John Hanssen is saving history, one outhouse at a time.
He has six tastefully arranged on his farm just outside of Grand Island, he says.
Then he paused.
He’s got his eye on three more.
Yes, that’s outhouses, the kind your grandparents or great-grandparents used to use before modern plumbing arrived on the farm.
Hanssen’s relatives were among the original settlers in Hall County upon their arrival in 1857, and he’s a board member of the Hall County Historical Society.
He loves having a bit of history on the family farm, which despite its more modern ranch home, includes several old barns where he stores some of the other artifacts he likes to collect. Things like lawn sprinklers and advertising items from early Grand Island businesses.
He also tries to save a memento from early Hall County families, whether it be a piece of furniture, glassware or china.
His biggest collection is Christmas, Halloween, Easter and Thanksgiving decorations made prior to 1960. He gives presentations on behalf of the historical society each year.
“I am big on local history,” he said. “I grew up driving around the countryside. I see these old outhouses that, for whatever reason, I want to preserve.”
Hanssen won’t hesitate to ask a homeowner if he can buy it if he sees one languishing out in a field. Or he might spot one he likes at an estate sale. They can sell for up to $200. Hanssen said if he knows the family he won’t let himself get outbid.
The first ones in his collection came from families he knew growing up in the area.
His favorite, and one of the oldest ones, belonged to former neighbors. As youngsters, he and his siblings were warned to never go on the four bachelor brothers’ property or they would be shot.
The newer ones were created during the Great Depression when Franklin Delano Roosevelt put people to work to get the country back on its feet. Those are called WPA outhouses.
“They are a part of history, old farm history,” he says.
Some outhouses are one-seaters and others two. Hanssen uses one to store all of his barbecue equipment. Some farmers use them to cover their irrigation wells.
Once he hauls them home, he doesn’t just plop them in the yard, which is getting so big his family jokingly calls it the park. He landscapes around each one, adding a sitting area and even firepits with some.
“I do odd jobs on the side, mostly lawn care and landscaping. And if someone wants plants or bushes taken out, I bring them back to the farm,” he says. “Also, over the years at old deserted farmsteads, as with outhouses, I’ll ask the owner if I can get some of the flowers that have managed to survive and replant here. Then I have some old varieties that I also preserve. I also get native wildflowers from our hayfield and pasture.’’