Other articles by the same author
/Roger Wilkins, A Man's Life: An Autobiography (Woodbridge, CT: Ox Bow Press 1991), front cover photo
In the early years of the City of Grand Rapids there was no systematic method of garbage collection. Most families disposed of their household waste by throwing it to livestock, or dumping it into abandoned wells or even directly into the Grand River. In 1895 the garbage problem in the river was so bad the Army Corps of Engineers complained to the mayor that it was a hazard to navigation.
The earliest garbage collectors were not municipal employees, but Westside entrepreneurs. The first had a small, two-wheeled cart drawn by a huge Belgian dog, with a barrel in the cart. He often used a whip on his dog. This did not go out over well with the Number Three Fire Company who are said to have once sprayed him into the next block. He would collect the waste in his cart, mix it with water to form swill, and then feed it to his pigs at home.
The second entrepreneur was a foreigner, home country unknown, also on the Westside, who had a larger two-wheeled cart, drawn by a steer. He would often go without a hat, and frequently without a coat. His cart was followed by his daughter, whose real name is unknown, but the neighborhood boys called her "Sloppy Ann."
The city decided to build a coal-fired garbage burner in 1897, located at an island in the Grand River which is now the 200 block of Market Street. It has a daily capacity of 39 tons and cost $6,000 a year to operate. The city finally instituted mandatory garbage collection in 1905.
The Alderman of the Common Council wanted a new method to dispose of garbage and, hopefully, keep costs down. They were particularly interested in a way to turn trash into fertilizer. They awarded a contract to Alvah Brown of Garbage Reduction and Utilization Co. He promised a "chemical means" of animal and vegetable waste and would pay the city $1,200 a year. The city would collect the waste, and separate it into the animal and vegetable matter which was sent to Brown and other materials which were sent to the incinerator.
What Brown didn't tell the Council was that his "chemical means" was a massive piggery of nearly 6,000 pigs as of 1912, at what is now Alger and Plymouth along the Pere Marquette Railway in Paris Township. A paper read before the State Board of Health, authored by Brown, says the farm was roughly 100 acres, and included numerous buildings.
Fourteen two horse carts and three one horse carts serviced 19,012 families twice a week, according to the 1912 letter, at a time when Brown said the city had about 120,000 residents.
The piggery operated by “cooking” the garbage in massive troughs, each measuring about 3 feet deep, 6 feet wide and 24 feet long. The garbage was cooked by steam forced through pipes to the trough from a 34 by 36 foot boiler room, to give an idea of the scale of the operation. Garbage was not cooked in the summer, due to the sharp increase in vegetable matter, which absorbed too much grease to be useful.
In October of 1917, Brown reported feeding1,015 tons of refuse to his pigs, according to the Handbook of Construction Cost, published in 1922.
While Brown only retained the contract for a few years, the piggery as an institution remained as a part of Grand Rapids garbage collection policy until the last piggery was closed in December 1957, at which time landfills began to be used in the city.
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