The shack out back

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 15, 2016

Tennesseans called it the “la-la.” Elsewhere known as the john, the shanty, the shack, the throne, the shed, the relief office—it was the humble outhouse. The little buildings “out back” were as important as any building built before indoor plumbing. This was the building you located as soon as possible when you came to visit, and if your guest was the preacher, you invited him outside on some pretext so he could spot “the necessary room” without asking.

During the 1930s the WPA built thousands of outhouses across America. Three-man teams would spend an average of twenty hours on the construction of each one. Where possible the farm family receiving the new outhouse would pay for the materials (about $17 per outhouse), while the WPA supplied the labor free.

These were outhouses like America had never seen before. The American Red Cross developed the basic design. This design featured an enclosed, vented pit for the waste, was fly and vermin proof, and afforded a standard of cleanliness and sanitation that earlier generations would have considered effete. building had a concrete floor and a carefully carpentered seat with a close fitting lid to exclude flies. Although many design variations existed, the two basic designs were single seater and two seater.

The two seater was preferred by large families—the second seat had a smaller hole to prevent children from falling through—by those who liked company, and by those who needed a place to set their lantern at night.

“To the right of the narrow entrance was a complete collection of fishing equipment ranging from rods and reels to every size, shape and color of lure imaginable. Directly above these hung an array of ingenious traps which proved to be the scourge of every muskrat and mink for five miles up or down river. In the rear of the little edifice stood two tall bushel baskets containing an endless conglomeration of treasures ranging from outdated articles of clothing to ancient magazines.

“The latter provided amusement and literary driblets for the perusal of the lackadaisical visitor who wished to bide his time informatively. And we must not overlook that standard piece of equipment without which the outhouse would not have been an outhouse–that savior of the toilet-paper-destitute family–the good old catalog. Where would we have been without it? Why do you think the mail-order house was such a thriving success?”

Robert E. Dalton
born Robert E. Lee Dalton, 1938,
in Itman, Wyoming County, WV

And those crescent moon cutouts on the door? That goes back to Colonial times. In a time when few people could read, the crescent moon was the symbol for women while the star cutout was for men.


WPA +outhouse American+Red+Cross appalachia appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

One Response

  • HistoryJoe says:

    Great story. The inflation calculator says that would be about $250 today, but to get the labor for free must have made it a pretty good deal

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A (future) noted West Virginian befriends Charles Dickens

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 14, 2016

The year he turned 44 years old, in 1864, Joseph Hubert Diss Debar was appointed WV commissioner of immigration by Governor Boreman; during his tenure he produced the only handbook for immigrants to be published in the state, printed in English, German and Swedish. He was Doddridge County’s first representative to the newly created West Virginia Legislature, the only foreign-born delegate to serve in that body. In 1863, the legislature had appointed Debar to make drawings for a state seal and coat-of-arms. These designs became the official seal and coat-of-arms for the state when West Virginia came into the union. Joseph Diss Debar, in short, was prominent in matters of state.

Joseph H. Diss Debar

Joseph H. Diss Debar

But all these successes were still far in the future in 1842, the year Diss Debar crossed paths with Charles Dickens for the first and only time.

Diss Debar didn’t start his life in West Virginia. He was born in Strasbourg in French Alsace in 1820, the son of the estate manager for Cardinal Prince de Rohan. The young Debar headed to America, with strong connections from France to pave the way, to become a land agent in what would later be West Virginia. One major land holding covering several counties in the north central part of the state was known as the Swan lands, acquired by James Swan of Boston before 1809. John Peter Dumas of Paris, named trustee for the estate upon Swan’s death in 1831, ended up hiring Diss Debar.

Joseph Diss Debar sailed toward America from Liverpool, England to Boston, in January 1842 on the steamer Britannia. Charles Dickens was also making the voyage, and the two became friends.

In this excerpt from Reminiscence of Charles Dickens’ first visit to America by a fellow passenger (J. H. Diss Debar), Debar explains how:

“For pastime only — for I have never played anything but whist or e’carte’ before — I took part in a game of vingt-et-un in the saloon, supposing the company respectable and the risk slight. The fascinations of the game, however, and the stimulating example of an American gentleman at my elbow, carried me beyond my soundings.

“I lost nearly fifty dollars the first day and half as much the next — almost a catastrophe for a young commercial traveler on a moderate salary. Hoping to retrieve my luck, I next morning again ventured to the shrine of the fickle goddess and had recovered half my losses, when, a change of dealer or banker occurring, I felt a soft but significant touch upon my right shoulder, and looking around beheld a pair of large and wonderfully eloquent eyes beckoning me to come away.

Collection Wikipedia Commons

RMS Britannia in 1840.

“Comprehending the situation, I quietly arose under some pretext and took a walk on deck, where Mr. Dickens made his appearance an hour after, apparently unconscious of my presence. Seeing me approach him, he waived the formality of my expressions of gratitude with a sweeping gesture, merely inquiring whether I meant to play again in that company.

