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Old Farmer's Almanac: WPA built many outhouses

Published: Sunday, April 7 2002 12:00 a.m. MST

April 8, Monday — The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act became law, which authorized the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), 1935.

April 9, Tuesday — American architect Frank Lloyd Wright died, 1959. Concorde made first test flight, 1969.

April 10, Wednesday — Moon at apogee. Erastus Bigelow received a patent for a machine that manufactured gingham, 1845.

April 11, Thursday — Moon on Equator. End old projects. Begin diet to lose weight.

April 12, Friday — New Moon. The Civil War began at Fort Sumter in South Carolina, 1861. Cut hay. Destroy pests and weeds.

April 13, Saturday — Thomas Jefferson born, 1743. Harvest above-ground crops.

April 14, Sunday — Conjunction of Venus and the Moon. Start new projects now.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: Did the Works Progress Administration really build outhouses in the 1930s? — O.N., Cranberry Island, Maine

Answer: That's a fact. Through the Works Progress Administration (later renamed Work Projects Administration), thousands of outhouses were built — one and two-holers, with cement floors and fancy vent pipes, even some with both adult and child-size seats. The outhouses, or "backhouses" as they were sometimes called because they were located "out back," have been used to criticize Franklin Delano Roosevelt's expenditures on the New Deal in a time of severe economic depression. Almost $11 billion were spent over the course of the WPA program before it ceased in 1943. The money was used to create bridges, roads, airports, public buildings, artwork, state guidebooks and more. While critics disparage the outhouses as frivolous government expenditures, others see them as minor works intended to improve standards of hygiene and prevent contagious diseases in some of the more rural areas of America in the 1930s. Inferior privies with leaky roofs, poor drainage, bad locations or dirt floors contributed to the many man-hours lost annually to hookworm, waterborne diseases from contaminated wells and streams, or other preventable illnesses. The WPA outhouses were intended to correct that and offer an example of a better design.

They also allowed small teams of workers to be productive, even in areas that weren't suitable for major construction projects. The families who received the outhouses usually paid for the materials involved, while the federal government paid the workers wages for the 20 or so work hours that went into building each outhouse. Part of FDR's plan, of course, was to provide jobs for the unemployed masses, while simultaneously injecting money back into the economy.

Ask the Old Farmer's Almanac: Is it true that Thomas Jefferson suffered from debilitating headaches? — E.R., Decatur, Ala.

Answer: Absolutely. Some historians believe Jefferson (1743-1826) probably had migraines for most of his life. His writings speak of headaches that lasted as long as two weeks, such as after the death of his wife, Martha Skelton, in 1792, and when a British warship fired on an American ship, the Chesapeake. Jefferson was known as "Long Tom" for his height, a towering (for his day) 6 feet, 2 1/2 inches tall. He had carrot-red hair, freckles and hazel eyes, and some belittled him for his too-casual dress. He kept up a routine of bathing his feet in cold water every morning for over 60 years, believing it helped him to ward off colds. This — plus luck and moderation in food and drink — were his secrets to good health. He disdained cold weather almost as much as he disliked dogs. During his two terms in the White House, his wine bill exceeded $10,000, which some might argue could have contributed to the headaches. Most consider him as having been happily married, although he had had at least two unsuccessful infatuations before he courted the young widow who became his wife. His marriage to Martha lasted 10 years, until her early death at the age of 33. He kept his promise to her that he would never remarry. While Minister to France, however, he pursued a romance with the beautiful Mrs. Maria Cosway. Jefferson died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He was 83. Two other presidents ended their days on earth on Independence Day: John Adams, our second president, died on the same day as Jefferson. Adams was 90. James Monroe, our fifth president, died on July 4 in 1831, at age 73.

Ask The Old Farmer's Almanac: How can I fix a low-flush toilet that doesn't flush as well as before? — K.Y., Independence, Mo.

Answer: If you're just a little bit handy with tools and not afraid to get your hands wet, you might be able to fix many common toilet troubles yourself. Your local library, bookstore, and the World Wide Web offer resources that can help you identify possible troubles for both standard and low-flush toilets, along with step-by-step instructions on how to fix them and what tools and parts you might need. Most of the parts are relatively inexpensive and, in most cases, no special tools are required. Just be sure you know how to turn the water off before you start! A toilet that does not completely flush its contents can be caused by several problems related to the passage of water into and out of the bowl. If too little water enters the bowl or takes unusually long, the problem might be in the tank or in the passageway to the bowl, such as clogged jet holes under the rim. If water flows into the bowl normally, but doesn't drain well, then you may have an obstruction in the bowl, drain, or other part of the DWV system. A buildup of scale throughout the toilet can ruin its normally smooth operation.

Some people have found that the blue bowl-cleansing tablets or bottles that are left in the tank or bowl can make the system flush sluggishly. If you use the blue stuff, try leaving it out for a while — at least 20 or 30 flushes — and see if things improve.

Low-flush toilets can be more prone to difficulties than older types, of course, simply because they use less water for each flush. The newer low-flush models are generally better than earlier models, however, and many consumers have no complaints — which is good, since nowadays it's required that all new toilets installed in the United States use only 1.6 gallons per flush to conserve water. Before buying a new toilet, check out reports on the various models available and compare notes on performance.


Send your questions to: Ask the Almanac, The Old Farmer's Almanac, Main St., Dublin, NH 03444; Web site: www.almanac.com; © Yankee Publishing

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