Monday, April 10, 2017

Outhouses & Bathrooms: Cesspools, Septics and Sewer Systems

Outhouse at Crossroads Village, Sturgeon Bay
"Enjoy the go." Charmin's TV commercial toilet-paper-selling-bears suggest that will happen for those using the product. Whatever would the folks of yesteryear - those who used facilities such as those on the left - have thought?

As recently as the 1940s – and even into the ‘50s - living in rural Kewaunee and Door Counties often meant having an outhouse. Country kids went to a most up-to-date rural school if they had indoor chemical toilets, but most had outhouses. Kids “held it” on freezing cold days just as they did in pouring rain. Algoma's sewer piping was in place early in the 1900s thus making indoor toilets and running water available to those who hooked up, however it took most of the next 50 years for rural populations to have such conveniences.

Some folks had cesspools that came first. Cesspools were in-ground containers into which waste water was pumped, although it was more often a hole in the ground rather than a container that held the decomposing waste. For those on a hill, that waste ran down into a pasture or wooded land. Some of that waste water found its way to the lake. Today it is seen as a travesty when a city’s overflow seeps into Lake Michigan, however diverting waste water into the lake was common for municipalities of yesteryear.

The door with the window is the outhouse.
Cesspools were up-to-date must-haves in the early 1900s and Kewaunee County jail was on the cutting edge. However, the things were known to overflow and needed attention. Such was the case in 1911 when the County Board Committee on Public Property, a committee consisting of William Nesemann, Michael Arendt, and J.J. Kulhanek, let a cleaning contract to Bohumil Pavlat. For such work, he was paid $20.00, which sounds like nothing today but was something in 1911. The jail cesspool couldn’t have been quite so bad in 1915 because Math Petrie was paid only $12.25 to do the same job. The jail was in a residential area, only steps from where it is today. It is not hard to understand what might have been happening in the neighborhood!

Even though Algoma had a city sewer system, some residents wondered why they should spend the money hooking up when they had their own means of sewerage disposal? Sometimes citizens were almost forced into hooking up as Fred Leischow was in 1916. After the city health office condemned his cesspool, he requested an extension of the 2nd Street sewer. Others offered a petition requesting the same, but Mayor Shilbauer said there would be no consideration of extension unless the majority of property owners signed the petition. The decision put Leischow between a rock and a hard place. It happened again in 1942 when Otto Hafeman was warned by Health Officer Dan Corry. It seemed Hafeman’s 7th Street neighbors complained about his outhouse. Hooking on to sanitary sewers were the answer to the nuisance and the answer to Hafeman’s problems.

Sturgeon Bay had similar problems even though that city also offered running water and sewers. It was June 1924 when the American House said it had to continue using the outhouse as city water was not available to the hotel. When the situation was brought to Council’s attention, it was referred to the Board of Health which was to report at the next meeting. Council apparently didn’t see the issue as requiring immediate action.

As today, school boards had any number of issues to deal with, but today outhouse cleaning is not one of them. When Lincoln Graded school board let jobs for bid in 1940, cutting grass and washing the school house were bid at $3.00 and were accepted. Norman DeVillers bid $1.60 for cleaning the outhouse and got the job. One wonders what it was exactly that merited so little.

Outhouses contained all kinds of things. Pits are surveyed by archeologists looking for pieces of pottery, tinware, seeds and more, all telling a story of previous generations. Outhouses told other stories as well. A young Manitowoc woman was arrested and jailed for infanticide. The family employing her knew she had given birth, but there was no child in evidence. A police investigation found the new-born in the outhouse pit, dead of strangulation. Some outhouses had other stories such as in 1877 Orleans, France when a drugstore clerk was presented with a gold medal for showing up for work daily for 50 years. Regarded as most significant was that the period included German occupation when, for 22 days, the man lived in an outhouse!

Although Algoma and Kewaunee had sewer service before World War l, other county communities didn’t. Casco made news in 1920 when the plumbers from August Bohne’s Kewaunee company were digging a cesspool at the bank. Then farmers got on board. Frank Miesler of Luxemburg and Steve Swekar of Carlton were putting in septic tanks during August 1929. The entire cost was about $25 for materials since County Agent Lathrope had the forms for concrete, thus significantly cutting expenses. 

Septic systems were a new idea in offering rural residents what their city counterparts had. Septic systems differed from cesspools in that they were not open, preventing bacteria from easily slipping into the surrounding soil. County Agent Lathrope felt that outhouses themselves did not offer the contamination that the cesspools did. Miesler and Swekar brought the number of farmers with septic tanks to 10 prompting Lathrope’s speculation that with the number of farms in the county, installing septic tanks would enhance farm living conditions in addition to making the farm a safer place.

County Agent Lathrope and Prof. E.R. Jones, chair of the University of Wisconsin Agriculture Engineering Department, were at Miesler’s to assist the day his septic tank went in.  They said every kitchen sink and laundry in the county needed a drain to carry the waste water away. Living would be far more convenient and far safer. They said indoor toilets needed a system to break up solids into soluble matter to be carried away, and that anybody with an outdoor toilet needed an enclosed, solid container under it. They talked about water systems and the convenience of not having to carry water to the house. Lathrope mentioned the county woman whom the previous week carried 25 pails of water the distance of a city block. A safe water system meant residents did not have to leave the house in inclement weather and it meant water did not have to be carried away. It was a win-win for rural residents.

