While they were once called “necessaries”, there hasn’t been much need for them since plumbing moved in doors. That hasn’t discouraged one Connecticut small business owner. WNPR’s J Holt brings us the story of a craftsman who’s built a business around building outhouses.
Kathy Dillner- “I just love this. It makes me so happy to look at it. You know, I always wanted one.”
I’m standing with Kathy Dillner in her garden in Hebron, and with all the blooming flowers around you might be surprised to discover that we’re actually looking at her outhouse.
Dillner- “Look at how nice that is, all the brackets? Look it, very well done, very precise.”
Dillner says she first wanted an outhouse after seeing one at the home of her neighbor of 40 years.
Dillner- “Her dad built theirs years ago, she’s in her 70’s. They had no running water, no nothing. This is what they used.”
But Dillner had no idea where to get one of her own until the chance discovery of another outhouse on the side of route 66. That led her to its builder, in nearby Colchester.
Georg Papp- “My name is Georg Papp, Sr.”
Papp’s adventures in outhouse building started as a side project, just building one for his daughter. But as it came together in his driveway, friends and neighbors started to stop by and check on his progress, and the consensus was-
Papp- “Wow those are neat. I thought I was destined to make fine furniture at the time, but what happened is what you see, all these outhouses in the yard.”
There are four of them at the moment. He started operating his Bull Hill Workshop commercially almost 10 years ago, and traditional outhouses have been his signature products since the beginning. Over the years he has developed several models of varying sizes and styles, all incorporating historical details and tracing their roots to different regional designs. Among those on display are a couple examples of his classic Americana, with a peaked roof and the familiar crescent in the door.
Papp- “It pretty much resembles an old guard house. But I try to make them as Iconic as possible. You know the look is very important as well as the materials and so is historic accuracy.”
Papp makes his outhouses as historically correct as he can, but they’re not always used for their original purpose.
Papp- “You know, why do people BUY these things? Most of them were used as garden sheds when I first started making them. You can use them as a compost pit, I can hinge the back for that. A potting shed, I have a potting shelf that folds down, it’s very practical. You know a lot of people buy real outhouses because the party a lot and they don’t want people to tramp in and out of their houses. You can take a classic design and do so much with it.”
Kathy Dillner is one of the many who uses her outhouse as a garden shed, and after five years she says its still the perfect storage space for all of their garden tools. Papp has seen the trend reverse over the last year however, and most of the outhouses he’s sold recently are being used for their original purpose.
Papp- The best one on the lot today, this is an old demonstration model, that was originally built as a garden shed”
He finished it as a fully functioning outhouse complete with vent pipe, splash guard, lime bucket, and numerous other details he pointed out to his customer, Alison Segda of Hartford, who is picking it up as a surprise present for her husband. It’s destined for their camp in upstate New York.
Alison Segda- “It’s like seven acres into the woods, and there’s no running water, no power, and everyone’s got out houses. So we don’t have one yet, so now we do and he doesn’t have to make one.”
Papp says he’s sold a couple dozen outhouses direct to customers this year. It’s a very different business now than it was 10 years ago, when it was normal for him to build one every two days and also sell them through local garden stores. Some of that decrease in business is due to a slower work pace, as Papp has recovered from several surgeries in recent years, and some to the troubled economy. Over the years, sharing the knowledge he has acquired has become just as important to him as creating the products, and he gives occasional presentations on outhouses and other Americana. But he is also trying to take steps toward a bigger future.
“I would like it to grow a little bit. I would like it to be a size where I could afford to take on some help and teach someone. It’s tough in this market, but I really don’t have to make a lot of these to satisfy myself and actually to satisfy the goal I just mentioned.“
While he finds the idea of using hi-tech methods to promote such a low-tech product somewhat laughable.
Papp- “These are outhouses for god sake!”
He has put together a basic website and is able to appreciate its value. Papp says it’s not uncommon for customers to stumble across his products just as Kathy Dillner did, and now when they see his bull hill brand inside he’s more likely to hear about it.