Of Pumps and Outhouses


Rustic. Often rustic comes with a fond, nostalgic memory, almost romantic. A barn board bench drifted with autumn leaves. A cabin cuddled against a wooded hillside. A battered rowboat bobbing along a tippy wooden dock. A pump dripping water outside a cottage door. An outhouse perched halfway up the hill above the cabin.

Wait. What? No running water? An outhouse? Rustic maybe. Romantic not.

When I mentioned to my daughter the subject of my next post, she responded with surprise. “When did you have to use an outhouse?” Apparently she forgets I am ‘older than dirt.’ However, old as I am, outhouses were not a necessity in my daily life. They popped up in places to enhance various experiences. The cottage we repeatedly used for a family vacation was rustic. The pump outside the back door provided water, the woodstove provided meals, the outhouse halfway between the cottage and the road provided for necessity. We squealed while the pump water splashed us when we washed, we disappeared at dish washing time, ‘waiting for the water to boil.’ We held our breath while we hurried through our business in the outhouse. The small town church my father served had no indoor plumbing. Using an outhouse in your Sunday clothing was a little bit of a challenge. Winter made it more so.

Nevertheless, at times we would have cheered the luxury of an outhouse. My father enjoyed taking our family to spend Sunday afternoons in the wild outdoors. South Mountain of Arizona, Snowy Range of Wyoming, Estes Park of Colorado were great playgrounds for nine youngsters. Except in those days, (remember, before dirt) facilities were not provided amenities. Though we made do, an outhouse would have been preferred.

Pumps were a delight. We raced for the privilege of pumping. Never did we pump only what was necessary, no we plunged those handles until the water gushed. It splashed feet, legs, even faces when we bent to wash or fill a container. Pumps were often standard at picnic grounds. Drinking fountains would be perched at the top. Utilizing the fountain required two, one to pump while the other drank. Except of course, with siblings the temptations were too great to ignore. The flow of water fluctuated, from a trickle that netted nothing, to a blast of water in the face. Summer fun.

Pumps had other drawbacks. Have you ever washed your hair under a pump? I would not recommend the act. One summer on a camping trip my oldest sister decided she had gone long enough without a head wash. I pumped, she shampooed and rinsed, then it was my turn. As I write this, my head burns with the massive head freeze that was the result. My recollection is she said nothing beyond, “Watch out Deb, it’s a little cold.” Thank you for the warning.

My point? The historical setting of Steeple in the Distance, rural Wisconsin, 1915-1918, should have dictated repeated mentions of both outhouses and pumps. Pumps, the one out the back door, the small one at the kitchen sink, play a supporting role. Outhouses were sadly neglected.

While research showed me an indoor bathroom on a farm at that time was unlikely, it was possible. Wanting all the comforts for my family that could be supplied I have them installing one. The entire process was a large part of the early manuscript. It suffered a cut to a reference in Nan’s journal. Even that could have been eliminated except for the possibility of not eliminating all the later references. So possible, but not probable, it was allowed to remain.

Pumps on the other hand are a prominent feature of both work on the farm and fun. This section deals with Nan searching for relief from the August heat. She decides the back porch requires cleaning.

“If you pump a bucket of water,” Nan suggested in a determined effort to fight the laziness when they returned, “we can wash down the porch furniture and I’ll put out the noon meal here. We can put up the hammock; Vati is going to want to rest and it’ll be cooler than in the house.”

With Seth pumping less than enthusiastically, Nan slipped into the house and upstairs. She pulled the old work dress she had worn in the hayfield from her closet. Removing all but the most necessary underclothing, she donned the dress, belted the excess securely, and returned to the porch. Seth eyed her costume with a delighted grin and disappeared into the house. “Bring some rags when you come,” Nan called after him and began to move the furniture to the sun-filled yard. When Seth returned, banging through the door and throwing a handful of rags next to the bucket, Nan gasped. “All you need is a straw hat and pocket full of mischief and you’d pass for Tom Sawyer himself!” An old pair of knee britches, so small and tight they needed neither belt nor suspenders, a shirt that flapped loosely around him, and a set of bare legs certainly gave the image of a happy, careless boy. “I suppose I don’t look much better,” she conceded and pointed to a scrub brush lying on a chair. “You scrub them after I sluice with the rags. Then I’ll come behind and rinse.”

The brush and rags flew over the wooden furniture and the water with it. Nan watched a summer’s worth of dust wash away in the water under their hands. If time allowed, the entire porch could use a dousing. As she flung the last of a bucket of water to rinse the table, the bucket slipped from her hand. Instead of a wave of water over the table and chairs, it sloshed over Seth’s back and head.

“Ach du!” he yelped and turned to see Nan laughing and an apology.

“I’m sorry, it just slipped. Really, I thought it was fuller and then…” she dissolved into laughter.

Seth shrugged, “Well you missed the table and the water is gone.” He grabbed the bucket and began to pump vigorously. Nan watched him, ready to take the bucket from him and finish the job.

“That’s plenty, Seth. We don’t need to drown it. Here give it to me; I’ll do it. You can just stand there and dry off.” She reached for the bucket when suddenly she was drenched in the clear, cold water from the pump. Nan stood still with the shock of it all while Seth doubled over laughing and pointing. She bent to find a dry spot on her skirt to wipe the water out of her face. The bucket lay between them, not quite empty. Swiftly, she picked it up and dumped the last of the water on her brother.

He squealed and dashed over the yard and behind the shed. Nan watched him go. Then deliberately she filled the bucket again, glided off the end of the porch, and crouched. The shed door banged and the gate to the barn yard opened. Peeking over the edge of the porch, she saw that Seth had a bucket of his own and was filling it from the stock tank. She ducked down and held her breath. Nan could not hear his bare feet across the yard. She was afraid to peek, fearing to give her position away. Suddenly, a wave of warm water flooded over her back; she whirled around and flung hers in response. The fight began in earnest!


The above segment is a small part of the water fight and the results. Nor is it the only one. The book will have the rest of the story.

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