“Upon my unhesitating reply in the negative his satisfaction was unequivocal, and with a brief injunction of secrecy regarding his intervention he gently bowed himself away. Subsequent developments in the case of another victim of nearly my age revealed the fact that certain passengers, rising importers of New York City, whose banking proved so disastrous to some of their clients, were confederates playing into each other’s hands by such tricks as may readily be surmised by persons familiar with the game.

“Another occasion on which Mr. Dickens was forced out of his contemplative mood into something like personal display was afforded by the midnight storm so graphically depicted in the “Notes”. Granting that this war of elements was all that is claimed for it by the imaginative author, it failed to impress itself upon a majority of the passengers as a narrow escape from a watery grave.

“Perhaps an accident to the cow, which somewhat reduced the supply of milk in the regulation tea and coffee, contributed to magnify the perils of the gale in the eyes of transatlantic neophytes. At any rate they regarded the occasion as one eminently suggestive of a substantial testimonial of their grateful admiration to the captain, although this gallant little man, on hearing of the proposition while picking up crumbs around his plate with his moistened index, ‘thought he had often seen much worse weather.’

“A meeting was called, attended by scarcely any one not belonging to the British mess. In explanation of this term it may be of interest to state here that in those days English travelers on transatlantic steamers generally outnumbered all the others put together, and regularly messed at one and the same table during the passage.

Sketch of Charles Dickens from 1842.

Sketch of Charles Dickens from 1842.

“On this trip this table was presided over by the captain or his next in rank and occasionally by a young Briton, a colonel in a Canada regiment which he was going to join. Since this scion of nobility could be spared from the turf and field, it undeniably was a wise discretion that destined him to the military instead of the diplomatic career in which his father, a peer of the realm, occupied a distinguished rank.

“And it was undoubtedly the attraction of opposites which threw this young man preferably into the society of Mr. Dickens, who, at the table, occupied the seat immediately to his right. The other table in the saloon was almost exclusively tenanted by passengers from the continent, with a sprinkling of Americans and such Celts from the Green Isle or the land of Scots as were conscious of a tinge of disloyalty to her majesty’s authority.

“Some one having called the meeting to order, the choice of president fell upon the youthful Colonel, and Chas. Dickens Esqr was chosen secretary. So far, so good; but when the first named officer blushingly arose to explain the object of the meeting, an incident occurred, the generous omission in the “Notes” is herewith supplied it is hoped without impropriety.

“Although endowed with an organ that would have marshaled a whole army corps as well as a regiment, the noble colonel was totally unable to give vent to his feelings. In vain did his nervous hand wander from the tips of his flaxen hair to the depths of his pockets and vice-versa, but beyond the thrice repeated invocation, “Gentlemen — I — ah — awh” — he could not proceed. The meeting was beginning to look blue and sly jokes were already flashing up and down the opposition table, when the cart was happily pulled out of the bog by the nimble secretary who, gently elbowing down his honorable friend, accomplished the refractory task in his most felicitous style.

“As a result it was unanimously decided to present Captain Hewitt with a silver tea-set, for which a subscription was raised before the meeting adjourned. Nor did the luckless orator lack in grateful appreciation of his timely rescue from a critical strait, for he was ever afterward observed to cling to his benefactor more devotedly than ever, and at the sightseeing at Halifax and Boston the two had become perfectly inseparable.”



Cowan’s Auctions Catalogue June 2012

WV Governor’s Message, submitted to the Legislature of 1907, with the Accompanying Reports and Documents coevering the Two Fiscal Years Oct 1, 1904 to Sept 30, 1906


One Response

  • Ian Keable says:

    Great to see this story in fuller detail. Dickens of course would have known all about card sharping and hustlers from his early days in London. One thing that puzzles me is that I first came across this in Peter Acroyd’s Dickens, published in 1990. He attributes the story to Pierre Morand. Was that Joseph Hubert Diss Debar’s original French name? Or has Acroyd got it wrong?

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Summer pastimes

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 13, 2016

portrait by Albert J Ewing

Albert J. Ewing (1870-1934) was a traveling photographer who worked on a floating studio aboard the Water Queen showboat that cruised the Ohio River.

Way’s Packet Directory, 1848 – 1994 indicates that the Water Queen operated from 1880-1915. Ewing, who lived in the town of Lowell, Washington County, OH, photographed thousands of residents of southern Ohio and West Virginia, documenting living conditions and family life in Appalachia at the turn of the century. These photographs were taken between 1890 and 1910.

The Ohio Historical Society (OHS) owns 5,055 of Ewing’s glass plate negatives. There is a negative in the collection signed “Ewing Bros.” It is likely that Albert recruited his younger brother Frank and perhaps other relatives to help him with his business, but there are not census records identifying them as photographers.

The OHS mounted ‘Faces of Appalachia,’ the first public exhibit of his work, in 2013.

portrait by Albert J Ewing

portrait by Albert J Ewing

portrait by Albert J Ewing


Directory of Marietta and Washington County Gazetteer, 1907-1908. The Inter-State Directory Company, Marion, IN

Marietta City, Washington County and Williamstown, WV Directory, 1905. MaGoffin and Pond, Marietta, OH

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We got by, I guess

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 10, 2016

“Well, always when they’d get up, you know, early, they’d go feed their horses to get ‘em ready for the day’s work. And then they plowed with a turning plow. They’d hook the horses to that turning plow, you know, and plow. Whatever they done on the farm, they used the horses.

