A Depression-era outhouse gets a makeover

Old 'WPA 830' stands tall and strong once again.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of the hallmark initiatives of Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era presidency, offered a livelihood to millions of unemployed workers and left its mark all across America in the form of new roads, schools, and airports – and also thousands of outhouses.

These were not dirt-floor privies with leaky roofs, but solid constructions with thick concrete floors and corrugated tin roofs that kept out the rain. They even boasted ventilation shafts.

In their day, they were modern conveniences for rural America that kept hookworms at bay with concrete floors and were made available to farm families for about $15. That base fee and government funding covered the materials and the 60-some hours of manual labor involved in their construction.

No. 830 is just down the graveled walk from my back door, its bureaucratic identity scratched roughly by hand into the concrete foundation.

We now have indoor plumbing, of course, and so over the years the outhouse has been neglected, becoming a storage shed and aviary. Two old felt-lined boots nailed to the walls have hosted countless generations of nesting birds.

The place enjoyed a brief resurgence and return to its true calling when Charlie's youngest daughter asked to marry outdoors on the farm. We cleaned and spiffed up the facilities, whose boot nests were empty of spring hatchlings by Gwen's June wedding date. We installed water basins, soap, towels, and mirrors. Our guests were frankly charmed by its rustic simplicity.

After that it literally listed into its next period of benign neglect. Weather and winds caused it to sink toward the drive. Inch by inch, the foundation block lost its true level, and the interior again filled with odds and ends, birds, and cobwebs.

Only during a recent plumbing crisis indoors did we take stock, finding it usable but hardly welcoming. In fact, as devotees of historic restoration, Charlie and I were awash in guilt and resolve as we regarded the sad little place. How could we have let ole 830 down like this?

We rolled up our sleeves. It took roughly 20 man and woman hours to restore the shed to its proudly erect self (it is seven feet tall in front sloping to six feet in back). Its original siding is intact, and it has been reroofed, ventilated, and is open for business.

Two nesting boxes nailed up under the eaves accommodate wrens and robins, and we also still store a few essentials inside. The lower handle of a hand scythe tucked in one corner holds and dispenses paper as if designed for this humble purpose, reverting as needed to hand grip when surrounding weeds encroach.

One wall is gradually filling with tacked-up postcards from vacationing friends, another holds an old soft-drink crate whose worn wooden compartments contain collected stones, feathers, and abandoned nests. A third wall offers a rack of reading material, including "Arnie the Darling Starling," a favorite old paperback I read and reread amid bird song.

Come winter, WPA 830 may be a little less inviting, a little more bereft of regular and appreciative human companionship. But it will never again lapse into neglect. Whoever had a hand in its initial construction would be pleased and proud to know how well it has weathered the elements and uncertain human caprice.

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