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Robert P. Swierenga, "'Garbios:' Chicago's Dutch Scavengers"

Calvin College Alumni Lectures Bradenton & Naples, Fl
Feb. 21, 23, 2005

     I can't believe you all came today to hear me talk about garbage! I have a confession to make. I never worked on a garbage truck, not even for one day. The Swierengas were all cartage men. Too bad for us. Garbage was where the money was.

     But we didn't know it at the time. Cartage was "clean" work. When I worked my way through Calvin driving for my father's cartage company, I came home tired and a bit frazzled from fighting the traffic all day, but I wasn't filthy like my friends who worked on their fathers' garbage trucks. They had to tip cans full of rotten food all day. When they came home, they had to take off their clothes in the basement and head straight for the shower. We cartage guys considered ourselves a level or two above the garbage guys. We worked decent hours, not this all-night stuff; we didn't pick up at nightclubs and saloons. No. We made our deliveries through the front doors or clean loading docks. But look who came out "smelling like a rose." It wasn't the cartagemen!!

     "Garbios" was the colloquial word for garbagemen in Chicago. It came into common usage in the 1930s and stuck. I can't think of a better word. More formal terms were scavengers and refuse haulers.

     A friend of mine from Cicero, Bill Zielstra, who is now a Christian Reformed minister in Pella, worked his way through Calvin College and Seminary driving garbage trucks. He reflected on that experience in a captivating way (I quoted him extensively in my book):

     There has always been something about this business awfully hard to communicate.... My brother and I would head out into Chicago's industrial district at 1 a.m. & navigate a few alleys before hitting the factories. When full, we would arrive at CID [the Waste Management landfill near Lake Calumet] about 4 a.m. in complete darkness, with the utility roads lit only by the spouts of methane gas burning off. I felt I was visiting Dante's hell!...

          The experience was intensely personal and individual. The long days. The hard work done steadily on the streets & alleys by oneself in all kinds of weather. Rubbing shoulders with men and women for whom one developed a real affection--though they may have been involved in unsavory activities--together with the easy going and genuine camaraderie experienced with the other garbios miles from home; well these things made life awfully sweet. It was hard work but good work....

          The stories are still out there: the feats of lifting heavy drums. Of steering big trucks with no power steering (my boss was too cheap for power steering!). Of Rush Street prostitutes catching rides at 5 a.m.... Of getting acquainted with gay lovers and rough taverns and silver-plated 45 caliber automatic weapons in the ghetto.... Of getting to know the alleys of all the ghettos in the city--and the alleys of the rich neighborhoods as well.

          Of having your friend jumped by two thugs and instead of handing over his wallet, he throws one thug in the back of the truck, starts the blade (with the accompanying roar of the engine) and turns to find his partner in crime hightailing it away, so that the other can scramble out before the blade traps him. Of buying pencils from lonely policemen at 3 a.m.--for $20 per. Of traveling hundreds of miles and more a day, all over the city, and waving a hundred times to friends on other trucks. Of opening a side door of a railroad car full of rotten produce in 100 degree+ weather--and then emptying the rail car by shoveling the contents into the truck.

          Of getting chased down fire escapes by Doberman Pinchers at 4 a.m.--while carrying a 55-gallon drum in the rain. (That was me.) Of hearing of a friend who finds dead bodies in their containers.... Of playing hockey with rats. Feeling rats climb all over you. Of hearing them getting nervous in the trash piles that have to be cleaned up. Of dumping chemicals on the ground and gagging from what made it into the hopper. Of doing this 50 weeks a year, 60+ hours per week, and then being taunted by others who tell you that you've got it made in the Dutch Mafia. If these are the stories from such a short excursion into this business as I have made, imagine all the others!

     My cleric friend could have mentioned other things about scavenging work, like health problems. Heavy work required heavy food and drink. The men ate too much lard spread on sandwiches for lunch, and sausages or a pot roast with potatoes laden with gravy for dinner. And they enjoyed a cold beer or two on the job, or more commonly, after parking the trucks in the garage. They were sleep deprived and prone to alcoholism. Heart and liver problems plagued the garbios. The work, it was said, made widows, since many men died young. Accidents were also common. Labor Department statistics showed that scavengers had an accident rate nine times higher than the average for industrial workers (My cousin John Meidema was killed when he was dumping his load of garbage onto the conveyor belt at the incinerator and fell in and was cremated.)

Why Garbage?

