Wednesday, January 19, 2011

All The Conveniences

My brothers, Richard and Dave, along with a friend of theirs named Al pooled their resources back in the 70’s and bought a 50 acre lot on St. Joseph’s Island near Sault Ste. Marie in Ontario. They hoped to eventually clear a spot in the woods and build a log cabin for themselves. Of course it would be quite a while before that dream could become a reality and they would need a place to live in the meantime. The area was quite isolated but there was an old abandoned farmhouse nearby that looked like it might do in a pinch. Dave and Al decided to locate the owner and ask if they might fix it up a bit and stay in it over the winter. Richard would join them the following summer.

It wasn’t much of a house. It hadn’t been lived in for about twenty years and the glass had been broken out of all the windows. The inside was littered with the accumulated detritus of years of exposure to the elements. There was only one room on the main floor and it was about 15 feet square. A lean-to on the back of the house made a handy place to store firewood. There was a loft reached by a set of rickety stairs and the floor seemed solid enough even though the walls let in the light in a few places. There was no electricity or plumbing at all so it would mean living rough. Undeterred, the boys eventually found the elderly couple that owned the place and discovered that they had no objections to having it occupied once again if it could be made liveable.

It didn’t take long to replace the missing glass in the windows and clean out the trash. There was an old wood stove made of sheet metal that would provide their only heat. It looked like a giant oval stove pipe with a hinged lid on the top. Dave christened it Tin Lizzie on the first day they lit a fire in it. That stove was going to keep them alive for the winter. It gave off plenty of warmth but it went through fuel at an alarming rate. With a little judicious patching of walls here and there they could keep the worst of the drafts out but they were going to have to cut and haul a lot of wood to keep old Lizzie burning.

They had three coal oil lamps and a good supply of candles for light. Their cooking would have to be done on a camp stove and there was a root cellar where they could store their food. Water was going to be the real problem. They built a sled that would hold two large garbage cans and every few days they would drag it about a half mile to the creek to fill those cans with water. There would be no baths till spring. A covered bucket had to serve as a toilet since the only alternative was to go out and squat in the snow.

I’m sure it felt like the longest winter in history. By the time spring arrived and the snow melted both Dave and Al were more than ready for a little break from each other’s company. Al moved into an old trailer that he fixed up and Richard took his place in the farmhouse with Dave. The first order of business that summer was to dig a well near the house. What unbelievable luxury it was to have a source of water just a few short steps from the door! They found a discarded bathtub that eventually came to occupy a place of honor right next to the well in the yard. The ease of filling it in its new location took precedence over any need for privacy.

Once the water question was dealt with they decided to go all out and build an outhouse. My Dad and my younger brother, Tom, showed up to help. They chose a spot some distance from the house and started to dig. Once the hole was deep enough they went to work on cobbling together a shelter from bits and pieces of lumber they had collected. They even managed to find and install a toilet seat…the ultimate in outhouse comfort. They ended up building the whole thing so that it faced the bush rather than the house.

“That way we don’t need to bother with a door,” Richard announced with a grin. “It’s better for ventilation.”
“I never dreamed I’d think of an outhouse as a luxury but this is going to be great,” Dave added.

They turned that old farmhouse into a home and ended up spending another entire winter in it before they were through. It gave them a taste of what it must have been like for my parents growing up…back in the days when having an outhouse definitely made life easier.

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