Ruth Gordon pulled into Elk Falls on Saturday afternoon, parked her car in front of the Senior Center and led two friends to her masterpiece just a short walk away.
The project that Gordon had spent countless hours working on over the past six weeks sat immediately behind the town’s tiny post office. It was an outhouse, and it was anything but typical.
The structure stood about 8 feet tall and was bright pink. A sign reading “Our Pretty Privy” hung above the lemony colored door, which was flanked on each side by wind chimes made of beads, spoons and dessert plates adorned with hummingbirds. The theme continued inside. Gold floral curtains hung behind the makeshift toilet and lace billowed from the ceiling. A water basin sat on a shabby-chic table on one side of the stool, and a lamp, cross-stitch and “The Best of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader” was nestled into the corner of the other.
“I bet I spent more time on this than anyone else did,” said Gordon, a resident of Winfield, Kan. “It’s a tad overdone.”
Once she arrived at her creation, Gordon began making small adjustments. She rearranged a few teacups and straightened things up inside.
“Someone left the seat up,” she said disapprovingly.
After all, this outhouse wasn’t built to be used. It was Gordon’s entry into the 18th annual Elk Falls Outhouse Tour, and on Saturday, the “Pretty Privy” took first place.
Cars streamed into the small town, stopping in a muddy lot just north of Kansas Highway 99 on Friday and Saturday. Elk Falls, a village in southeast Kansas with a population of 101, draws in about 1,500 people for the Outhouse Tour each year.
Anywhere from 10 to 12 outhouses make up the tour, which takes people from one side of town to the other (about two-thirds of a mile), and visitors vote for their favorites. Each latrine has its own theme, name and story. In addition to the “Pretty Privy,” the highlights this year were the “Quack Pot,” a play on the A&E reality series Duck Dynasty; “Santa’s Pit Stop,” complete with a life-sized Santa reading the local newspaper; and the “Outhouse Chicken House,” which housed a live bird.
Inside Cavalry Chapel located north of the highway, people milled around the quilt show and craft fair. North of that, the town’s only shop, Elk Falls Pottery, was holding it’s annual open house. At about 1 p.m. Saturday, Reach for the Sky Bluegrass Band played inside, the “ping” of the banjo ricocheting off the shop’s old tin roof. A few dozen people looked at the handmade Americana-style art while owner Steve Fry did a demo on his pottery wheel in the back.
On the south side of the highway lay the heart of Elk Falls. Just one block down on the town’s only paved street, longtime Elk Falls residents Dorothy Tiffany and Kay Koehn sold commemorative buttons and T-shirts and gave attendees a ballot, map, and some solid advice.
“Cast your ballot if you want to see your favorite win,” Tiffany said. “There are some good ones this year.”
To outsiders, the Outhouse Tour serves as a weekend escape to nowhere, to a rugged part of the country with few people and little to see. These visitors travel a series of narrow, winding highways to take in the wild decorations and endless puns that give them something nice to laugh about.
But for the residents of Elk Falls and the surrounding area, the tour serves as a lifeline, a small piece of hope for the dying community.
Finding a solution
According William G. Cutler’s “History of the State of Kansas,” Elk Falls was founded in 1870 after a group of settlers established homes along the Elk River, a strip of land belonging to the Osage tribe.
Though it is near the river, most of the area surrounding the town is rough and broken, unsuitable for agriculture since its beginning.
Cutler wrote that in the town’s early years, a flouring mill was located near the falls on Elk River, and it served as the main source of income for area residents.
At its peak, Elk Falls was home to almost 300 people. According to the U.S. Census, its population was 150 in 1980 and 122 in 1990. Recently, as the population has continued to decline, residents jokingly call their home “The World’s Largest Living Ghost Town.”
The town’s end has been predictable since early on, according to Cutler, anyway.
“As to what the future of the town may be, little can be said more than mere conjecture. It is certain, however, even under ordinary favorable circumstances, that the place cannot attain to any considerable size, owing to the absence of those requisites and conditions as are necessary to its support, such as manufacturing and mining interests, and the surroundings of a good agricultural country, etc,” Cutler wrote. “…to predict for her a more prosperous situation than she now occupies, would be extremely hazardous and unwise.”
After more businesses in Elk Falls started closing up shop in the 1990s (including a variety theatre and a café), the remaining residents of the town set out to stop the process of extinction — or postpone it, at least.
“We don’t have many businesses,” Tiffany said. “There’s no restaurant. We got a car repair place, and Steve has the pottery place. We just don’t have a whole lot anymore.”
According to the Outhouse Tour website, Tiffany, Fry and other concerned parties held a brainstorming meeting in 1995 in order to find a solution. There were no lush gardens in the town, as there once had been, and the architecture wasn’t much to look at. But they had plenty of outhouses, pieces of history that many residents refused to tear down.
“It is crazy,” said Kay Koehn.
But it works.
The tour and coinciding events have brought in a steady number of people since 1996. Attendees purchase crafts and pottery, and sit down to a lunch of sandwiches and pie inside the senior center. Though there isn’t a lot of fundraising to be had, the event brings people to a part of the state they hadn’t seen before.
And it brings some people back home.
Ruth Gordon went inside the senior center on Saturday to escape the cold weather. She sat down at a small table in the corner and talked briefly about her childhood.
Gordon was raised in northern Elk County near Severy. She still owns 80 acres in the area, her share of her family’s old land. Gordon traveled to Elk Falls for the Outhouse Tour in 2011 and 2012, before deciding it was high time she participated.
“I don’t know how many people live in this town, but it’s not many,” Gordon said. “And yet they can organize themselves and put this on and I think that’s a real testament to the people who fight to keep their town alive. When you don’t have a school, you don’t have a restaurant, you don’t have business, what is there to keep your town from completely dying? They’re trying. I don’t know if it’s going to make it forever, but at least they’re trying.”
Residents of the town — or some of them, at least — probably won’t stop trying any time soon.
Dorothy Tiffany, owner of Elk County General Store in nearby Howard, has been a key organizer in the Tour since its debut. After visitors stuck their votes in the ballot box on Saturday, she would encourage them to make a trip back, anytime.
“Tell your friends about it, and tell them to come see it for themselves next year,” Tiffany said. “They won’t believe it.”