Remember that long-ago weekly ritual, the trip to the dump with Dad? I’m talking about the 1960s, and maybe in some cases the 1970s. If you’re not old enough to look back that far, you’ll be amazed (appalled) to see how trash, garbage, and another-man’s-treasures were disposed of by most folks.
It was a part of small-town life that we can now look back on and be thankful it has largely vanished. From a child’s perspective, the dump was a mysterious and somewhat scary place that you couldn’t wait to visit, and soon enough couldn’t wait to leave.
The pace of change is sometimes so gradual that we don’t notice the results until they become glaringly obvious. From those days decades ago, the improvements are now like comparing night and day. There’s no denying we’ve made great strides, which occurs to me as I prepare for our weekly pickup by Northern Sanitation/Casella Waste.
We’ve always recycled whatever our waste company made allowed, beginning way back when newsprint was the only possibility. Improvements continued, but the recent changes are remarkable.
It was twenty-five years ago when the Clinton County Legislature accepted an engineering firm’s recommendations to “scrap trash incineration and begin a recycling program as soon as possible.” (Plattsburgh Press Republican, 5 Dec. 1988). I can recall the moans and groans, and the expectation of exorbitant costs for individuals. I’ve lived on several “back roads,” and I can also recall the increase in people creating their own dump sites on remote rural sites. Many still do it today.
I can also recall the derisive laughter aimed at do-gooders and former hippies who, while entering adulthood and raising families in the 1970s, were still trying to save the world by advocating recycling in many forms.
While this is by no means a perfect world or a perfect waste system, the difference in our own home is amazing. Casella recently offered Zero-Sort Recycling. We once fit our weekly recyclables in a single small tub. Today, we have two full-size containers: one for all recyclables mixed together, and one for trash. Some weeks, about 90% of our waste is recycled. In my lifetime, I never thought I’d see it happen.
Now, for you old-timers, or for those who want to laugh at how the old-timers did it, here’s how it happened in many North Country communities in the 1950s and 1960s. I suspect it was the same elsewhere, but I sure hope not.
Saturday was Dump Day. Dad would announce he was going, and there was a battle to see who could join him. Load the trunk, tie it shut, and get ready for adventure.
It was a man’s job, of course, and like the barbershop, the dump was a men’s meeting place. Men visited while the boys showed off their strength, flinging bags of garbage onto massive piles of stuff. The older boys could venture near whatever section was burning at the time. Disposal was mainly by fire. Some places had cages and screened areas to help control flying embers and ashes. The garbage was simply set afire, with an attendant on hand to keep the flames under control.
There was much more going on, of course. If you didn’t know before your first trip, you soon discovered the meaning of that saying about “another-man’s-treasure.” At times, it seemed like a flea market. “Hey, you’re throwing that away? Wait, I’ll take it!”
And there was always someone picking at items already tossed on the pile, trying to find something useful. Many families won’t want to admit it, but they routinely recycled shoes and lots of other things found while picking at the dump.
The biggest excitement for boys was the animals. At country dumps, sighting bears was always a possibility. At our village dump, we might see birds, raccoons, foxes … just about anything. But from my perspective back then, the biggest fascination was rats. They were just plain scary.
It was important to watch closely as Dad drove near the pile to swing around and back up―rats could be seen scurrying in all directions. The more experienced rats didn’t bother fleeing until people began exiting the vehicles. At that point, it was best to make themselves scarce.
Why? Well, I never engaged in the practice, but the great allure for many teens was shooting the rats. They were considered dirty and therefore dangerous, so youngsters with BB-guns could take aim and fire at will. And there were lots of rats, and lots of big ones. When the dump was closed, shooters would sneak in with handguns and small rifles for what they considered target practice. Unlike Saturday Night Live’s Grumpy Old Man, I won’t say, “And we liked it!” That’s just how it was.
Looking back, it seems crazy, of course. Plastics, clothing, tires … just about anything was tossed on the pile and set afire. Kids and adults poked around the edges where the latest items had been tossed, while open fires burned and rats were easy to spot at any given moment.
It’s not perfect today, but yeah, we’ve come a long way. The monthly price is worth it.
Photo: Above, a black bear at the Big Moose dump in 1973 (photo by Anne Labastille for EPA); and below, Casella’s Zero-Sort machine.
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.