     Why did the Dutch chose such unsavory and dangerous work? Did they have "garbage in their blood," as it was said? Hardly. They had been farm hands in the Old Country and were not afraid of hard work, they loved horses, and they wanted, for once, to "be their own boss." All it took was a few hundred dollars to buy a horse and wagon and go into business. There were other pluses. As Peter Huizenga, whose grandfather went into the business, noted:

     They didn't want to work for Americans, they wouldn't work on Sundays, and they wanted to hold on to their culture and faith, while yet fulfilling the American dream. They only needed to know enough English to collect the bills, and they could live among their own people without financial worries, so long as they were strong and healthy enough to do the work.

     Teamster Peter Harsema said it best in a letter to his family in Groningen in 1911: "As a greenie" [a pejorative term for a new immigrant], I have my own business." Although Harsema could barely speak English, he kept four hired hands busy at $15 per week, and made a profit of $120 a week, all, he boasted, "with only a horse and wagon." But he advised any prospective immigrant not to come to Chicago unless he was a "strong man willing to do rough work."

     The Dutch thrived in the garbage business. Wags said that all it took was a strong back and a weak nose. But it also took hustle and careful business instincts. Bills had to collected and "stops" had to be scheduled for maximum efficiency. The work brought a steady income that surpassed craft and factory wages. While others looked down on the unsavory work of scavenging, the Dutch saw opportunity. The common adage was: "Your garbage is our bread and butter."

Picking Up

     What garbage did the Dutch haul? The city of Chicago hired its own crews for picking up garbage from homes. Private scavengers got the rest--commercial and industrial buildings, restaurants and hotels, high-rise apartment buildings, construction debris, etc. In the suburbs, scavengers also serviced private homes, because the city governments quickly discovered that it was cheaper to bid out the work and give a private company an exclusive contract.

     The Dutch first found a niche picking up cinders (ashes). Commercial buildings burned coal (and in the early days also garbage), and someone had to carry out the ashes from the metal bin next to the furnace. This was heavy, dirty work, suitable for greenies. Cinders had to be shoveled into "carry cans" from the ashbins in basements and cellars. The men climbed up the steps to the street with the can on their back ("humping it"), and then lifted the can shoulder high to dump it over the sideboards of the wagon into the hopper. Loaded drums could weigh 150 pounds, and they were a proven "man-crippler," amputating fingers and toes when dropped accidently.

     "Picking up" was only half the job. What you picked up had to put down. In the early days, ashes were spread on unpaved streets and alleys to solidify the mud. Building debris and garbage was used as fill along the lakefront or taken out on scows and dumped in Lake Michigan, until the city council outlawed these practice and required landfills.

     Driving to landfills with a horse and wagon was time-consuming, so some drivers made illegal "quick dumps" in alleys and back streets. The wagons were fitted with release levers (a knob on the floor) to open the bottom doors and drop the loads. The driver simply stomped on the knob and drove off. At least one such scofflaw gave himself away in church--this from an eyewitness. While dozing off during the sermon, he suddenly stomped his foot down for a quick dump. All the scavengers knew exactly how to interpret this action.

First Families

     As early as 1900 on the West Side, 75 Hollanders (one of every six in the workforce) were scavengers, and by the 1930s the Dutch monopolized commercial refuse collection in the nation's second city. During the entire twentieth century, I counted more than 400 Dutch-owned firms, many of which were handed down from generation to generation. Prominent families included De Boer, Evenhouse, Groot, Hoving, Huiner, Huizenga, Iwema, Meyer, Molenhouse, Mulder, Ottenhoff, Ter Maat, Van Der Molen, Vandervelde, and Wigboldy, to name only a few. Thousands of relatives and fellow church members were drivers and helpers.

     The Dutch scavengers were a true "in-group." Many were interrelated, they attended the same churches, and they lived cheek by jowl. In times of illness or death, they pitched in to help one another, just as on the farm. Conversations among the men turned to business concerns after church, or after work as they sat on the stoops of their homes.

     Each story was unique and yet they were similar. Take one example. When Harm Huizenga arrived from Groningen in 1893, he bought a horse and wagon and became a "private scavenger," hauling refuse for $1.25 per load. To pack more in each load, he broke down boxes and crates, smashed glass bottles, and compacted the debris with his boots. "Walking it in" was the name for this ritual of filling the load evenly and tightly. It was said that a man's fitness was measured by two things: "how much he could carry, and how hard he could stomp." 

