The Passing of the Backhouse
by James Whitcomb Riley
(See the bottom for additional author information)

   W hen memory keeps me company and moves to smiles or tears,
A weather-beaten object looms through the mist of years,
Behind the house and barn it stood, a half a mile or more,
And hurrying feet a path had made, straight to its swinging door.
Its architecture was a type of simple classic art.
But in the tragedy of life it played a leading part.
And oft the passing traveler drove slow, and heaved a sigh,
To see the modest hired girl slip out with glances shy.
The hired girl slipping into the outhouse
...where my grandsire sat and whiled away an hour    W e had our posey garden that the women loved so well,
I loved it, too, but better still I loved the stronger smell
That filled the evening breezes so full of homely cheer,
And told the night-o'ertaken tramp that human life was near,
On lazy August afternoons, it made a little bower
Delightful, where my grandsire sat and whiled away an hour.
For there the summer mornings, its very cares entwined,
And berry bushes reddened in the streaming soil behind.
   A ll day fat spiders spun their webs to catch the buzzing flies
That flitted to and from the house, where Ma was baking pies,
And once a swarm of hornets bold had built a palace there,
And stung my unsuspecting Aunt--I must not tell you where.
Then father took a flaming pole--that was a happy day--
He nearly burned the building up, but the hornets left to stay.
When summer bloom began to fade and winter to carouse,
We bank the little building with a heap of hemlock boughs.
...a swarm of hornets bold had built a palace there
The torture of the icy seat would make a Spartan sob    B ut when the crust was on the snow and the sullen skies were gray,
In sooth the building was no place where one could wish to stay.
We did our duties promptly, there one purpose swayed the mind;
We tarried not, nor lingered long on what we left behind.
The torture of the icy seat would make a Spartan sob,
For needs must scrape the flesh with a lacerating cob,
That from a frost-encrusted nail, was suspended by a string--
My father was a frugal man and wasted not a thing.
   W hen grandpa had to "go out back" and make his morning call,
We'd bundle up the dear old man with a muffler and a shawl.
I knew the hole on which he sat--'twas padded all around,
And once I dared to sit there--'twas all too wide I found,
My loins were all too little, and I jack-knifed there to stay,
They had to come and get me out, or I'd have passed away,
Then father said ambition was a thing that boys should shun,
And I just used the children's hole 'til childhood days were done.
...once I dared to sit there--'twas all too wide I found
That dear old country landmark...    A nd still I marvel at the craft that cut those holes so true,
The baby hole, and the slender hole that fitted Sister Sue,
That dear old country landmark; I tramped around a bit,
And in the lap of luxury my lot has been to sit,
But ere I die I'll eat the fruit of trees I robbed of yore,
Then seek the shanty where my name is carved upon the door.
I ween the old familiar smell will sooth my jaded soul,
I'm now a man, but none the less I'll try the children's hole.

As always, the visitors to this site have unsurpassed knowledge. Today, 12 May 2000, I received the following Email alleging the true author to the above poem. Here is what they had to say...
  I have the copyright and can prove that James Whitcomb Riley did not write the passing of the Backhouse or the ode to the Outhouse - same poem but shorter. The author was Charles T. Rankin. His daughter Kathleen Rankin has the copyright and showed it to me and I have a copy in the Fulton County Museum, Rochester, IN.
  Shirley Willard, president Fulton Co. Hist. Soc.
  We have a few copies of the poem The Passing of the Backhouse for sale in our museum and you can order it through the mail by sending check to Fulton Co. Hist. Soc., 37 E 375 N, Rochester IN 46975. The cost is $5 plus $2.50 S&H. Someone published it in 1910 on postcards & attributed it to James Whitcomb Riley. But Riley said he was not the author & considered it too risqué. In some of the Riley records prepared by his lawyers, Riley stated that he did not write that Backhouse poem!! It was in 1949 that Rankin's son got the copyright. His daughter Kathleen Rankin has passed away now so I don't know if there is a member of the family to hold the copyright or not. She never married & had no heirs that I know of, though maybe she had a nephew or niece.


Here is yet another comment sent to me in April 2007 disputing the above comment.
  Mr. R. Hollenback writes "I read your poem "The Passing of the Back House" in which, then pres. of Fulton County Museum, Rochester, IN claims Charles Rankin was author.
  I have an original 2 page, type-written document with same title. Each page has, written in ink, the initials - J.W.R. Back of last page in pencil, "an unpublished work of James Whitcomb Riley found after his death." The two pages were very recently found folded in an old book (pub. mid-1800s) of my granfather's who died in 1942. I have every reason to believe it is an original document. The pages have a few typo corrections in ink. The words are slightly different from the Rankin version.
  I would like to find someone to send me a copy of his initials. Also, I don't know how far I want to carry this but the type from one of his original documents and the one I have could be compared. Who knows what could have happened back then. A copyright doesn't prove authorship but neither would would same type or initials. The poem is in same style and subject matter of Riley and I can find little or nothing on Rankin. Again, back then Riley could have disclaimed the poem because, for the times, he decided it was too vulgar and not in keeping with his style. " What do you think? Comments anyone?

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