First published in The Emporia Gazette, November 30, 2004
by Cheryl Unruh
Kansans are resourceful.
Use what you have; that's the Kansas way.
Some people weave decorative windmills out of wheat. A business in Western Kansas sells tumbleweeds over the Internet.
If you have lemons, you make lemonade. If you have outhouses, well, um….
Down in Elk County, on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving, the community of Elk Falls (Pop. 110) invited the world to take a look inside their not-so-porta-potties.
Elk Falls is about 80 miles south of Emporia on Kansas Highway 99 and six miles east on U.S. Highway160.
It's a bargain and an adventure. For $1, you get a map and a voting ballot. A self-guided tour takes you around the heart of the town, peeking into other people's privies.
"We'll probably have about 600 votes by the end of the day," Dorothy Tiffany said on the second afternoon of the two-day event. Tiffany was the one taking the dollars and handing out "Tour de John" buttons. She's been a volunteer at the outhouse tour since the event began nine years ago.
"Attendance was low yesterday because of the rain," Tiffany told me. "Today we've had Red Hat ladies from Wichita and the Harper-Anthony area."
"This is the other serious thing we do," she said to an outhouse tourist as she held up a quart-sized jar of small rocks. "This is guaranteed antique gray gravel and for 50 cents you can put it into the pothole of your choice."
Behind the town's post office is the "Priority Privy." A ZIP code directory is the reading material. Posted on the door: "Through rain and hail and sleet and snow, sometimes the postmaster has to go."
One outhouse pays tribute to a former resident, actor Barry McGuire (who played in the 1977 movie, "Mary White.") Another had a deer hunting theme with oak leaves for toilet paper. Next to Quilts and More, an outhouse was named the "Quiltreen."
An outhouse at the Keefe homestead is called "The Eleanor."
During the '30s, in addition to other construction, the Works Progress Administration built outhouses.
A flyer available in the Keefe outhouse read, "In Republican areas such as Elk County, not everyone approved of such government assistance from Washington, although it gave employment to families who otherwise would have been on welfare. The critics called the WPA outhouses 'Eleanors' in honor of the first lady."
My favorite outhouse was the "Prayer Closet" behind the Calvary Chapel.
A tiny stained glass window was built into the door. Inside, a jug of water was secured above a ceramic sink and painted on the sink were these words, "Create in me a clean heart, O God, Psalm 51:10."
Dave and I ate a buffet lunch at the Village Café, a tiny restaurant in a converted house.
"This is like the Sistine Chapel," Dave said when we walked in the door.
"How so?" I asked, glancing around at the picnic tables and the shake shingles on the interior wall.
"Up there," he said.
With rafters supporting the picture frame, parallel to the floor was a sofa-sized reproduction of the arms-reaching-out section of Michelangelo's "The Creation of Adam."
We stopped at the quilt show in the Calvary Church and the arts and crafts show in the old gymnasium (built by the WPA).
In the gym, I met an engaging young woman, Marie Greene, a soap maker with Elk Falls Soap Company. I bought a bar of pearberry soap and commented on its wonderful fragrance.
"You should smell my house when the soap is curing," she said.
Before leaving town, Dave and I visited The Falls and the 1893 iron bridge over the Elk River.
Elk Falls is proud of what it is--a tiny town with a sense of humor and more than its share of outdoor plumbing.
Copyright 2004 by Cheryl Unruh
All Content Copyright 2004 by Cheryl Unruh