     In the 1920s trucks replaced horses and wagons. But wagons were far better for navigating the narrow alleys and sharp turns in the "Loop." Buying the first truck could be traumatic. Huizenga told his son Tom: "When I can't do it with a wagon anymore, then I'll quit." But he let Tom talk him into buying a truck anyway. It was an Old Reliable, a Chicago-made truck, with chain drive, hard tires, and the newest innovation--a box that tilted back hydraulically to dump. The truck could go over 30 mph, but the city speed limit for trucks was 10 mph! Tom Huizenga built the Huizenga companies into a thriving empire.

Union Troubles

     Teamsters faced many difficulties--union goons, mobsters, police harassment, and in later years, environmental regulations. Union troubles first surfaced in the 1920s, when Dutch teamsters in obedience to their dominies refused to sign up with secular unions. To do so, the men were taught, was tantamount to being "unequally yoked to unbelievers." Unions remained "under a cloud" in the CRC until the 1950s.

     The scavengers had to deal with a corrupt teamsters local (731 IBT), headed by the fearsome "Dago Dan" (Dan Tognotti), a henchman of Al Capone. Dan came around in person to sign up members and collect dues, and he had a reputation for being ruthless with non-union drivers. Bessie De Boer, who worked for her brothers Jim and Andy in the office of De Boer Bros, actually got to know Tognotti. "He was always friendly to us," she recalled.

     He always came in a different car and would park it in the back of the garage. He would sit looking out the front window of the office to see if the police were following him. He would pull up his pant legs and show us the scars where the police had beaten him.... He always brought me a big box of candy at Christmas time. One Saturday he didn't show up. We learned that he too was murdered. So, no candy, and no Dan Tognotti.

     Defying the union could carry a high price. One Dutchman saw the barn behind his house destroyed by arson, along with his horse and wagon. In 1927, when two of Tognotti's goons threatened Peter Ter Maat, he declared defiantly: "I'm bomb proof, fire proof, and shot proof." That afternoon when he drove into the Cicero dump, two men pulled him out of the cab of his truck and backed his loaded vehicle into the pit. It is still there. Peter De Vries, in one of his novels, satirically referred to this incident. As the truck went into the abyss, said De Vries, the driver could be heard singing the hymn, "How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord."

The Association

     To protect themselves and control the business, the garbios, 90 percent of whom were Dutch, organized the Chicago & Suburban Scavengers Association, or simply "The Association." The year was 1929, the year of the stock market crash. The members relied on informal understandings and agreements to control contracts and keep out interlopers. The governing regulation was: "Once your building, always your building--once your site, always your site." This was an informal "restraint of trade." The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 banned such collusion among large corporations, but the law did not apply to small companies like the garbios. No wonder critics called the Association the "Dutch Mafia."

     I was very fortunate to get an insider's view of the Association because of "Dutch bingo." While attending my brother-in-law's funeral, I met his best friend, Cal Iwema, who was a Calvin graduate (class of 1950), a history major. Cal's father, Bonne ("Bonnie") Iwema, was the first president of the Association in the 1930s and 1940s. Cal, like a good historian, held on to the minutes! And he gave them to me. (The originals are now in the Calvin Archives.)

     The Association operated like a church consistory--with monthly meetings and detailed minutes, election of officers, disciplinary committees, brotherly admonitions, annual dinners and picnics, and discussions of common interests. The atmosphere of the Association meetings was quite different from consistory rooms, however. The garbios didn't open and close in prayer. Instead, they rolled out a keg of beer with sandwiches. "Many of our members are humorists," the long-time secretary Edward Groenboom reported. "They like to laugh. They enjoy a good story, a snappy comeback. All of which enlivens the meeting." Of course, he added, "a glass of beer helped to promote the era of good feeling."

     In 1938 one of the members, Jacob Molter, finally got up the nerve to urge the men to "cut out the beer," because, he argued, "no coaxing or other foolishness must be employed to get members to meetings." But the members would not hear of it. The minutes of that meeting conclude: "A glass of beer refreshed the members present. It is a drink for real men." Groenboom reported for the first time in 1941 that "some preferred coffee." By that time problems of alcoholism were rampant among the scavengers. A related problem was gambling over the beer. One owner reportedly bet one of his routes on the dice, and won! (One route with dozens of stops was enough to support a man and his family.)

     Members absent from scheduled meetings without notification were subject to fines of $1, which could eventually lead to expulsion and loss of privileges. But schedule conflicts because of Christian school board or consistory meetings were readily excused.

