Rural America’s local dumpsites have always been a magnet for me, partly because of their fairly convenient accessability compared to city and suburbia’s formal garbage pickup services, partly because they also are serendipitous social centers, like bars, or local adult sports leagues, where you never know whom you might run into and want to chat with, come a warm spring day or a cold, drizzly day in January.
My first dump experience was actually in an urban setting, San Francisco’s Army Street two miles east of highway 101 circa 1970. There on the Bay flats facing Oakland were about twenty acres of city owned and fenced land fill where you could drive in and deposit both your household waste and any items you considered of potential use to someone else in the community. These two functional areas were clearly but informally separate parts of the SF dump, the latter just inside the entrance gate and featuring all sorts of items like bicycle frames, auto drivelines, perhaps a broken upright piano or expandable dining room table, or an ancient Emerson wooden cabinet radio, all carefully distributed randomly so that one could drive through this outdoor department store and view virtually all of the products on display. Then out near the shallow edge of the Bay was the actual garbage dump where one deposited on low piles of 35 gallon black plastic bags your kitchen garbage and conventional household waste similarly packaged.
For me the compelling element of the salvage department store area was the characters I encountered scouring through the inventory looking for just what they needed for their next restoration project. I loved the conversations I had with these prospectors as they described their dreams and methods for, say, rebuilding a found Ford straight six engine and installing it in a 1950 Studebaker their uncle had left with them before he died. It was hard to tell from these conversations how skilled they actually were fulfilling their ambitions, but I basked in the energy they put into visualizing how they would do the job. Sometimes it would take an hour to drive the old Volkswagen Bus filled with a month’s load of household trash that last two hundred yards to the garbage disposal site.
Tossing my busload of garbage bags onto the trash piles was no fun, especially if I couldn’t get one of the housemates in our Bernal Heights rental to go with me to the dump. But every once in a while there was my own thrill out there on the tidal flats finding the urban equivalent of silver or gold. One November at the dumpsite I remember coming across over a hundred blocs of pure milled oak, girder-sized wedges about a foot and a half long, nine inches high, and six inches thick. Aha, this found hardwood could service the living room fireplace at our mixed gender commune Bernal Heights rental by decreasing our forced air heating expense. The wood fire forcefully overheated the tiny living room and then rose up the staircase to warm the three small bedrooms on the second floor. A salvage artist at the dump advised me as I loaded my firewood that what I had found were the wedges that helped lock cargo ship steel containers into place in their holds and on decks.
That VW busload of SF dump firewood I knew would last at least two months, but soon after stacking it at the front door, I thought, well, someone else will have the same idea for its use, so back I went to the City dump, only to find that indeed someone had, and the rest of my urban ore had gone to another home and fireplace. Never again on subsequent dump runs did I find my remarkable firewood treasure.
When my wife Anna and I first moved to Navarro in 1971, the town had its own dumpsite, up the Wendling Soda Creek road and on Masonite timber company land. After the mill doctor’s house the paved road becomes gravel, and a couple of hundred yards up the hill to the old Reilly Ranch at the ridgetop, you will notice a dozer-made cut in the side hill, perpendicular to the road about 100 feet deep and thirty wide, twenty feet below which is a thirty foot wide treeless swale, the headwaters of a modest creek. This County-administered dumpsite was unsupervised and open to the public, never mind your residence. I even met some Comptche folks there on my dump runs. One simply drove straight into the dump site, crimped the steering wheel hard right, backed to the edge of the cutbank, and threw your garbage, bottles and all, down the hill into the grassy swale.
I remember one time backing my pickup into place, getting out and tossing the first garbage bag over the edge without looking, only to hear someone down below complain petulantly, “oww.” Bobby Glover, the local historian and renowned old bottle collector, was down there looking for his kind of gold, and my first bag hit him square on the left shoulder. After that incident I always looked over the edge to make sure no one was down there prospecting. Still do when I throw my first bag into an empty Boonville dump dumpster.
