To me, the rusty fifty-gallon steel barrel near the alley in the northeastern corner of our back yard had been there forever. It was where the wrapped-in-newspaper food scraps and other assorted discards were deposited. When I got tall enough to reach over the top, I was allowed to carry the matches and light the scary fire that daily burned the ragtag contents.
Once the barrel got about half-full of ashes, Dad took it to the dump to empty it, and I got to go with him. The dump was about a mile away, north of Minnehaha Avenue at about Victoria Street. Dad pulled our old trailer out from under the lilacs. It was made from a model A Ford axle and wheels, with a wooden box on top and a metal tongue and hitch welded on the front. He tipped down the back of the trailer, opened its gate, and rolled the heavy metal drum up onto the floor, raised the gate and latched it, added anything else to be thrown away, hooked it to the hitch on our 1934 Ford, and carefully steered our sundry collection to the dump. He turned into the smoldering entryway and stopped alongside the small tar paper shack. After getting the go-ahead from the scruffy, stooped old man inside who maintained the lot, we’d empty the barrel, drop off our load, and then walk the dump. Dad pulled the car out, parked it by the curb, and we’d begin our trek, circling around the edge. I tramped slowly behind him, along with the motley assortment of unkempt trash pickers, all scanning the ground, no one talking. I stayed as close to my dad as I could.
The warm, moist air smelled acrid and mysterious. The boggy ground—soft and damp underfoot, black and gray with ashes from the constant burning—felt like walking on a cauldron of thick, steaming stew. The tattered-looking keeper constantly hauled to the edge anything that looked like it had potential for reuse—a bird cage, lamp, chair, bed frame, baby’s crib—and saved it from fire and water long enough for some interested person to see value and take it away.
Dad knew when he’d spotted a prize—a piece of pipe or wire, a doorknob, latch or hinge, a scrap of walnut, mahogany, or oak. He knew just how he would use these new treasures back home, and into our trailer they went.
Another dump, bigger and more formidable, was situated immediately east of the Fish Hatchery. Both were located below Mounds Park on the Mississippi River flats just east of downtown Saint Paul.The perpetually reconfigured road built on top of discarded material led the way to the top of a constantly changing mound of trash at the edge of the river. When we had large items—a sofa or mattress, shingles or siding—we’d join the slow parade of cars and trucks that climbed the trail to the rim, and then slowly back up the trailer to the unstable edge. Looking out at this high and precarious mass, I was terrified when the cliff-like ridge disappeared from my rear view and only sky remained. I’d grab the seat, afraid Dad would go too far, that our frail trailer would slide over the edge and pull our car and us into the smelly, watery abyss. I was always thankful that others helped him unload the trailer, relieved when I heard the trailer gate shut, and happy as we drove the empty clattering trailer down the road, west up through town, past the Cathedral, and back home.
Joanne A. Englund was born and raised in Saint Paul. Retired from Saint Paul city administration, she is a past president and member of the Ramsey County Historical Society’s board of directors.