No Joke for the John

Independence’s Privy Races Flush Out Racers in the Blue Ridge

Rob Ullman

No joke for the john

25 YEARS AGO – The team that took home the trophy from Independence’s debut outhouse race in 1981, the Starlite Pizza Parlor, had one thing on their minds the following year: to win No. 2 and continue their reign as Grand Privy Champions. They knew the competition would be tough, but one contender, Nautilus (which began in Independence), seemed unstoppable. It had more than bulging biceps on its side: Its engineering department had constructed an aluminum johnnyhouse lightweight enough to be carried by one racer, reported Galax County’s Gazette. But in the final round, Nautilus’ tinny toilet lagged, leaving the Starlite on the throne for another year.

The Starlite, alack, is no more, but the race is definitely still going strong, gearing up to again share the billing with the Blue Ridge’s color show in the 29th annual Mountain Foliage Festival and Grand Privy Races, held each year on the second Saturday of October. The crowd is usually 3,000 strong, says Carol Lundgren, volunteer treasurer and go-getter on the town’s special events committee, which organizes the festival. It also features lots of food, local music of all styles, local crafters, and children’s attractions.

How could this year’s event carry even more prestige than before? Enter the General Assembly, which in January passed a resolution, sponsored by Del. Bill Carrico of Galax, recognizing the town of Independence, seat of Grayson County, as the official home of the Grand Privy Races in Virginia. What this means, Lundgren says, is wider renown and increased corporate sponsorship—more funds, she says, “so we could have a bigger variety of music and advertising and get the word out more.”

As in any race, there are rules. A privy must look like a privy, and many a team has entered the real thing attached to a frame. Others build a racing model. Privies must weigh between 100 and 350 pounds and cannot have glass or sharp features. A team can have up to six members, one of whom sits inside. The others run with the outhouse. At points along the Main Street course, they must stop and rotate sitters, who do not flail their arms comically or trail Charmin on their unusual sedan-chair ride. “They’re just holding on,” says Lundgren, “because when they stop to change sitters, they’d better be holding on. It’s a sudden stop.”

First prize is $600, second is $400 and third is $200. And the champs get the trophy for a year, “a beautiful, hand-crafted, two-holer outhouse with a door that opens,” Lundgren says. Is there a crescent moon on that door? “Absolutely,” she says. But although the first trophy, used until five years ago, featured a corncob, the new one does not.

The night before the race, the 200-seat Baldwin Auditorium at the 1908 Courthouse is SRO for the Potty Princess Contest, begun in 2004. The contest is open to men too, and two of the first four princesses were men. “You dress how you think a mountain potty princess should look,” Lundgren says. “You are judged by your costume, your talent, and we have tie-breaking questions, like ‘Do you prefer a one-holer or a two-holer?’” The Potty Princess gets $250 in cash, a large basket of nice gifts donated by local businesses, and a four-pack of toilet tissue. “The runner-up gets two rolls,” Lundgren says.

And then there’s the foliage.

(Originally published in the October 2008 issue. Updated online for October 2010.)

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum