The History of Northwoods Garbage Collection

Apr 28, 2021

Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

Most of us give little thought to the trash we produce, except perhaps when it is time to take the garbage bucket to the curb for the weekly collection.  Northwoods residents are fortunate to have an efficient system of trash collection and recycling.  Nevertheless, weekly trash pickup is a recent luxury, and in the past things were quite different.

The accumulation of garbage has been a problem since human civilization began, and almost every society dealt with it by creating a communal dump somewhere outside of town.  But a dump is only a partial solution because it is dependent on individuals taking the initiative to haul their own trash to the site.  Many people find that it is much easier simply to toss garbage into the nearest ditch, street, or wooded area.  This is how it used to be in the Northwoods.

In the earliest days of the logging and mining camps, most trash was burned.  If it was not combustible, it was tossed aside to rust.  As communities formed in the Northwoods, most established a town dump quickly, but many people continued burning trash or discarding it along a street or in the woods.  In the winter things were worse as garbage collected behind houses only to have the mess exposed during the spring thaw.

The town of Rhinelander early in the twentieth century placed waste collection bins on street corners which the Street Cleaning Department periodically collected.  Despite that small effort on the part of city officials, most residential trash remained uncollected and piled up behind homes.  When the trash became too much to take, people would haul it off to the nearest wooded area rather than go all the way to the landfill.

In the 1930s, the most popular dumping spot was along Baird Avenue between Lincoln and Dahl Streets.  By 1939, so much unsightly rubbish had collected along the street that city officials were threatening to prosecute anyone caught illegally dumping their trash.  Of course, the threats had little effect.

During the war, scrap metal, rubber, and paper were all recycled, but coal ash and other waste continued littering the streets and woods.  After the war, city officials finally decided to do something to clean up the mess.  In 1947, the City Council agreed to fund a city-wide garbage collection service that was to go into effect early in 1948.  The council approved the purchase to two new sanitation trucks that would perform weekly neighborhood trash pickup.

After decades of seeing garbage tossed in the street, the city councilmen decided they wanted no more of it and decreed that when the service started, no trash buckets were to be set out on the curb for pickup.  Rather, buckets were to be left in backyards.  The garbage collectors had to stop in front of every house, walk to the back yard, collect the bucket, drag it to the front, empty it, then return it to the back of the house.

Rhinelander’s first garbage collection service started on March 15, and immediately problems cropped up.  There was more trash than expected, which necessitated the hurried approval for a third truck.  Plus, many residents were inconsiderate and rather than purchase a standard-sized trash bucket, used 55-gallon steel drums that were nearly impossible to lift when stuffed with wet, heavy trash.  By 1950, the city council had to pass an ordinance requiring standard-sized garbage containers that held no more than 50 pounds of refuse.

It was a rocky start, but a necessary one that helped beautify the Northwoods.