Kenneth Jessen is a student of the eccentric. The 64-year-old retired engineer turned writer has delved into the lives of such characters as Indian Eater Big Phil, who allegedly ate two of his wives, and gunslinger Jack Slade, who shot one of his enemies between the eyes, sawed off his ears and then clutched the keepsakes inside his pockets for years. Now Jessen's got the poop on Colorado outhouses.
"I've been trying to get to the bottom of history for years. With this one, I've finally done it," he says of his thirteenth book.
The entertaining and informative primer, Out the back, down the path: Colorado Outhouses, which hit the shelves last month, features 200 pages of black-and-white photographs, pencil sketches, watercolor illustrations and thumbnail plans of what Jessen considers to be some of Colorado's most overlooked and endangered archaeological artifacts. Mixed among the portraits are loads of outhouse tidbits, trivia and bathroom puns. "It's more of a historical work than a how-to manual," Jessen says.
Driving the state corner to corner while researching other books in early 2000, Jessen discovered that rural privies are rapidly disappearing because of deterioration and their illegal status. So into his Land Cruiser he climbed, notepad and camera in tow, to document the artifacts before it was too late.
Two years, 40,000 miles and roughly 500 photographs later, he found that with most of Colorado's several thousand privies, simplicity and practicality ruled. They were built according to the classic single-seat, unlined-pit, wooden-box design so that when the cistern was full, owners could simply dig another, usually somewhere nearby, fill the old hole and drag the wooden frame over the new loo.
But Jessen also discovered a few variations, including a five-stall hexagonal privy with leather seats at the old Inter-Laken Hotel at Twin Lakes; a proverbial brick shithouse in Nederland; a stone dunny on Squaw Mountain; a corrugated steel outhouse in Rockvale; and a potty made of logs at Camp Cree. Jessen also stumbled across outhouses with elaborate ornamentation, such as the carpeted, wood-paneled, vacuum-equipped specimen at Buckhorn Canyon; the billboard of a privy at Russell Gulch with a radiation- hazard placard, "Stop: Dead End" sign and TV antenna; and the immaculate toilet in Eldora, featuring a window, veranda and sunburst trim.
"Some of these took a lot of imagination and hard work," Jessen says.
Topping that list is the two-story engineering marvel behind the former Masonic Hall in Crested Butte. Probably the most famous outhouse in Colorado, it was designed for practical rather than aesthetic reasons. Snowdrifts in Crested Butte often reach six feet high, rendering the lower-level outhouse inaccessible, so an innovative carpenter fashioned a second tier with a separate entrance. He placed the business ends of the chambers back to back to avoid unpleasant drop-zone surprises.
But Jessen's favorite privy is the ornate "six-shooter" behind the Hamill House in Georgetown. It features not only separate servant and family quarters but a dividing chamber that acts as a ventilator leading up to its elaborate rooftop outlet. The 123-year-old privy has different-sized seats for adults and children, as well as different seat textures for servants (pine) and family (walnut).
"I just can't believe how much work went into that and how complex it is," Jessen says. "It's a very sophisticated structure."
But there's plenty of space devoted to the homelier dunnies, too, including one spartan privy crafted for the now-defunct Theresa Gold Mining Co. near Goldfield. Although it's little more than a wooden one-seater with a pitched roof, it still took Jessen's breath away. "It's on top of an open mine shaft," he says. "As you walk to it, you can see between the rotting planks directly into the abyss. It's definitely the scariest one out there. Quite a thrilling walk. And since there's no bottom, you can never fill it up, though we can safely assume that the miners extracted the ore before putting the structure up there."
No matter how elaborate, many of these outhouses feature a crescent-moon ventilator. And in Out the back, down the path, Jessen offers his two cents about the design's origins. Once upon a time, probably around the 1500s, outhouses featured one of two designators: A sun for the men's and a crescent moon for the women's. But because many pioneer men were either slobs who "failed to provide proper privy maintenance" or macho types who preferred to answer nature's call outdoors, the sun slowly set on the gentlemen's outhouse. (There's also a theory about porcupines gnawing away the urine-soaked seats.) Whatever the reason, Jessen writes, "over time, only the women's privy survived, and by default, the crescent moon became the symbol for the outhouse."
The book also features enlightening essays from Jessen's friends and colleagues, such as Mary Jane Groves, who offers outhouse tours in northern Colorado, and Tom Noel, who wrote an ode to the state-of-the-art composting ten-holer at the Grizzly Creek rest stop in Glenwood Canyon. "Cherry Creek Shopping Center's marble-walled bathrooms cannot compete on either landscaping or ecological grounds," Noel concludes.
Despite the toilets' fading stature, finding material wasn't a problem for Jessen; he and his collaborators discovered 500 privies without much effort. Rather, it was selecting which outhouses would appear in the book. In the end, 300 photos hit the editing-room floor. But Jessen hopes those that survived will offer a glimpse into a vanishing lifestyle.
Because unlined outhouses are illegal, owners must cease and desist operating their privies or face fines. The city of Wray, for instance, outlawed outhouses in 1961, ordered them demolished and imposed fines of up to $300. Today, only three abandoned privies remain there. In Montezuma County, meanwhile, some owners tip over their privies to demonstrate the decommissioned status, while users in Guffey (a town of fifty that describes itself as a group of "disparate, delightful and sometimes downright disagreeable folks") equip their outhouses with underground concrete vaults that are regularly pumped and cleaned.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Charles Collins, a University of Northern Colorado geography professor, has been charting this evolution. In a 1990 study, he traced the origins of the privy from the days of "promiscuous defecation" on the prairie to the outhouse kits (called Eleanors) designed and built by the Works Progress Administration. Instead of treating outhouses as novelties, Collins considers them valuable cultural artifacts that speak volumes about settlers' views on privacy and sanitation.
"We should lament the passing of the old outhouse," Collins writes in the study, which appears in Jessen's book. "But not because it symbolizes a happier, simpler time. For with the disappearance of each little house, another insight into our cultural value system is lost. As repositories of our cultural reluctance, and often our social embarrassment, privies carry greater evidential weight than most other landscape artifacts. We reveal more about ourselves by what we try to deny than what we choose to display."
Jessen couldn't agree more.
"They're being tipped over, burned and converted into storage sheds, and at a very rapid rate," Jessen says. "If we lose them, we lose a part of Americana. If we do not preserve them, we have not preserved our complete historical experience."