Build a Bathhouse for Your Homestead

Bring hot water bathing to your homestead with these tips for purchased or homemade water heaters.

| January/February 1974

Like "Mom and apple pie," "the Saturday night bath" is a catch phrase that comes straight out of America's rural past. Until only recently most of our parents and grandparents — like their ancestors before them — went through the weekly ritual of hauling a battered tin tub down from its peg on the back porch for that "once-a-week whether-you-need-it-or-not" hot water bath.

This event was accompanied by much sloshing of water in galvanized buckets, steaming of kettles and pots on the wood range and oozing of soapsuds all over the kitchen floor, and often Junior wound up with the lukewarm and none-too-clean liquid that was left after all the higher-ups in the family pecking order had done their thing. It's little wonder that America took to the gas- or electric-fired domestic water heater like, well, like ducks to water.

Now, of course, we take that convenience for granted. In fact, today's new homesteader is likely to find that if there's one single thing he really misses about "civilization," it's a hot shower at the end of the day. It might be argued with justice that the American preoccupation with cleanliness is schizophrenic, since — as a people — we seem to be more concerned with clean restrooms than clean air. Even so, when you've been pouring cement, haying or weeding the garden the better part of a July afternoon, it's pure bliss to greet the sunset with a hot bath or shower.

But Reddy Kilowatt, like it or not, is a very messy fellow. The dirt washed down the drain by the bath water from an electric heater probably doesn't equal the amount of dirt spewed into the air in order to produce that heat. And every cubic inch of gas burned in the only other commonly available water heater is one cubic inch of gas the world will never use again. In any case, many homesteaders live so far from both gas and electric lines that their choice boils down to either [1] going the Saturday night bath route or [2] going dirty.

Still — as we've found on our place — there are other solutions. For almost three years we hassled with the tin tub and, while the ritual at first seemed a mildly adventurous experience out of an earlier and less hectic era, it soon became very old stuff indeed. (This was particularly so during the winter, when baths were confined to that portion of the living room floor immediately in front of the Ashley heater.) We soon found ourselves taking advantage of our infrequent trips to town by bathing at the homes of friends, until they began to wonder whether we came to visit them or to steam up their bathrooms. Finally we decided that a rural organic life didn't have to include feeling grubby most of the time, and the fabrication of a bathhouse became our top priority project.

Building the Bathhouse

Construction materials for our new luxury were no problem. We live on the edge of a national forest where, every year, crews with chain saws thin out the smaller trees so that the remaining timber can grow to a marketable size. These thinnings are left where they fall to eventually rot back into the forest floor. They're free for the taking, and, if gathered while still green, make fine log-cabin-type buildings. An axe, a chain saw and a copy of Bradford Angier's book How To Build Your Home In the Woods were all I needed to put up a 10' x 12' bathhouse.

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