     "Lost jobs," or conflicts over "stops," were the nemesis of the industry and the topic of nearly every Association meeting. Disputes between members were especially troublesome because they divided the brethren.

     A typical dispute in 1931 involved Peter Ter Maat and Wolter Lindemulder. Ter Maat secured a new stop at the 305 S. Wabash Avenue building, which had been vacant for several months but the stop previously belonged to Lindemulder. Ter Maat was ordered to give it back but refused at first, claiming that another member, Dick Evenhouse, had taken work away from him at the Wrigley Building. But Evenhouse proved from his account books that Ter Maat was misinformed about the Wrigley Building. "After a lot of talking back and forth," Ter Maat was told that "for the present he is out of luck" and the decision is "final and not subject to change." Clearly, the Association was judge, jury, and executioner.

     In March 1932, in the throes of the Great Depression, Association president Bonne ("Bonnie") Iwema gave voice to the uncertainty of the times in a speech to the members, which I found penciled on the back of a membership dues list. "We feel the foundations shaking upon which we are standing," he noted. We scavengers are also being tested, but by organizing we "came out by the skin of our teeth." Iwema urged the men to work together. "Don't fight each other," was his constant theme, and above all, act in a "Christian manner." This was a tall order for men who were as rough and tough as they come.

Fighting The Mob

     The Association proved invaluable in the 1960s, when the Italian mob, known as the Crime Syndicate, decided to muscle in on the multi-million dollar, refuse business. This became known as the "Garbage War." In 1960 syndicate leader William Daddano, alias "Willie Potatoes," formed a company, American Scavenger Service, in order to take over the private refuse business. [Note that the name "American Scavenger" implied that the Dutch immigrants weren't true Americans.]

     Daddano sent his goons to long-time customers of the Dutch garbios, who simply informed them that the new company would take over their garbage pickups. "All they [the mafia] do," a Dutchman complained, "is drop the name of a hood friend and they get the business--customers I had for years." When scavengers stopped by to ask why customers canceled, "All they tell us is, 'Please go away, we don't want to have anything to do with you.'" The implied threat of bodily harm by the mob was enough to melt even stout hearts.

     With such strong-arm tactics, Daddano and his operatives in the first three months took from the Dutch more than one hundred of their best accounts--nightclubs, restaurants, and large stores. Daddano's father-in-law, Rudy Fratto, seized sixty lucrative accounts on Rush Street, Chicago's nightclub district, and proclaimed himself the "Garbage King of Rush Street." Fratto turned over the business to Daddano, and American Scavenger grew ten-fold the first year.

     But the Dutch held the trump card; they owned the dumps and refused to accept loads from non-Association members. The mob-owned trucks had trouble finding a place to dump! Many drivers dumped illegally. The police soon heard all about the "garbage war among scavengers" and they went after the thugs, egged on by Chicago newspapers editors who ran lurid accounts of the mobsters' crimes and strong-arm tactics.

     The mob also did a lousy job of actually running their garbage businesses. Their trucks were junks, their drivers careless and untrustworthy, and the routes were not run efficiently. In the end, the Crime Syndicate found little gold in garbage; traditional graft was far more lucrative. In desperation, they finally gave up and sold their trucks and accounts to Dick Evenhouse, a member of the Association. David had slain Goliath. The Dutch mafia proved to be stronger than the Italian mafia.

From labor-intensive to capital-intensive methods

     Collecting garbage was always labor-intensive. But in the 1950s the industry became capital-intensive, with the development of new power equipment that cut down the injuries and speeded up the work. Dutch scavengers thought up some of the innovations. Harold Van Der Molen designed the first one-yard mobile container that could be hoisted up mechanically, the contents dumped in the hopper, and compacted by a moving steel blade. This simple idea revolutionized the way garbage was collected and saved many an aching back. Soon there were huge 20- and 30-yard "roll off" containers.

     Most cans and barrels still had to be picked up by hand. So the biggest breakthrough was the power packer truck, with a low intake bin at the rear. This speeded up the pickups so much that trucks could make three trips to the dump per day instead of one. And the power packer crushed three times as much garbage into each load. Total output per truck thus jumped eight-fold. But packer trucks cost upwards of $100,000, ten times as much as the old trucks. Today they cost more than $200,000, because of the hydraulic arms and claws to grab containers and the front bucket hoists.

