Mildred Booe, 76, poses her four friends in front of a humble outhouse and snaps their picture. No need to tell them to smile. They’re already in good humor as they explore a dozen decorated privies during the 11th annual Outhouse Tour and Contest in Elk Falls, Kan. (pop. 112).
“Kids growing up nowadays don’t know what we went through,” says Booe, of Pittsburg, Kan., as she swings open the creaky door of an outhouse strung with Christmas lights and nicknamed “Santa’s North Hole.”
While some small towns fade without a fight when their schools and businesses are boarded up, in 1996 resourceful Elk Falls residents took a look at what makes their town distinctive and decided to flaunt it. Now, each November on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving, they pretty up their privies and put them on parade.
“Lots of towns have garden tours or Victorian home tours,” says Steve Fry, 54, president of the Friends of Elk Falls. “We were brainstorming what we could promote, and someone said, ‘Well, we have a lot of outhouses.’”
The outhouse tour has provided a whiff of fresh air in the self-proclaimed “Outhouse Capital of Kansas,” where traffic is so sparse that a flock of guinea fowl struts along the main drag. Last year, about 2,000 people visited the themed toilets and paid $1 to vote for their favorites. Along the route, they snapped pictures, laughed and told stories about their own unforgettable trips to the shack out back.
“I remember going down to my aunt’s outhouse in the holler and you had to shoo the hens out of the hole,” says Linda Walters, 62, of Independence, Kan., who along with friend Barbara Hallett, 66, sported a red union suit with a drop seat for the outhouse tour.
Fry is thrilled that Elk Falls is reaping fame and fun from its lowly landmarks. The town’s 40 or so houses have indoor plumbing, but more than half still have a standing—or leaning—outhouse in the backyard.
“A lot are original outhouses, 100 years old, that were never destroyed,” Fry says. “Some people keep their outhouse for a spare. It’s a piece of history. There’s a certain charm to them.”
One of Elk Falls’ historic outhouses is an “Eleanor,” named after first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s. Most rural outhouses had dirt or wooden floors, but these progressive models had concrete floors and risers to the wooden seat.
Among last year’s themed outhouses were the “Practice Room,” outfitted with a drum, guitar and music stand; the classy “Flower Pot” featuring floral wallpaper, a gardener’s fork for a handle and a trowel for a door knocker; and the roofless “Far-Out House,” which purportedly once seated Jimi Hendrix and inspired the 1960s singer to write his famous psychedelic lyrics, ’scuse me while I kiss the sky.
David Herd, 18, and his father, Alan, 52, won first place and received the Outhouse Throne Award—a one-gallon stone chamber pot—for their “Santa’s North Hole” entry.
“Two families said they were using a picture of our outhouse for their Christmas cards,” David says about their festive restroom bedecked with a wreath on the door and toilet paper stamped with Santa Clauses.
Along the tour, people stop for bowls of chili simmering in an iron kettle in the old schoolyard and homemade apple dumplings at the Elk Falls Cafe, the town’s only eatery. They shop for goat milk soap, stoneware bowls at Fry’s pottery shop, and other handicrafts. Some participate in the town’s “Gray Gravel Road” project.
As Dorothy Tiffany hands out outhouse-tour maps, she peddles jars of gravel. “For 50 cents you can buy a quart of gravel and put it in the pothole of your choice,” she says.
Whether it’s potholes or privies, the folks in Elk Falls have a proud tradition of making do with what they have.
“We promote our town, whatever there is to promote,” Fry says. “We don’t want our town to die.”