LOS LUNAS—Acclaimed local historian and author Richard Melzer isn’t above investigating the least glamorous artifacts of New Mexico’s history.
“Outhouses of New Mexico” is the historian’s latest exhibit at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts and reveals some interesting stories behind the pioneer technology.
Inspired by the number of outhouses he encountered while researching for a book on old cemeteries, he photographed the tiny, wooden structures for documentation.
“To get to the cemeteries, you have to go back on old, winding roads, so I passed a lot of old places (and) abandoned houses,” Melzer said. “So I got curious and interested.”
Although some people might think outhouses ought to be left to a bygone era, some people still use them for social events, such as matanzas. One woman told Melzer they built an outhouse for a wedding they were having in their backyard.
Back in the day, outhouses represented the latest sanitation technology and were a step up from the bush.
“I challenge people,” Melzer said. “On (N.M.) 47 between the Valencia Y and Rio Communities, there used to be 10 outhouse. Now there’s eight left. It’s sort of a scavenger hunt to find the eighth.”
Some outhouses are architecturally unusual and there are many different styles, the UNM-Valencia professor said.
One humorously bedecked outhouse at an antique store in Capitan has a sign inside that says “More s--- inside.”
“People are funny about their outhouses,” Melzer said laughing. “They do quirky things designing or locating their outhouses.
“Some day, they’re all going to be gone, so the pictures are going to be a way to preserve it,” he continued.
Some of the outhouses at the cemeteries Melzer visited must have been a welcome convenience for visitors who might have traveled for hours by buckboard.
“That’s why people come to these because they remember outhouses fondly,” the professor said.
He found an outhouse up by Eagle’s Nest without a door providing a beautiful scenic view.
“It’s completely private because you’re up there in the mountains — a ‘reserve’ seat,” he said chuckling.
A chance encounter with a man at Eagle’s Nest took Melzer on an afternoon tour of 16 outhouses after learning of the professor’s interest.
“Outhouses of New Mexico” reveals interesting and sometimes humorous facts about outhouses. For example: Did you know that New Mexico has the third largest number of outhouses among the 50 states? Or that outhouses usually feature a crescent moon icon?
Originally, a woman’s outhouse had a star and a man’s outhouse had a crescent moon cut out on the front or side of the wooden structure. Builders gave up on the stars and just kept the moon.
A his and hers double seater on Gabaldon Road in Belen is decorated with a skunk’s tail, and a three-seater in Los Chavez has one seat smaller and lower to the ground for a child.
In the 1930s, the WPA built outhouses to make them more modern and sanitary. They charged $5 to build them but if the family couldn’t pay, the WPA gave it to them, Melzer said,
Roswell even has an outhouse museum with more than a dozen of the structures, each featured with information about when they were built and where they were located.
A beautiful old Victorian home in White Oaks must have housed a family of some means, but the nearby outhouse bears witness to a common denominator.
“Outhouses of New Mexico” is on exhibit at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Art and will run to the end of August.
“We’ve had visitors come in and they unceremoniously announce, ‘Hey, where are the outhouse pictures?’ and we say ‘Come on in,’” said Troy Ainsworth, museum technician. “You’re in the right place.”
Anyone with information about state or local outhouses are encouraged to contact the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts at 352-7720, located at 251 Main Street SE, at the corner of Main and Luna Ave.