Couple enjoy owning antique 'Eleanor' outhouse

Story and photos by Donna Edwards
March 2009
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BRIGHTENED BY BEES: Mary Beth McClenon shows off the “Eleanor” outhouse that came with the house she and her husband, Paul, bought in rural Atchison County, Kan.

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The name “Eleanor” brings fond memories to the fore for some old-timers. Although a vital part of farms and rural communities across the American landscape, she was usually relegated to the back part of properties, some yards from the back door. Even so, she was visited often.

Eleanor was the nickname of the basic sanitation that began in the early to mid-1930s. Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as America’s 32nd president in 1933, when the nation was deep into the Great Depression. Many work projects were organized to help the unemployed, including the Works Progress Administration (which was restructured and became the Works Projects Administration in 1939.)

With the epidemic of typhoid fever in the minds of the people, Eleanor Roosevelt wanted to improve the sanitation of the farmers and rural communities. These outhouses still bear her name.

The Eleanors were constructed with a 4-foot-square cement slab and a metal roof. The building itself was made of just about any type of lumber. They rose to 7 feet in the front, with a 1-foot slant downward toward the back.

The houses were well-ventilated, with four vents. Two were just under the roof and could be closed, and two more were 3 feet from the floor – one vent in the back and one on the side. All were covered with metal screens.

Still standing

“Those who built these outhouses did not leave out any details,” said Paul McClenon, of rural Atchison County, Kan. “There’s a hook to hang your coat or bathrobe on, and a place for the toilet paper.”

McClenon and his wife, Mary Beth, are the proud owners of an Eleanor – which is quickly becoming a vanishing piece of history. The couple’s Eleanor came with the home they bought in 1977.

McClenon also grew up with a two-seat outhouse – though not an Eleanor, which seemed mostly to be one-seaters. He said his parents used lime to disintegrate the outhouse’s contents and improve the “aura” around it.

McClenon and his wife didn’t know their outhouse was an Eleanor until a few years ago, when he heard some folks talking about Eleanors in a coffee shop.

“When we realized we had an historic edifice, we did some looking around the country-side and found that most of them had been pushed in, gotten rid of,” said McClenon, a small-town insurance man.

Many Eleanors have been destroyed to make way for more appropriate buildings. Some people consider them an embarrassment, while others regard them as a status symbol.

“I’m the decorator of the family,” said Mary Beth McClenon, who is employed by the school district. “One of our foreign exchange students a few years back painted it a barn red, and I painted the flowers and bees on it. After we finished painting it, people would stop and take pictures of it!”

She said she is proud to own a piece of history because she “never had anything to do with one of them while growing up,” as her husband did.

The couple never considered tearing down the privy. When Paul McClenon looks at his wife with a twinkle in his eye and suggests that he could have pushed it down to build a garage where it stands, his wife interrupts him.

“Oh! No, you wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t let you!” she says, laughing.

The surviving Eleanors are now lovingly tended; some are still used for emergencies for the original intentional “business,” while others are used as storage sheds. Whatever the use, long live Eleanor!

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