the olden days before indoor plumbing the outhouse was a pretty crude thing. It was basically a four walled shelter over a hole in the ground. The door was often shorter than the opening so that fresh air could flow in.

Folk art portrays outhouses with a crescent moon cut into the privy door for more ventilation. The old Sears catalog served as toilet paper. Pioneer women always tried to plant lilacs or other fragrant flowers around the outhouse.

Even though outhouses back in the day were moved to a new location once they were too well used, old time Sandborn maps of the city of Escanaba dating back to the early 1900s show outhouse locations. (Maps are available at the Escanaba Public Library.)

Modern “Sitters” have a septic tank that can be pumped out. One of the most unusual gifts we ever gave my dad was a gift certificate to have the camp “John” pumped out. It was the day sh– hit the fan, and the men folk always wanted to be a camp on that “special” day.

If you are avid outdoors people like my family, you have probably met your share of outhouses over the years.

My family and I have gone to quite a few beagle field trials. These AKC (American Kennel Club) sanctioned events have lead us down many beautiful back roads.

Many of the beagle clubs have a clubhouse and a kennel house, but almost all of them have an outhouse or a porta potty.

I have come to know which clubs have the nicest, most welcoming privies. Some have heaters in them, some have lights and many have an ample supply of hand sanitizer and wipes. There are even a few of the famous “two holers” left (designed for so that two folks can be using it at the same time).

Travelers around the state of Michigan know that they are truly “up north” when the wayside rest stops change from flush toilets to seasonal outhouses.

Outhouses build character. Outhouses slow down the busy rat race of our modern world. Outhouse breaks give us time to think about all the blessings we have and help us to appreciate the simple things in life.


The old outhouse is still out back,

Now it’s an antique little shack.

Grampa just couldn’t bear to part with it,

On so many frosty nights, he did sit

On that private little hollow,

Where he knew on one cared to follow!

Grampa claimed it was a peaceful place,

No one standing in line, no haste.

At the outhouse you could take a rest,

And in there, your thinking was always its best.

Here was a good excuse to get outside,

When the wife was mad, a good place to hide!


Karen (Rose) Wils is a lifelong north Escanaba resident. Her folksy columns appear weekly in Lifestyles.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)


Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today