     The power packers were tailor-made for police harassment, especially by the Illinois state police, who ticketed drivers for running overweight on state highways. The problem was the design of the packer trucks with their 6,000-pound compactors over the rear axles, which crushed the refuse and moved it forward as the truck was loaded. As a result, the first half of the load was concentrated almost entirely over the rear axles. This meant that a truck was overweight on the rear axles before it was half full, even though it was well within the legal weight limits for its front axle. To comply with the law, drivers made several extra trips to the dump, which required them to work late into the evening so as not to leave garbage at the curb.

     This police enforcement threatened to put the scavengers out of business. "There is no question about it," said Everett Van Der Molen. William Buiten of Garden City Disposal (Calvin grad--class of 1950 and son-in-law of Dick Evenhouse), the new executive director of the Association, explained that its two hundred members firms, whose one thousand trucks serviced three million Chicago and suburban residents, were between a rock and a hard place. They could either operate within the law and go out of business, or violate the law and go bankrupt paying the $46,500 in tickets the police had written in the previous month. He predicted ominously: "All of us will be up to our necks in garbage."

     In desperation, seven scavenger firms filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of all private refuse collectors in the state, and challenged the constitutionality of the state truck weight laws. While the legal process plodded along, Buiten and the Association pulled the political levers in Springfield (the state capitol) and got the legislature to raise the weight limit only for garbage trucks on city and state roads from 54,000 to 72,000 pounds. (Interstate roads were not covered by the bill; they fell under federal jurisdiction.)

     Governor Richard Ogilvie, a Chicago lawyer and legal friend of the Dutch Association from the mob days, happily signed the bill, which had wide support from many village councils and mayors who had lobbied on behalf of the refuse haulers. Thanks to Buiten's adroit efforts, the scavengers had dodged a bullet and got the state police off their backs. Wags noted that the officers were especially chagrined at losing a lucrative source of "payolla" for the patrolmen's benevolent association.

"Going Public"

     By the 1960s hauling waste had become so capital intensive and complex that a new way had to be found to manage the business and finance it. Owners began combining their individual businesses into corporations and developing jointly owned incinerators and landfills. This set the stage for the next development, tapping the capital markets. Here is where the Dutch garbios "hit the jackpot." They "went public" to raise capital for growth.

     The Huizenga clan--H. Wayne and cousin Peter Huizenga, and Peter's brother-in-law Dean Buntrock, took the lead in Chicago. [An aside--Buntrock's wife B.J. Huizenga (ex '52), and her brother Peter Huizenga (ex '57), and H. Wayne Huizenga ('58) had all been kicked out of Calvin for partying.] In 1971, the Huizengas combined their twenty interrelated companies, with assets of nearly $3 million, into a megacompany, named Waste Management Inc. (WMI). Buntrock thought up the name.

     The model was the Houston-based Browning Ferris Industries (BFI), founded two year earlier, in 1969, which raised over $13 million through public stock offerings. With the cash, BFI offered to pay thirty times earnings for the larger firms, and acquired two big Chicago companies--John Vandervelde's National Disposal Contractors and Van Der Molen Disposal. BFI reportedly paid $12 million for the Van der Molen firm, about $1 million per truck with its stops. In two years BFI controlled 200 firms in Illinois alone.

     The Huizengas fought back, led by H. Wayne, a master promoter. In 1971 they arranged two stock offerings and quickly raised $430 million in the stock market. With the cash, Wayne went on an acquisitions tear, but he found that he didn't need to offer much cash. Scavengers were willing to take WMI stock in payment and join the company, with generous salaries as company officials. More than three quarters of former owners "stayed on" and continued to run their companies; Waste needed their expertise and management skills. They simply "joined the team."

     With the system set, Chicago garbios expanded their operations to Denver, Phoenix, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Orlando and Ft. Lauderdale, and indeed, throughout the United States, and then into Europe, and even the Middle East and South America--Saudi Arabia, Argentina, and Venezuela.

     WMI stock soared faster than its customer base. Shares traded at a multiple of up to forty times earnings. Waste Management split its shares eleven times and one share multiplied into seventy-two shares. Selling out to WMI was as profitable for owners as for thousands of public stockholders. Lo and behold, the lowly Dutch Chicagoans had achieved "critical mass" in their finances and those of their friends and fellow church members who had gotten in on the ground floor. Millionaires were made by the dozen.

     When this money machine opened its mouth, an era in Chicago scavenger history came to an end. Selling to public corporations like BFI and WMI spelled the end of Dutch dominance in Chicago's waste business. But who would have thought that the lowly Dutch of Chicago would thrive on garbage!