Monday, July 22, 2013

Remember Adirondack Dumps?

LandscapeRemember 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.

Casella Zero-Sort machineIt 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.

Related Stories

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

7 Responses

  1. Francis McNally says:

    It was more than a Saturday AM ritual. In the summertime it was night time entertainment. The whole family drove to the dump, kids in their PJs to watch the bear scavenge for food and then dive into the adjacent (!) stream.

  2. Bill Ott says:

    My dad used to take our family of five to the Sacandaga River campsite at Wells for 3 weeks each summer. ($3 a week). One of the highlights was going to the dump to watch the bears. Once we got to see a father try to put his young son on a bear’s back for a photo. My dad told me it was not a good idea to try that.

  3. dave says:

    It is always interesting to hear these old stories about human/bear interactions. I have a few of my own, from my youth, involving bears and state campgrounds.

    These bears were EXTREMELY habituated to humans…

    And yet I can find no record from this time…none… of any serious injuries (and certainly no deaths) that bears inflicted on humans. Turns out, black bears are simply not the dangerous beasts of our fairy tales.

    I bring this up because we are often told that the DEC has to kill bears that become too comfortable or habituated to humans these days. And that policy does not seem to be based on any actual data, or past experiences.

    So while I agree whole heartedly that wild ife is better left to be wild, and that our modern dumps are certainly an improvement, I also wonder how much our loss of interaction with them has led to our lack of understanding of them.

  4. Big Burly says:


    Still have several of the other guy’s stuff serving useful purpose at our house.
    The transfer station experience is nowhere as rewarding.

    Thanks for a great trip down the memory lane.

    • Sunny Day says:

      One of the important questions in our family on Dump Day was, “Are you going for a delivery or a pick-up?” Often when friends met at someone’s home in the community on Saturday night, they’d show off their ‘dump treasures’ and often discover from which neighbor they had originated.

  5. SwilliAm says:

    “The more experienced rats didn’t bother fleeing until people began exiting the vehicles.”

    The crows were even smarter. They never flinched when we kids got out of the car unarmed, but when armed as soon as they caught the glint of light from the .22 barrels, they took flight in a hurry!

  6. Rani Hunter says:

    I remember my Grandparents would take us to a dump to see the bears, somewhere near our home in Star Lake, we loved seeing the mothers with cubs. This was back in the late 60’s/early 70’s and my love of black bears grew from those experiences. I could never understand why people were scared of bears since all of our interactions were pleasant 🙂

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox