Charles Co. man gathers outhouses


February 08, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

When he goes out to give public talks about his hobby, Homer A. Allison puts on the orange pastel necktie with the hand-painted outhouse on it. It's probably the only one of its kind.

But then, Mr. Allison is that rare breed of man who would wear a privy necktie in a public place. He's the sort of man who can speak at length and with authority on a topic that -- even in the age of Phil, Oprah, Geraldo, Sally and Maury -- gets little air time.

For some years now, Mr. Allison, 67, a retired Air Force flight technician from Charles County, has been devoting a fair chunk of his time to outhouses.

He reads about them and keeps a scrapbook of clips relating to bathroom functions in general, backhouses in particular. A collection displayed in his study at home includes about 70 miniature outhouses, an outhouse jigsaw puzzle, an array of photographs, paintings, drawings, decorative plates and books on the subject. He even has a tiny backhouse in a bottle and a clock over his desk with an outhouse painted on its face.

Asked how he came to amass what may well be the area's largest outhouse collection, Mr. Allison answers quickly: "Well, I'll tell you this, it wasn't planned."

It also wasn't nostalgia. Mr. Allison grew up in northern Harford County and did not enjoy the convenience of indoor plumbing until he was 14. As he recalls it, the family outhouse was brutally cold in winter, bug-infested in summer.

"They stank, I hated them," says Mr. Allison. "They were miserable. I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd be collecting them."

Nevertheless, he now may be counted among the outhouse cognoscenti. He's researched the history not only of outhouses, but of bathrooms in general ("Did you know the first indoor toilet was in Scotland?") and finds himself in demand as a speaker at local service clubs and churches. For such occasions, he wears the necktie with the outhouse painted on it. His minister's wife made it for him.

To some degree, the distinction of backhouse maven was thrust upon him.

When Mr. Allison turned 50 in 1975, his stepfather built as a birthday gift a wooden model of a backhouse, complete with a tiny Sears catalog.

It seemed a fitting way to reciprocate, as some years before Mr. Allison had given his mother a poem displayed in a rustic wooden frame. The poem was "The Passing of the Outhouse," a fond look back at a secluded corner of Americana by James Whitcomb Riley, an Indiana poet. The frame was fashioned from the seat of an old abandoned outhouse Mr. Allison found moldering behind a Methodist church near his home in Bryans Road.

He had cut the two-holer seat in half, sanded the wood smooth and applied a stain finish.

"Light walnut," he says, "give it a little color."

The one outhouse from his stepfather inspired Mr. Allison's friends and other relatives. Soon he received many more outhouses. By 1991, he had 30 of them.

Then the press got wind of the story.

A brief item in the Washington Post Sunday magazine led to an Associated Press feature in February, 1991, that appeared in newspapers across the country. Before long, people across America started sending him little privies.

"It really took off, let me show you," says Mr. Allison, stepping into his paneled study. It could be a wing of the Smithsonian Institution.

Imagine a tiny outhouse carved from a lump of coal. The collection includes three of them, sent by people in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky. Then there's the fellow who runs the brick company in Statesville, N.C., who sent an outhouse carved from a red brick. The original brick backhouse.

There's the one with the double-deck seat, a challenge to the laws of gravity rivaling the $23 million toilet on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, sent by the fellow who runs a craft shop in Anchorage, Alaska. One outhouse explodes when a coin is placed in the roof slot. Three of them play music: "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer," and "The Way We Were."

His favorite is probably the one sent by the craftsman in Lincoln, Neb., who built an inch-high outhouse in a bottle. Yes, there is a little Sears catalog hanging on the wall inside.

Although Mr. Allison never much fancied outhouses before, the sheer volume of them, not to mention the press coverage, piqued his interest.

"I guess it took hold of me when they started writing about me," says Mr. Allison, who acknowledges that he's always been a pack rat. "I took it seriously as a hobby. I really started looking, taking pictures of them."

And reading about them. Believe it or not, a number of books have already been written on the subject, including an historic treatment, "The Vanishing American Outhouse," a four-volume set of poems, aphorisms and photographs called "Muddled Meanderings in an Outhouse," and the ever-popular, "Sittin' and a Thinkin'."

With luck and persistence, Mr. Allison hopes to add his own effort to the bibliography, a book on Maryland outhouses. He's been writing to local newspapers, putting out the word that he's seeking information, stories, poems, reminiscences, jokes. He's been traveling around, taking pictures of old outhouses before they disappear from the scene forever.

"I like history," says Mr. Allison. "This is part of our history which is going to be fading out. My grandchildren, who have no concept of these things, they go to visit these historic mansions, they have asked me, 'Hey, Pop, where's the bathroom?' "

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