A palm tree with butt rot fell over a few weeks back and crushed this community's historic three-hole outhouse.
Stop laughing. This is serious.
Good riddance? Not here.
Dunnellon is a south Marion County town of not quite 2,000 people. On the outskirts, it looks like so much of Florida, Wal-Mart, Sonic, billboards for car insurance, foot doctors and retirement homes. Get closer to the center, though, and that starts to change.
There's a blue-gray, rust-topped, way-cool water tower. There's a TV repair shop. There's a pastel-pink, single-story motel called the Two Rivers Inn.
There's also a house, now home to First Realty of Dunnellon, with creaky hardwood floors, and a silver metal roof, and a big, deep porch good for sitting on wicker chairs and drinking tea that's too sweet.
Behind the house is the outhouse.
And inside the house is the woman who says she's going to save it.
"It's the last outhouse in Dunnellon!" Valerie Porter Hanchar said one morning last week.
She sells real estate. She's 45. Her family's been here a century or so.
"It's part of our history," she said. "I know it sounds weird, but it's something that makes us . . . unique."
People study outhouses. They give talks about outhouses. They write poems about outhouses. They write essays about outhouses. They write books about outhouses. They take pictures of outhouses. They build miniature replicas of outhouses. They restore outhouses. Honest. Google it.
Leslie Strauss, 59, lives in New England and is the author of the soon-to-be-published Outhouses of Connecticut.
"For a lot of people," she said one recent evening over the phone, "it's just the memories."
Not of the outhouses per se.
Just of something now gone.
So. Dunnellon. The discovery of hard rock phosphate in the late 19th century made this place bustling, money-flush and brothel-bawdy when Miami was little more than sand and snakes. It's got some serious history for the Sunshine State.
At city hall, they hand you a slick, plastic-bound packet about the town's historic preservation efforts.
At Dinkins feed store, where the food's not for you but for potbellied pigs and the bumper stickers say things like FLORIDA CRACKER ENDANGERED SPECIES, you can buy a book titled Dunnellon: Boomtown of the 1890's.
At the office of the Dunnellon Area Chamber of Commerce, a woman named Jane Keele, 40 years here, sat behind the desk in the front room the other day and said: "Too many of the people that have moved in want it to be just like where they left."
And at the old train depot, site of the Greater Dunnellon Historical Society, a woman named Penny Fleeger opened the door, stuck out her hand, and said: "I have some real interesting information for you about the outhouse."
The information is kept in a binder that's two bricks thick.
The outhouse has its own page.
The downtown district of Dunnellon is on the National Register of Historic Places. The outhouse itself isn't a historic place. But it's on the property that is part of an area that is.
Someone from the National Register came through town 22 years ago and said so.
This is what that person wrote about the outhouse:
"An example of a frame vernacular style outhouse, exhibiting a solid plank bench with three holes inside of the gable roofed structure. The outhouse is in scale and character with its surroundings, a phosphate mining 'boom' town of the 1890's and early 1900's."
The outhouse belongs to a main house — the one with the big, deep porch and the hardwood floors — which also has its own page. It was built in 1903, or maybe 1899, or maybe 1891. No one knows for sure. But it's certainly not new. The family that lived there owned it until 1981. The Leitners ran a general store. Doc Leitner was a pharmacist.
Their outhouse hasn't been used as an outhouse since 1959. That's when the city passed a law saying no more outhouses.
A woman bought the house. A woman sold the house. It became First Realty of Dunnellon.
The outhouse sat where it sat for 50 years.
Then, sometime in between the end of the day on June 10 and the start of the day on June 11, a tall palm near the rear of the parcel of land succumbed to the fungus called ganoderma but better known as butt rot.
Valerie Porter Hanchar showed up for work. The tree had put a deep crease right in the center of the outhouse roof.
She's been on city council. She's been vice mayor.
Now you might call her the president of the ad hoc Outhouse Restoration Committee. The committee, not official, but not unreal, consists also of her husband and her uncle. The two of them are construction workers, handy with tools, and they're going to fix Dunnellon's three-seater.
"I'm sentimental," Hanchar said.
Her great-grandfather moved here from England. Her father grew up here. She moved around when she was a kid, New York, Virginia, Ohio, but she always came back here for the summers. She moved around a bit as an adult, Jacksonville, Orlando, but she came back here to raise her family. What she gets here, she said, is . . . what?
"A Coca-Cola in the bottle kind of thing," she said inside the house.
Out back was the outhouse. It's maybe 8 feet wide, 10 feet tall, 3 feet deep. One bench, three holes, cobwebs. It leans back. It looked the other day like it might lose its balance but still it was hanging on. Rain came down. Drops dripped off the lip of the twisted metal roof.
Michael Kruse can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8751.