Algoma Health Officer Corry investigated an outhouse in the downtown area as late as 1933. There were complaints. The nuisance was eliminated and indoor toilets were installed, a move putting smiles on faces in the neighborhood. During the demolition of the old school in 1935, Algoma residents were surprised to learn the old school had a cesspool. Piping, radiators, bricks, windows and frames had been taken away (and reused in other places) but as much of the junk as possible went into filling the cesspool.

During the late 1930s, WPA – Works Progress Administration – had relief workers build new toilets in the backyards of people who desired them. All home owners had to do was purchase the required lumber. Old pits were filled and families were good to go. Schools with funding were also serviced. The 1938 models approved by the state had longer slabs with risers set straight to allow more room inside the structure. The State Health Board said they were fly proof. Farrell Lumber Co. in Algoma and Casco, Luxemburg Mfg. Co. and Kewaunee’s Albrecht Mfg. had the approved plans which would work for anyone lacking public sewers.

It must have worked because in 1939 Mr. Moudry had a double outhouse up for sale. Ten years later Alvin Tlachac had a Fairbanks Morse shallow well pressure system for sale. He was selling an outdoor toilet at the same time, saying both were in excellent condition. Outhouses began new lives as garden sheds and animal shelters. One Southern Door County farmer took them off homeowners’ hands to use them as housing for his pigs. Those pigs had high classed digs. When the last, and least worn, of the stys came down in the 1990s, the property owner was surprised to find a maple tongue and grooved floor and wainscotting.

During the summer of 1950, Council ordered the removal within 60 days of all outhouses in places where residents could hook up to city services. About 6 months later, Council revisited the action, reducing the removal time to 30 days. Violating property owners were to be served with a copy of the ordinance. Perhaps the action lacked teeth because Ahnapee Town Hall was among the places that continued outhouse use. Located in Algoma’s Third Ward, it had access to sewers but was still served by an outhouse as late as 1951 when the health officer was directed to remove the thing following complaints of residents. It was a few months earlier, in February, that a Record Herald editorial brought up the sewer ordinances. City residents had continued to use cesspools and outhouses thus prompting the paper to say that the city was spending thousands on such systems and yet some chose to ignore the facilities. It was the paper’s opinion that “housekeeping” was part of a city’s responsibilities and proper sanitation was an important factor.

Council kept on dealing with sanitation, which to residents meant foul odors, flies, visible sewerage and health. Earlier generations were unaware of the correlation between epidemics and wells sunk adjacent to outhouses, however by the 1930s, Texaco and Phillips 66 saw potential in using bathrooms as a marketing opportunity.

Seventy years ago, the average gas station bathroom was such a breeding ground for disease that it was used only by the desperate. What a stroke of PR genius it was when oil companies decided to ensure the traveling public where they could expect to find a clean bathroom. Texaco, and then Phillips 66, certified bathrooms at stations meeting company expectations and then allowed those stations to advertise “clean bathrooms.”

Women were driving during the 1930s and bathrooms became a selling point. Texaco beat the others in 1938 it established the White Patrol, inspectors who traveled the country in white coupes monitoring bathrooms at stations affiliated with them. A year later Phillips 66 hired nurses who went to “restroom cleaning school” before going out onto the highways to ensure that restrooms would be as clean as hospitals. Called Highway Hostesses, the nurses went out teaching owners. Texaco and Phillips were well aware that most women knew little about gas, but that they did know clean bathrooms. Clean bathrooms translated into money. It is unclear how many Kewaunee County stations were certified, however Leo Seiler’s Algoma Texaco station appears to have been one of them.

Between 1910 and 1925, Wisconsin Board of Health saw deaths from typhoid plummet. In  1935 the Board said constant attention to water purity and sewer sanitation had eliminated health hazards as even private wells were being protected.

And, if you've ever wondered why the old outhouses had either a moon or star on the door, it was just the same as MEN or WOMEN today. In Colonial America where many couldn't read, the crescent moon denoted the women's necessary while stars meant the facility was for men. Both buildings were usually about 3 x 4' square and about 7' high. New England was the home of two-story outhouses, the 2nd story servicing the 2nd floor of the home by way of a walk-way.. Set back a bit, waste dropped behind the wall of the 1st floor outhouse.

Thought the day of the residential outhouse has passed, anyone desiring the experience can use a pit toilet at a state park of the fiberglass outhouses brought in to serve the public during big events. City sewerage systems are not the first thing one thinks of each morning - unless something isn't working.

Note: The outhouse picture comes from Crossroads Village, a delightful recreated historic village at the southeast corner of Highway 42/57 & Michigan Ave. in Sturgeon Bay. Vignes School, Green's Store, a church, working blacksmith shop, homes, a tool museum, garden and more. Crossroads is a great place to spend an afternoon touring the buildings, attending historical programs or hiking the trails.

Sources: Ahnapee Record, Algoma Record Herald, Commercial History of Algoma, WI, Vols. 1 & 2, c. 2006 & 2012; Cox-Nell Algoma House Histories, c. 2014; Door County Advocate; Ads are from ARH and photos are the bloggers.

1 comment:

  1. Always love your information of this area. You are packed with knowledge and I thank you for sharing it with all of us. Jack