Houses of contemplation and thundermugs

by Buckley Jensen & Tom Lyman

While the focus of the “Giants” series has and will be to honor those great men and women who stood tall in San Juan’s history, it is also a goal to highlight true stories, events and influences which were an integral and important part of pioneer life.

And so it is with pleasure that I share today a piece written by Scott (Tom) Lyman, a San Juan native. This story revolves around events that occurred in the home of his grandfather, Albert R. Lyman. It was told to Tom by an aunt (code name: Zibazee), the central figure in this true narrative.

“There was a time when the sanitary facilities in San Juan towns, as in most pioneer villages, were not inside the house, with pleasant smelling lotions and ointments on convenient shelves or bath towels neatly stowed within arm’s reach of a bathtub which provided hot water at the turn of a handle. Nay the comfort station of those days was outside the house at a reasonable distance downwind.

“This edifice was the place where the hours of a warm summer day could be pleasurably invested in perusing last year’s Sears and Roebuck, or Montgomery Ward catalogues, and dreaming of the elegant places one could visit with the equipment displayed in their pages. Those pleasant intervals were often curtailed when another member of the family had urgent business to conduct in that small structure. One relinquished one’s seat more willingly and without prompting when the frigid winds of December not so gently kissed the exposed nether regions of one’s anatomy.

“Many of the little houses sported twin or even occasionally triple accommodations, though they were not for concurrent occupancy, but rather to accede to the dimensions of the various persons who frequented the place. The fortunate family boasting a “two holer” could consider themselves a little higher on the social ladder than those with only one.

“Most of the buildings performing this valuable social function were strictly utilitarian structures, made from unpainted pine boards, sometimes with the knot holes covered by the lid of a tin can tacked over them to maintain the dignity and privacy of the patrons, but airy enough that friendly flies of summer and the occasional sparrow or chipmunk could also enjoy the shade and the leisure of the moment.

“Houses of Contemplation” were light enough to be moved to a new location when the territory upon which they were erected had reached the point where further occupancy would be hazardous. This easy transportability had its downside as well, since more than one classic example of this necessary house found itself on the steps of the local high school, or in the middle of the intersection of the two principle streets of the town on the morning of November 1. Not a few of them could be found lying door downward on the ground on those frosty mornings after an All Hallow’s Eve celebration.

“Occasionally, one of the celebrants in his efforts to modify the location or mounting of the building, would lose his footing and find himself in the excavation beneath where the little building had stood, much to his discomfort and the unenviable task of explaining to his mother where he had acquired such a noisome decoration to his attire.

“In spite of the joys of summer usage, the little house down the path lost much of its charm when one had to climb snow drifts to reach it, or scrape the frost off the seats to accomplish one’s errand. And even though one of necessity had to brave the elements during the day, at night the trip was simply too much to expect of many, especially a sensitive young lady.

“To fill the need during the cold winter nights, most houses sported a collection of containers called by all sorts of euphemisms to conceal their normal purpose, but to those in the know, they were often called “thundermugs”. These valuable assets appliances were emptied and cleaned each morning and replaced under the beds to await their next nocturnal calls to duty.

“In a certain home occupied by a multitude of children during this era, each was assigned in turn to empty and clean the thundermugs each morning. The father of this family, in order to circumvent the normal practice of the local populace from applying nicknames to his children, gave them all simple names of one or two syllables, easy to spell and to pronounce, and then proceeded to give each of them a nickname, some of which were still being used 75 years later.

“One demure eight-year old girl he called Zibazee. Though it was her turn on a cold and snowy day to fulfill the morning ritual with the thundermugs, her mother made the mistake in her hearing of telling one of the older children that Zibazee was excused from the task for that day.

“Being a dutiful and independent child, Zibazee felt insulted by this slight. After all, she was eight years old, well able to take care of such a simple chore, so when her mother went to attend to another of the myriad tasks of her day, Zibazee took the handle of a thundermug in both hands and proceeded to her task of gathering the dozen or so contributions made during the night by family members. Finishing her rounds she approached the door with the heavy mug. Alas, the snow on the steps outside the door covered a sheet of ice, and as Zibazee stepped thereon she slipped.

