by Tressa Ballard
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Tressa Ballard was born and raised in southern Indiana. She’s an Indiana University graduate and works as a professional desk jockey by day. She is best known for writing both humorous and melancholic works of fiction and non-fiction. Her short stories and poems have appeared in various publications throughout her writing career. Tressa currently lives with five dogs, two cats, and one moderately civilized chicken. She often employs a wicked side-eye in public and enjoys skillet cornbread, slot machines, and long walks down a short pier. Part of her appeal is her unapologetic ridiculousness and expert wielding of controlled chaos. Oh, and she has also been described as “anarchy in nice clothes.”
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(No doubt inspired by the Coronavirus and toilet paper hoarding.)
My father and extended family lived on an Indiana farm that didn’t have indoor plumbing and electricity for over a century. We’ve often sat down and talked at length about their rural upbringing; including everything from the process of rendering lard after a hog was butchered to quilting by the light of a kerosene lantern. And, of course, there have been some lively discussions about outhouse etiquette and how to best avoid frostbite and midnight treks to the privy. Some of the stories I’ve heard many times throughout the years. However, I still occasionally hear one for the first time. So, when my aunt randomly informed me that our family was the first in a 5-mile radius to lay hands on actual toilet paper, I couldn’t sit down with pen and paper fast enough.
You might be wondering, what did the Ballard outhouse look like? To my understanding, it pretty much resembled a glorified shack that was about the size of a modern-day closet. It was built by my great-grandfather around 1895 when the family moved from the original log cabin to a farm-house, also built by my great-grandfather. The outhouse was located fifty or more feet from the main house and had three holes of varying size cut into its wood bench. Generally, the number of holes inside an outhouse depended on the number of family members, as well as their ages/sizes. Pro tip: never ask The Olds if they ever got a splinter from the seat. They will loudly deny, deny, deny.
The inside of the Ballard outhouse was never painted or wallpapered. As the years passed and my grandparents started a family of their own on the property, my grandfather would perform any needed repairs to the structure and my grandmother would regularly wash down its interior walls with lye water and dump wood ash down the holes to help keep odors down. And, of course, before the luxury of real deal toilet paper found its way to the farm, the family relied upon pages from old Sears & Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs. On occasion, if times were tough and the catalog pages had all run out, corncobs were the next best thing. Red cobs (from field corn) were plentiful, while white cobs were a bit harder to come by. I was told, in no uncertain terms, one must always use the red cobs first and only then can the white cobs be used. Seriously, ya’ll…I can’t make this stuff up.
During the warmer months, it was best to show caution when opening the outhouse door. Looking up upon entering was a strongly encouraged as black snakes tended to look for a cool spot to relax in the rafters and above the doorframe. According to my aunt, this was a hard lesson learned as she would have often “sat down first before looking up to see a big old snake all stretched out in the rafters.” To this, my cousin quickly added: “I’d always try look up before entering and down before sitting .” Then there was further discussion about accidentally finding spiders and their webs. In case you might be wondering, I was silently shrieking at the horror of it all at this point in the conversation.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about life in rural America from my family. To a born and bred city girl, much of it seems another world away. I’m always surprised by something or other when hearing about the way things used to be, whether those things were deemed as part of the good old days or not. A last bit of outhouse advice shared with me during the most recent chat with my aunt was to be sure to make use of a chamber pot (a/k/a thunder mug, a/k/a piss pot), during the dead of night or winter months in order to avoid that seemingly ever-growing trek to the privy. And, finally, my aunt asks that if you’re ever bored and in the backwoods, please don’t tip the outhouse as my grandfather and his pals were known to do in their younger years. You read that correctly. I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m apparently 100% naturally inclined to be a troublemaker.