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Renovating ‘This Old Outhouse’

“What have you been doing all day? Working on the barn?” Honey asked pleasantly when I came in for supper.

“No, I started renovating the outhouse,” I said proudly.

My wife was incredulous. “The outhouse? Why? With all the things we have around here that really need to be done, why are you spending time on the old outhouse?”

“Because if I don’t pay some attention to it, it won’t be there much longer,” I answered defensively. “One whole corner of the roof is rotted out.”

Honey’s response was succinct: “Who cares?”

But I’m not losing another farm building, even if it’s just the outhouse. Not on my watch.

Call me a hopeless romantic, but there’s a certain something about this old outhouse – our family outhouse – that makes my heart sing. (“This Old Outhouse” – what a great idea for a home renovation TV show!)

Well, maybe my heart is not the bodily organ I hear singing, but what I’m trying to say is that an outhouse can be a place of peace and tranquility, of rest and solitude. It is a place where you can sense that things will come out all right.

AN OUTHOUSE is exactly the kind of place people need in this troubled time. We are asked as a nation to practice social distancing. Think about it. Is there any better place to socially distance yourself from others than in an outhouse?

Putting these philosophical considerations aside for the moment, I’ll explain the down-and-dirty, so to speak, of this particular renovation project.

The outhouse in question is a short walk (not too near and not too far) from the back door of the old Miller farmhouse. It has been there my entire lifetime. Could it possibly be the original outhouse erected for Hugh Pugh (no “pew” jokes, please!) when the farmhouse, barn and outbuildings were constructed in the 1840s? Strangely, I can find no reference to outhouses in the family histories.

It probably does not date back to Hugh Pugh. Our outhouse is of wood frame construction, with milled tongue and groove barn siding, and a brick foundation. The bricks are street pavers undoubtedly made in local brickyards, of the type used to pave East Liverpool streets at the turn of the 20th century, and which may still be found on Fourth and other streets. That dates our outhouse to circa 1900.

IT WAS MY SISTER, Col. Peggy, who called my attention to the outhouse’s plight. Asphalt shingles had disintegrated, and the wood sheathing and trim underneath were rotted out, on the southeast corner of its peaked roof (not a lowly shed roof, may I point out).

Replacing rafters, sheathing and trim were straightforward carpentry solutions, but instead of new asphalt shingles, I opted to install a standing-seam metal roof. Thanks to a fortuitous auction purchase, we have a quantity of used but quite serviceable roofing stored in the barn (“the barn provideth” is our familiar saying), and short lengths of this metal roofing would do for this job. It is hunter green in color, the same as we put on the farmhouse some years ago. A lovely match!

Using garage sale paint (Behr exterior acrylic, pretty good stuff for a dollar), I repainted the exterior in the original light gray. Again from a garage sale, I had half a gallon of Behr in “pine needle green” – close enough to hunter green – to paint the trim for a nice contrast and to complement the roof.

All those things were simple and fun to take care of. (If a photo accompanies this column, you may see for yourself how attractive our outhouse is now.)

It was only when I contemplated what to do with the interior of the outhouse that I faced up to some difficult decisions. The boxy wooden seats and vent system in the original were falling apart. Should I re-create them, or buy new outhouse seats? (Yes, they can be had via the internet.) The wooden flooring was solid but the supporting joists seemed iffy; was it really necessary for me to (gulp) climb down into the pit to assess and possibly replace the floor supports?

One question had me lying awake at night: would history – would the shades of my forebears – forgive me if I converted it from a two-holer to a one-holer?

Next week’s column will answer these burning questions. (Isn’t it nice to have something to look forward to?)

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