HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
Of Wells and Outhouses
By ARNO SURLS WEBSTER
Though indoor plumbing was introduced in the United States in the early 1900s, wells and outhouses were prevalent in Lacoochee, Trilby, Clay Sink, Dade City and in fact, all of Florida well into the 1940s and 50s.
In Lacoochee, water was supplied to the town from the water tank you see in the background of a lot of Lacoochee photographs. The Cummer sawmill employee quarters for white people had indoor plumbing for water but outhouses adjacent to each house for toilets. The houses of the black people’s quarters did not have indoor plumbing; they hauled their water from a spigot at the end of the row and the entire block shared a few outhouses.
The houses in Lacoochee also had outhouses and later when indoor toilets were introduced, cesspits. Drainage from sinks in the houses, both in the quarters and in town, usually drained under the house directly onto the ground.
When our family lived at “Sugar Hill” — also known as “Surls Hill,” five miles west of Trilby, like other rural dwellings, we had an open well and an outhouse too.
Our well was 28 feet deep and about 4 feet across the curb at the top. About 5 feet down, there was another curb where the well narrowed to about 3.5 feet in diameter. This section descended about 12 feet where the was a third curb where the well narrowed to about 3 feet in diameter which then descended for another 11 feet to the water level.
A frame was built over the top of the well that housed a pulley from which a rope with a bucket tied to the end was used to haul the water from the well. To fetch water, you threw the bucket into the well, then pulled the rope assisted by the pulley to retrieve it. One turn of rope was wound around one of the support posts so that you could take up the slack in the rope without the bucket falling back into the depths of the well as you pulled it out.
The sides of the well were lined with cypress boards with 2×4 framing at the top and at the curbs.
My brother, Bud, and I were often left at home alone when Mama and Daddy went into town for various reasons; to shop, to visit, to &rldquo;do business.” When they were leaving, my mother always admonished us with a serious face and pointed finger, “Don’t go near the well.”
Since we got water from the well every day, we were very curious why we shouldn’t go near it when our parents weren’t home. We were certain there was a mystery down there. We would peer into its dark depths, expecting I don’t know what.
Well, one day, when I was about 12 and my brother was about 9, after Mama and Daddy left for town, I caught a chicken and threw it in the well. Then, of course, we had to get the chicken out. I lowered Bud on the rope into the well, he caught the chicken and I pulled him out without any trouble.
When I asked what was down there he said, “Nothin’ but water.”
Naturally, I had to see for myself, so with some doing, Bud let me down into the well. And, I found, sure enough, there was only water down there. The problem arose when he tried to pull me out. Pulling me up was strenuous, but with me “walking” with my feet on the sides of the well and him steady pulling I was soon to the second curb. After a short rest, he set to pulling again, but was not strong enough to pull me out. The well was too wide at this level for me to walk effectively with my feet against the sides, so I was just dead weight. I could see him against a circle of sky above me; so close, but so impossibly far away.
Now, if anyone remembers my Mama, you know that we would be in real trouble when she got home if I could not get out of the well and I was really scared; scared and chagrined at my pointless disobedience and frightening situation. So, to get more leverage, I told Bud to pull the rope to the tractor which was parked close by and wrap the rope around a wheel so that as he pulled, he could wind up the slack then put the rope in a bind to rest a minute before pulling again. I pushed and swung myself from side-to-side in the well and when I pushed off, he pulled the slack in the rope and wound it around the tractor wheel, secured it and rested. After several of these sessions, I was close enough to pull myself over the rim and out of the well. Relief flooded through me and I vowed never, never to be disobedient again.
I never told my Mama about going down the well and curiously enough, neither did Bud.
But after the “well adventure,” I would sometimes cautiously ask her why she didn’t want me to do one thing or another.
Now, I didn’t have any “outhouse adventures,” but I’m sure that if you ask, most families have an outhouse story.
Our outhouse was an ordinary two-seater that stood about 20 yards from the back of the house. There was a dirt path to it worn by family feet, young and old, on those “necessary trips” through the cold and wet weather as well as the hot and dry, day and night. It was somewhat of a sign of maturation when a child was old enough to go to the outhouse alone.
I don’t recall using the Sears catalog for tissue, but we did use a variety of types of paper, including newspaper.
Cherry tomatoes always grew on one side of our outhouse, common enough that our family still refers to cherry tomatoes as “toilet tomatoes.” Many’s the time before supper that Mama has sent me or Bud to the outhouse for some tomatoes.
If ever Mama caught the heady aroma of the outhouse on the breeze, she would suspend her chores to throw some lime into the pit. Once when she was purchasing lime, she picked up a package of unslaked lime, also known as quicklime. When she took it to the counter, the proprietor asked her what she was going to do with it. When she said, “treat the outhouse,” he advised her to get a package of slaked lime, also known as hydrated lime, since unslaked lime was highly reactive to water and the noxious fumes could cause injury to the eyes and throat. He laughed and told her that if unused quicklime was kept in the box in the outhouse and should get wet, it was possible for it to explode. Now, there’s a mental picture!
Needless to say, she always checked the package more carefully after that.
But, on one occasion, Mama had to post a POSITIVELY NO SMOKING sign in our outhouse. A friend had given her a package of carbide powder for a carbide lantern. She kept it on a shelf for some months and not anticipating any use for it, threw it into the outhouse pit to dispose of it. She did not know that to use carbide in a lamp, water is added to the powder causing a chemical reaction that produces a flammable gas. When she told Daddy that she had thrown the box of carbide powder into the outhouse pit, he was alarmed that someone striking a match to light a cigarette would cause a fire or explosion. So, up went the no smoking sign and it became a tradition of no smoking in our outhouses.
My Mama had many varied interests and one of them was taxidermy. In 1934, she took classes and earned a taxidermist certificate. Once certified, she bought the necessary equipment and chemicals and soon found an ironhead stork on the highway, killed the day before. It became the first of many of her taxidermy projects.
Her hobby affected the whole household because she stored her chemicals in the outhouse and her projects, in various stages of gruesome progress, hung from the inside walls.
Now, if your outhouse memory tops that, I’d like to hear it!
Sumner, Florida July, 2012