“Resembling a tiny windmill, Zibazee did her best imitation of a Scottish Highland Fling, but regardless of her first rate performance, finished her short ballet career with her heals in the air, and the contents of the thundermug copiously decorating her person, especially collecting in her long dark hair.

“Just as there was no sanitary facility inside that home, neither was there any running water. What water was needed was acquired by melting snow. In deference to the dignity of both mother and daughter, we won’t go into the details of how many times snow had to be melted for a deep scrub shampoo and repeated baths in the old Number 3 tub to make Zibazee acceptable in polite society.

“Though the incident of the thundermugs occurred nearly 80 years ago, the memory of it is as clear to Zibazee today as if it had occurred but yesterday.” – Tom Lyman

By the time I (Buckley) arrived in mortality, most of the homes in Monticello had indoor plumbing, which basically robbed most of my generation and virtually all subsequent ones of the pleasures of contemplating the mysteries of the universe from such a peaceful perch.

However, my maternal grandfather (A. B. Barton) who had raised 11 of his 15 children with an up-scale 3-holer located west of his house in the orchard, had preserved his palatial privy because he was not at all sure that the new-fangled indoor one would stand the test of time. With his large posterity and four children still at home, it was said that the old 3-holer got copious use even after modernization. Waiting in a long line for the only bathroom in the house was often not an option to youngsters who had eaten green apples all day, or those who were anxious to return to their stick horses and were not squeamish about sharing quarters with a cousin or two.

Grandpa had a slide and four swings south of his house – probably the only ones in town. It was a magnet for half the kids in Monticello. At any moment 40 or 50 kids could converge on the property and there were times when, indeed, even the 3-holer sported a line of anxious customers.

My first introductions to interstate commerce came in Grandpa’s House of Contemplation. He had the requisite Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs with their black and white shiny slick pages. I sat for hours looking at the unimaginable paraphernalia featured therein and wishing my allowance could be raised to 15 cents a week.

Because most of us hated the idea of losing those educational treasures, we would keep a sharp eye in our play for dry corncobs, bits of cloth or paper we could squirrel away near the privy and thus keep the beloved catalogs from going down the drain, so to speak.

While I have occasionally suffered some ambivalence about the generation I was born into, I never see a quarter moon on a front door without being flooded with memories. Where can today’s youth find the solitude, peace and pleasure of sharing a moment with a bee, a fly, a spider, an errant mouse, or a lost snake in today’s bathrooms? Drowned as they are with electronic gizmos and information overload, I worry that they will never know the joys of a dog-eared catalog or experience first hand the sights, sounds, smells and solitude of a magnificent 3-holer.

One of my life’s great compliments was being on the receiving end of a fine 2-holer in the early l970’s. Several husky boys from Monticello High School worked all night to haul a “House of Contemplation” to my front yard. It was their way of showing appreciation for the research paper assignment they had recently received from me, their humble pedagogue. Had some of those stout lads worked as hard on their papers as they did in presenting me with that “gift”, their grades would have been much improved.

Imagine the difference in the outlook of today’s “me generation” if just once, in the middle of the night, with the snow falling and the wind blowing, each had to walk alone, barefooted (and uphill, no doubt) to a house of contemplation. There they find the lid frozen down and a couple of bats sharing the coziness. When they got back to their warm beds, if they did, they might begin to appreciate some of the luxuries of life their great grandparents could not have imagined.

While these delicate subjects have historically been mostly left out of the discourse in polite society, we 21st Century folk can only imagine how important such places were in the lives of those who either visited them or wrestled with thundermugs every day of their lives.

San Juan Record

49 South Main St
PO Box 879
Monticello, UT 84535

Phone: 435.587.2277
Fax: 435.587.3377
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday