When we moved to West Windsor in 1957, everyone who had their own house was responsible for disposing of their own trash, garbage, and other household waste. There was no municipal trash pickup as there is today, either public or private. Nor was there a sewer system or water supply, public or private. Every house had its own well for water and septic tank for waste.
Trash that was predominantly paper or wood was burned by the house owner in a wire or perforated steel basket in the backyard. This was a tricky job because if there was too much wind, burning paper and sparks could be blown against your or your neighbor’s house — and then the fire company might have to be called. Nobody wanted that, so people were very careful when they burned the trash.
Septic tanks were a totally different problem. Though the perforated horizontal “lateral” pipes distributed liquid content about 18 inches beneath your lawn, the tank itself had to be pumped out periodically to maintain its capacity. (Remember Erma Bombeck’s popular 1976 expose of suburban life “The Grass is Always Greener over the Septic Tank”? She was right.) The periodic pumping was done about once a year, for many by a local farmer who you contracted with to do the job. He collected what was in the tanks in his old oil delivery tank truck with the top cut off and spread it on the fields of his farm. There’s a housing development there now. (I won’t tell you which one.) Obviously, the well that supplied your drinking water had to be located far from your septic field or bored very deep into the ground.
Anything that could not be burned had to be taken to the municipal dump. This was the only municipally run facility or service in the township at the time. The fire companies were independent organizations, and there was no police department or first aid squad. The dump was located on Alexander Road, where the new parking lot for the railroad station on the west side of the tracks is located. (The lot is not yet completed, but it’s getting close.) In recent years this was the site of the mulch supply yard where you could pick up a small supply of mulch for free. If you wanted more, you had to pay for it. Plainsboro also had a municipal dump. It was located off what is now called Grovers Mill Road near where the high-voltage power lines run. The road under those lines now leads to the Plainsboro Conservation and Recycling Center.
Going to the dump in those days — usually on Saturday morning, when people had the time — could be a real social occasion. On arriving at the dump, you turned your car or pickup truck around so you could back in with its rear as close to the edge of the trash pit as possible. (The trash pit could be 10 feet deep or more, so you were very careful when you backed up.) Whatever you wanted to dispose of — usually wet garbage — was then dropped over the edge of the pit, and you drove away. But if you saw someone you knew and felt like visiting for a while, that’s what you did. It happened frequently, and it was often the only time you might see the same person in quite a while. Sometimes you could linger there for a long time, often to the consternation of people who simply wanted to drop their trash and get out of there. Every so often, the township would use a bulldozer to level off the latest additions to the pit so there would be more capacity for the next round. Little by little, the edge of the pit moved slowly away from Alexander Road. By the time the end of the dump property was within reach, the township started municipal waste collection, and the contents of the trucks were taken away from the township.
There were no restrictions then on what you could put in the trash you left at the dump. What we now call toxic chemical and biological waste was not separated or identified. As a result it is not surprising that, over the years, contaminants of all kinds have been found there. Their removal is one of the reasons for the long delay in establishing other uses for that site. Also, at that time, few people knew or cared what a “contaminant” or a “pollutant” was, anyway. If you didn’t want it, you got rid of it by putting it in the dump. Simple as that. The dump was thought of as a bottomless pit with an infinite capacity. (Rachel Carson’s book “Silent Spring,” which eventually changed public thinking about such matters, was not published until 1962. At first, many people thought she was just a trouble maker.)
Within about five years of our arrival here, a couple of local men with dump trucks established their own private trash pickup services. You paid them by the month, and they came to your driveway at the agreed upon time each week, took your trash away, and put it in the dump for you. Of course, they could do this any day of the week, so the Saturday social occasions at the dump were history. But it could be fun at times, and there was a certain satisfaction in doing something as potentially unpleasant as that yourself. At least there was for me.
There’s a bit of irony in the fact that today — after nearly 50 years — we have revived the Saturday morning socializing opportunity only a couple of hundred yards away from the dump at our weekly farmers market.