Just had the two horses. They worked the horses out, and they didn’t have any tractors. So they worked the horses and that’s what they farmed with. Well, a horse kicked my father; he lived about a week and then he died.
The horses was in stables and this one horse got to kicking at the other horse, so he went into . . . they was real gentle, you know, and he didn’t think about them hurting him, and he went in to get the horse’s foot out of the . . . it had got hung in the partition, you know, . . . and when he got the horse’s foot out, of course, it thought it was kicking the other horse and it kicked him.

So my mother raised the seven of us. Of course, back then girls was taught to work, you know. They helped . . .whatever was to do, they helped do it. If they was working in the garden, they helped work in the garden. If they canned, they helped can the . . . you know, the food. And, of course, my brothers was little at that time, so they wasn’t big enough to really help my dad, you know.

And it wasn’t like it is now. See, now if a widow’s left, why they draw a lot of welfare and stuff like that, but there wasn’t nothing like that then. She seen a hard time. You might know she did because the seven children. But we got by, I guess. She lived to be ninety-five years old.”

Deva Mullins
Born 1920
Chapel Ridge, KY
Interviewed June 10, 1991 for
Family Farm Oral History Project
University of Kentucky


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The Devil danced on Fiddlers Mountain

Posted by Dave Tabler | June 9, 2016

During the 1930s and 1940s Rose Thompson worked as a home supervisor with the Farm Security Administration in Georgia. While she worked with farmers and their wives — teaching them to put up preserves, make cotton mattresses, and build chick brooders — she listened to the stories they told.

Thompson spent some time during the summer of 1946 in Clayton, in Rabun County GA, where an elderly black preacher told her the tale of Fiddler’s Mountain.

The Reverend, Clayton GA“I had heard that there were very few blacks in Rabun County,” she recounted, “and I knew better than just to go rambling around. So I asked someone at the courthouse if it would be all right for me to go up there, and that person showed me the way to where an old black woman lived. She was nice enough about it, but she was a little vague about why she thought they called it Fiddlers Mountain.

“But she said the Reverend over there, he lived around a bend in the road, would know. She sent for the preacher, and sure enough he could and then they told it together although the preacher did most of the talking.”

“Why do they call it Fiddlers Mountain? Because nothing lives on it except those two musicians—just a fiddling and a swaying as they sit there and play. Any moonshiny night you can see them just a pulling the bow; and if you listen with a keen ear and a fearful heart, you can hear their music.

Bless your time, nobody knows how long they have been sitting there, but they are playing yet—to be sure. It was too long ago that a man came to one of the fiddlers and asked him to play the fiddle for him that night. Come to such and such a mountain. Going to be a big ball. And when night came, the fiddler went up on that mountain and took another man with him.

And when they got up the mountain there, they saw a great big house. Carriages and horses standing around. House all lit up. Laughing and talking going on—men and women all dressed up; women with trail train dresses on. Gave the fiddlers a seat and they went to playing. Every time they went through a cotillion, would come and pay the fiddlers. What a time they had! And just about that time the old Devil pranced in all dressed up and took his seat. They were all dancing and a bold gal walked up to the Devil and asked him to be her partner.

Devil got up and bowed and scraped and led the gal out in the ring. Then he set in to dance. He danced and danced. Cut so many capers that he pretty near danced that poor gal to death. Folks commenced to look at him and saw he had a pewter eye. After a while he cut so many fancy steps, they saw he had a club foot. All quit dancing. But the Devil kept on and danced the gal plumb to death. All the folks fell down on their knees and the Devil went out and took the side of the house with him—a braying like a mule.

And when the clock struck twelve, house went out of existence. House disappeared. House went down like a light going out. Nothing left but the two musicians still sitting up there on the mountain—just a fiddling and a swaying.

Hush, child! Can’t you hear the music?

Source: Hush, Child! Can’t You Hear the Music? By Rose Thompson, Charles Allen Beaumont, 1982, Univ of GA Press
The book is illustrated with photographs taken by Thompson and WPA photographer Jack Delano

Rose Thompson was a native of Greene County, Georgia

2 Responses

  • nellie says:

    I attended St. Andrews Presbyterian College during the mid 70’s. Our entire student body studied Black Mountain College, including Buckminster Fuller’s theories and ideas. In celebration of Earthday, we build a geodesic dome,. It was a great success. Mr. Fuller came to speak at our school of 680 students. It was a great experience. When I had the chance to hear him speak again in Parkersburg, West Virginia, I was one of the first to buy tickets. So many of his ideas have been found true. I am still waiting for our country to adopt his ideas on education in small, neighborhood 1-2 room schools. Thanks for the memories!

  • Keith Salter says:

    I cannot listen to broadcast any longer.
    Are they still being broadcast?

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