Book Gets Lost in the Outhouse

A girl drops her book in the outhouse and her mom fishes it out.

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One doesn't see one of these outhouses in regular use much any more. Of course, the little town in North Dakota where I grew up in and near knew no other. Cold and drafty in the winter (snow drifted through the cracks), hot and stuffy in the summer.

In the early years of our marriage, I kept ours as clean as possible by taking the warm, sudsy water on wash day, added some Clorox and scrubbed the inside good with an old broom, especially the seat and floor. Then with a little Clorox in the rinse water, I splashed that over the sudsy areas. I remember how nice it was when my husband earned enough money to buy a roll of tissue once in a while! The little papers that the fresh crated fruit came wrapped in were a luxury, too. It wasn't until I was 32 and carrying our sixth child that we got an "indoor."

There is one story about an "outhouse" that my children thought quite funny, and now my grandchildren are as anxious for me to tell it as my children were.

Back during the depression, when I was seven, my father lost the family farm and had to move his large family into this little town. The tiny three-room house we lived in was located about a block or so from the schoolhouse. On the school grounds there was the nice horse barn for those who rode or drove to school from the country and at each end of the barn were the big His and Hers outhouses.

I remember well the fall I was ten, when we got (what I thought was government issue) two big new "outhouses" for the school. The high seat was difficult to reach and there was a nice square, paneless window high on one side, over the seat. I was child number three in our family of seven children, and my sister and brother and I spent a lot of time together.

We were supposed to go right home after school, but once in a while we played around on the swings or merry-go-round before going home. This particular cool, crisp afternoon we stayed to play, and when "duty" called, we decided it was more fun to use the new building at the schoolhouse than to run the short distance home to our old one. Then, the first thing we knew we were throwing my Reader back and forth through the little window. We were having a good time when I, on the inside, missed. Yes it went down the hole open side down. That was the end of the game, the fun was over. Now we had to go home and tell Mama. My, was she ever upset with me, we not only didn't come home when we should have, but we lost a costly school book. Now, Mama always knew just what to do, she put on her coat, buttoning it as we went out the door, telling me to get the garden rake and we would go get the book.

It was dark when we left that nice new "outhouse" with the book. Supper would have to wait that night. She set up the ironing board near the washstand, spread newspapers over the ironing board, took a pan of warm, soapy water and clean rags and proceeded to clean, by the light of the kerosene lamp, one page at a time. I had to stand there and watch and every little while Mama would say "Peee-uuu Fern, Pee-uu." (Since I've grown I've wondered why she didn't make me do it.)

After supper she took warm flat irons heated on the wood range, and ironed every page in that book as I watched.

The next morning she sent me to school early, telling me to take the book, now a littler fatter, and exchange it for a different one, putting it in the back of the bookcase. We called them cupboards; they reached to the ceiling and had wainscoting doors. All the rest of that school year, I just knew the teacher, a stern, unmarried woman, would find that book and know that I was the one responsible for its condition.

Needless to say, we three kids never lingered after school the rest of that year.

Fern Nieland
Wapato, Washington


Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then Capper’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from Capper’s readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.