State - Lake Ann Outhouses are in Retired welder, builder now constructs fancy outhouses

By Marta Hepler Drahos

Traverse City Record-Eagle

LAKE ANN, Mich. (AP) -- Bill Councell has seen many outhouses in his time. He's even used a few.

But the versions he specializes in making are more likely to be used for containment than for elimination.

"People have bought them to use for tool sheds, dog houses, chicken coops, bus stops and pool changing rooms," said Councell, of Lake Ann. "One man even had me cut a hole in back for his dog to enter and build a false bottom with a lid inside to hold dog food."

Councell grew up in the 1950s in the Gladwin area, where his father was the county's last blacksmith. He started learning to build things at an early age and, at 8, was doing most of his father's welding.

After a stint in the Air Force, he settled in Flint and raised a family there. In 1994, after years as a welder and builder -- he also tried his hand at bartending, cooking and magazine publishing -- he saw a garden outhouse his brother-in-law built. That's when he decided to build an outhouse for his wife, Sandra, and then to try his luck selling it along his busy residential street.

"I set one up in front of the house and it sold that day," he said. "It took me a year to get one for my wife because every time I built one I sold it."

In 2001, after a heart bypass forced him to give up his builder's license, Councell focused on the outhouses and other small projects for relaxation. The hobby became even more important after he suffered a heart attack three years ago.

"I do things like that to fill my time," said Councell, now 57 and mostly retired. "It's nice that up here I've got the time to do that."

Over the years, he experimented with different outhouse designs until he came up with one he liked. The 3-foot-square and 8-foot-tall shed features curvy eaves, divided arched windows with screens and glass, and the iconic crescent-moon door cutout for added visual interest as well as for light and ventilation.

"I like the proportions. I've built them as big as 4-foot-by-6-foot but they just don't look right," said Councell, who uses mostly salvaged wood, like cedar left over from a big job or red pine downed in a Mio storm. "And I haven't had one tip over yet. If I could find a way to build it a little off, so it would look like it was crooked without falling over, I would do it."

Constructed in his 24-foot-by-30-foot garage workshop, the outhouses are similar to those behind old one-room schoolhouses like the Port Oneida School in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. That outhouse was built about 25 years ago by the Michigan Youth Corps to replace the plain, original privy that blew down in a storm, said Joe Hobbins, building and grounds director for Glen Lake Schools, which owns and maintains the schoolhouse.

Councell said his version takes about 10 to 12 hours to build, over a period of about a week. He estimates he's made between 40 and 50 of the structures, as well as metal animal sculptures and about 1,000 birdhouses.

"I can work at my own pace," he said, noting that only Fridays, when he works at a hotel maintenance job, are off-limits. "The northern living allows you to work at your own pace -- an enjoyable pace, not the rush, rush, rush."

Councell displays the finished outhouses on a neighbor's property at the corner of Cedar Run and Cedar Valley roads and sells them for about $450 apiece.

"I sold about a half-dozen a year until I moved up here," he said. "There isn't as much interest here."

Published: Wed, Aug 18, 2010