Well, during our first year in Mendocino County, whose government already had passive responsibility for managing the Navarro dump site, decided it needed to exert that authority formally, and advertised to hire a dump attendant to be responsible for keeping the site in order, supervise dumping hours, and to collect a modest fee for the “services.” Of course no formal fencing was installed to actually control the “Dump Open” hours; that would come later.
My wife Anna Taylor and I were living on a very tight budget back then, trying to support ourselves materially and develop the vineyard up the hill above our home on Highway 128. We were, for example, having trouble meeting our monthly mortgage payments and were regularly running up over $400 of convenience food credit at Floodgate Store. I don’t remember this part of her career story, but recently Anna reminded me that when The County advertised the attendant position in the local Post Offices, I suggested she apply for the job. We don’t know whether Anna was the only person to apply, but she did get hired by the County at a wage of $10.00 per hour, three times more than my wage of $3.17 at Philo Lumber Mill.
Anna went on to describe to me what dump working conditions almost fifty years ago were like. Simply put, boring. Up there out of the wind the summer days could be hot; winters often wet and cold. And dump hours three days a week were often customerless; almost no one came then as it was a lot cheaper to dump when the attendant wasn’t there. The charge was about $.50 a yard (sic!). Beside Anna was considerate enough not to collect from people with large loads and modest family incomes. The County apparently never did any formal accounting for its dump services business. And after a year and a half Anna retired from the position of The Valley’s first dump attendant in modern times.
After Anna resigned, her job was assumed by my old friend and uncle figure I have written about previously, the German-American midwestern farmer/philosopher, Lyle Luckert. I don’t know what motivated Lyle to take on the attendant job. His daily agenda on his 165 acre farm up Nash Mill road where Kathy Bailey and Eric Labowitz live now was already too complex and variegated, sheep, veal calves, parakeets, feeder hogs, comfrey herbs, etc., for anyone to manage - never mind the required three days a week sitting in his pick-up truck Navarro dump administrative office waiting for a customer to show up during open hours. Pretty boring on a rainy day in February. Hopefully he had one of his favorite Isaac Asimov science fiction novels along with him.
I don’t exactly remember how long Lyle lasted on the dump job, but his successor’s taking the position made more sense to me economically. I think I’ve written before in my Advertiser tales about Bill O’Brien, my Christine Woods neighbor. Bill and his wife Vivian, were among the first “city people” to move to Anderson Valley along about 1950. Bill had migrated from Minnesota to Richmond near Berkeley before World War II, worked in the Ford auto assembly plant there before becoming a retail store butcher. He then got tired of city life and with a small pension in hand moved with his family to Anderson Valley. Here he managed to support the wife and two kids doing odd home repair jobs around the Valley, and running a walk-in cold meat locker at his home where he rented space to neighbors for their sheep, cow and deer carcasses. He would also charge a modest fee to do the butchering, packaging and storage of meat for local families.
Bill and Vivian also did the early morning delivery of the daily Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a job last held until recently by nonagenarian Billy Owens and his wife Wanda. For Bill and Vivian, semi-retired, the dump job was simply another part of their work week doing many tasks, some income producing, I’ve described above, cultivating the extensive family home garden, and always being available to neighbors who wanted to talk history and philosophy. As a social event engaging in local news and world affairs from Ukiah south and east, there was nothing like hanging out in Bill’s non-code home butcher shop and listening to him, Lyle Luckert and Christine Woods neighbor Bobby Glover ruminate philosophically while Bill was cutting and wrapping a lamb carcass for our home freezer.
Sometime in the nineteen eighties, (MM?) the County turned the open pit Boonville dump into a formal Disposal Station complete with fencing and an entrance gate, recycling, salvage and trash accommodations, and a paid attendant supervising the four days a week operation. In the spirit of governmental “efficiency” the County used the occasion to formally close the Navarro Dump, fence off the site and eliminate the paid attendant position, thereby increasing unemployment in the town of Navarro by one family.
I want to thank Mike Mannix for the inspiration to capture journalistically the iconic Navarro and Boonville dump attendants. And for fact-checking my reporting on the theme. He and I continue to discuss the position and its historic heroes from time to time during my monthly runs to the Boonville site.
Next week: Boonville Dump, Homer, Donna and Mike.