July 24, 2016 - 1:00 PM
LIVERPOOL, N.S. - The Outhouse Museum began as a request over an afternoon spot of tea.
In the 1970s, Isabel Macneill invited Sherman Hines to her old house in a village on Nova Scotia’s South Shore to commission the prolific photographer for a special project.
Macneill asked Hines to document a disappearing, once essential part of Maritime landscape — outhouses. In decades to come, the elderly woman insisted no one would know what an outhouse looked like, so Hines should photograph them before they were gone.
And so a joke was born. Over the next handful of years, Hines would send his friend a postcard with a photo of an outhouse every Christmas.
What began as potty humour eventually led to several books of photography selling about 135,000 copies, calendars, postcards, a newsletter and a museum in Liverpool, N.S., with more than 200 outhouses, by Hines's estimation.
"It’s unbelievably popular," he says. "People come right off the highway just to see the Outhouse Museum."
The museum, which boasts to be the only in the world of its kind, consists of small, ramshackle structures with half-moon slits carved into latched wooden doors. Some are equipped with corn cobs for cleaning up after taking care of business, others with smaller seats to accommodate child-sized tushies.
There is a two-seated privy with a sign that says "No Dumping," and an outdoor loo for Anglophiles warning patrons to "Give Way" 150 yards. One commode is shingled in multicoloured licence plates from Quebec.
Inside the museum, there is a wall of chamber pots — some authentic, meaning used; others newly commissioned as trophies for mobile outhouse races.
The shelves are lined with outhouse birdhouses, lamps, Christmas ornaments, magazine racks, outhouses in a bottle, coin banks that crack at maximum capacity and a set of outhouse salt-and-pepper shakers from Occupied Japan that retail for hundreds of dollars.
"It’s the humour of it all," Hines says. "And of course, now young people, this whole generation, thinks it’s not funny — it’s hilarious."
After years of exchanging postcards, Hines decided to take up Macneill's suggestion to shoot outhouses upon discovering the industry to be strangely lucrative.
The idea for a book of photography came to him after reading "The Specialist," a humorous book on the construction of outhouses that became an accidental hit, selling more than two million copies.
"My cash registers not very loud, but it went off in my head," says Hines. "Lo an behold, people were buying (the books) like hotcakes."
Hines's outhouse anthologies endeared him to the small but passionate community of latrine enthusiasts, including Connie Denault, a collector from Chicago.
None of Denault's dozen children were interested in inheriting her outhouse memorabilia, according to Hines, so he purchased her collection. After adding some outhouse artifacts of his own, Hines flew Denault to Liverpool for the grand unveiling of the Outhouse Museum.
The museum is housed in a roughly 2,200-square-metre renovated middle school from which Hines graduated decades ago. He purchased the condemned building from the city for a dollar, and in 2002, opened the Rossignol Cultural Centre.
"I decided I should do (the restorations) because no one else knew what I had in my head. I didn’t have time to get it out of my head, as usual," Hines says. "I wanted to do things as quickly and as efficiently I could or it was going to lose its hobby status."
The Rossignol is an eclectic archive of a life spent looking for the beauty in unusual things. In the early years, Hines guesses about 80 per cent of its exhibits were donated from his own stockpile of cultural oddities, the rest on loan from community members' collections.
"All the things that I’ve collected all over the world, and the hobbies I’ve had, and the things I’ve done — I don’t think it’s so interesting, but I know people sometimes do," he says. "So I thought, ‘Well, my wife has been chasing me to thin it out ... I should do something with it.'"
In the room where he once studied English, Hines installed English antiques he had stowed away in the attic above his garage.
The dilapidated gym has been converted into a menagerie of taxidermied beasts, many of them mounted by Hines. A stuffed wolf lunges for a bird in mid-air, both predator and prey trapped in suspended animation, as animal chatter plays over the speakers on a loop.
In his former schoolyard, Hines built a village of buildings he had come across during his world travels: a Mongolian ger tent; a lovingly painted replica of the house of Maud Lewis; and a scattering of outhouses.
The Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency invested about $630,000 in the Rossignol between 2001 and 2006, but other than that, the centre has largely been funded by a small group of donors, including Hines.
To keep the lights on, the Rossignol has had to shorten its season — which is usually from spring through September — to just July and August this year. Hines insists on waiving the five-dollar entrance fee through the end of the month, against the advice of a longtime colleague.
"I had all kinds of things I was dragging through my life, and I thought it’s better if other people enjoy it," says Hines. "I would do anything to get more people into the town."
Hines's monument to disappearing architecture may find itself soon disappearing. The Rossignol may have to auction off some of its collection, he says, in a bizarre yard sale.
"Outhouses, like poor puns, fell out of odour," writes Ray Guy in the accompanying text to Hines's Outhouses of the East. “Kept on as a pet after indoor plumbing put it out to pasture.
"Outhouses have passed through three phases already — taken-for-granted necessaries, objects of rustic stigma, items of nostalgia — and fourth may be in the wind."
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016