Susan Spotless, Trash, and Memories of the Dump
Tue, 01/30/2024 - 1:50pm admin
Last week, I was interviewed on a St. Louis radio program, “Authors’ Edge,” about The Way We Were, my book with the first fifty articles from this column. I was asked where I got my ideas for the newspaper stories.
After mentioning previous subjects, I explained new topics could be elusive and that I got a bit anxious when my mind was drawing blanks. But for over four years, some blip has occurred on my radar screen every two weeks that has resulted in a story.
This week, the prompt came from a Facebook post about an anonymous letter sent to the Howell County News complaining about the litter in the Ozarks. Litter is a topic that has concerned me since I was a kid. In fact, Bill Shanks (WSHS, 1966) and I based our student council campaign on keeping the WSHS campus free of litter.
In the early 1960s, the Keep America Beautiful group produced a ubiquitous TV advertisement featuring a cute, but pedantic, little girl known a Susan Spotless. In the ad, Susie reprimanded her father when he tossed a piece of paper on the sidewalk near the Statue of Liberty. “Daddy, you forgot. Every litter bit hurts.” At the end of the sixty-second spot, Susan is heard as a voice-over singing, "Please, please don't be a litter bug, 'cause every litter bit hurts."
If not the original source, Susie certainly popularized the term “litterbug.” For me, and I suspect others of my generation, it was effective. She became the proverbial angel on the shoulder of one who might be ready to toss a gum wrapper on the ground, singing her little jingle. Nobody wanted to be accused of being a litterbug.
The backstory about Keep America Beautiful is interesting. Apparently, packaging and beverage companies formed it as a taskforce to get ahead of governments passing laws that that would require more expensive returnable bottles. Companies argued it was better to educate and persuade people than to pass laws that would hurt companies more than the actual litterers.
Speaking of passing a law, a friend of mine got his first job after law school with the Missouri Office of Legislative Research. At Legislative Research, members of the General Assembly could get assistance drafting a bill they hoped to pass. One representative informed my friend he wanted an anti-littering bill that prohibited motorists from having anything inside their cars that was small enough to be thrown out the window. My friend pointed out that would eliminate car keys and children.
Trash disposal in the Ozarks has changed dramatically in the last fifty or sixty years. The Shannon County farm of my youth had no indoor plumbing, and therefore, no garbage disposal in the sink. In fact, we didn’t even have a sink (we used a metal dishpan), but we had a “slop bucket,” as did most farm families of the era. Talk about recycling—a slop bucket is the crème de la crème (a French idiom meaning the best of the best). Any scraps left on a plate or a skillet were scraped into a five-gallon bucket and fed to the hogs, who seemed to love it.
We had another solution for other trash that could not be burned: a sinkhole, a half-mile back of the farmhouse. Sinkholes and caves are features of the limestone Karst topography of the Ozarks that I learned about in Geology 101 at Mizzou. Our sinkhole was a depression shaped like an inverted cone, 50-yards across the top and nearly as deep, situated at the base of a treelined ridge.
As necessary, my brother and I would wheelbarrow burlap feed bags (“tow sacks’) full of trash along a cow path to the sinkhole. Our sinkhole could also be a venue for adventure. Since it had been used as a trash depository for decades by previous owners, a curious boy could find all sorts or treasures. Once, I found a nifty two-ounce glass the shape of a shot glass that my grandma sterilized and used as a measuring cup.
My thoughts turned to Willow Springs in the 1950s and ‘60s, and I could not remember a trash pick-up service—I suppose it existed—but I have clear memories of going to the Willow garbage dump (“the Dump”) on Highway 137. Since classmate Joe Corn preceded me in Willow, I emailed him for his recollection. Joe says, “Most people burned their trash in 50-gallon barrels in their back yard in town. As barrels accumulated metal from cans and metal which did not burn, some would dig and bury it. Dad and I would load it in our truck and go to the Highway137 dump.”
The Dump even provided recreational opportunities. Wendell Bailey (WSHS, 1959), Willow’s favorite son and maven of all things Willow Springs, says, “It was a big deal for boys to go out to the Dump with .22 rifles and shoot at an old refrigerator.” Wendell also mentioned that back in the 1950s, a man named Pamp Osborn kept Main Street clean using a broom and a two-wheeled cart.
My older, smarter brother Jack has a Willow Dump memory from his Marine Corps days. He says, “Before I got out of the Corps I was engaged to Sandy, and when home on leave, we would go out to the dump and shoot George’s .38 Special. [George was our stepfather.] At that time, I was a rifle range coach and qualified with a .45 pistol. She was out-shooting me, and I had to bear down so as not to be greatly embarrassed.”
Classmate Carol Hale Aldridge says, “I definitely remember driving out to the dump. It’s where my dad let me learn to drive!” [Perhaps, dodging gunfire.]
For me, one Dump memory sticks in my mind more than others. When I was in high school, City employee Amo Durnell (classmate Perry Durnell’s father) stopped by our house and asked me to follow him out to the dump. A man of few words, he ignored my questions and got in his pickup and drove off. I followed him.
Halfway down the gravel lane, which led to the main dumping area from Highway 137, Mr. Durnell stopped next to pile of trash in the ditch. He got out and motioned me over. From the trash pile, he retrieved an envelope addressed to 705 High Street—our address. “Now, move this stuff where it belongs,” he said. Back then, kids tended to follow the direction of adults, and adults were not fearful of correcting another’s child, and then informing the parent of their kid’s misbehavior. In this instance, I’m pretty sure I fessed up when I got home.
On this topic, I would be remiss if I did not mention football teammate Danny Holloway (WSHS, 1964), who helped rural folks with their trash issues. In 1977, he incorporated and operated Rural Disposal, Inc. As a sidenote, Danny was a first-team all-conference lineman and one of the hardest-hitting players I can recall.
For current information about the Dump, I contacted Kim Osborn at Willow Springs City Hall, who was most helpful. She confirmed the Dump closed in March 1997. Apparently, the Department of Natural Resources got involved. She also mentioned Willow has several dump trucks for local trash service.
Like a message in a bottle tossed in the ocean, an anonymous letter in these days of social media can end up anywhere—even in a newspaper column—and evoke a myriad of thoughts and memories: of Susan Spotless, slop buckets, sinkholes, dumps, and a lazy teenager corrected by a town father. And if I had mentioned it on the radio program, it could have rippled across the country.