Heiberg Garbage & Recycling: A family business, still cleaning up Portland
In 1890, Portland was a dirty town!
Residents and merchants dumped their garbage and slop into back alleys and into the streets. Businesses even refused to clean up the rubbish they cast onto the sidewalk in front of their own stores. The reek of horse manure – horses were the dominant way of getting around town then, as the many hitching rings still on curbs attest – and pungent vapors from food waste could be detected from miles away.
City officials, who at first declined to establish a landfill, finally agreed that it was time to build an incinerator to make the city livable again.
Once that was built and put into operation, residents could haul their trash and yard debris to the city's incinerator, or hire an independent garbage collector to pick up unwanted trash at their home and carry it away.
There wasn't any improvement at the turn of the Twentieth Century; and even as late as the 1920's most people were still burning their household garbage in a wood stove that they also used for daily heating and cooking. Food scraps could be fed to the family dog, or thrown into a hog pen if they had one – or buried.
As people continued using "burn barrels" to dispose of their waste in their own backyards, the resulting smoke turned Portland into a stinky little town.
Some 60 scavengers and junk dealers were listed in the Portland Directory back then. These services prowled the streets of the city, offering to haul away kitchen and market garbage, and unwanted trash, for a fee. Scavengers were our first recyclers: They decided what could be fixed and resold, what items were burnable, and what items (such as tin and iron) could be resold for rebuilding and remodeling. They found creative ways for trash to be repurposed. Nothing went to waste – except for food scraps.
The ladies of the Portland Women's Club put city officials on notice shortly after the turn of the century, complaining about the smell of the garbage near of fairgrounds in North Portland, and all the smoke from households.
It was suddenly a serious issue because, in 1905, Portland was to host the Lewis and Clark Exposition. Thousands were expected to attend this World's Fair. Portland's ladies were appalled at what the streets of our fine city were looking like as the fair's opening approached; the Portland Women's Club didn't want to see Portland publicized as the smelliest city in the nation.
Apparently, Board members of the local World's Fair and the Portland City Administrators agreed, because the roads and bridges were cleaned up, and kept clean of debris every day throughout the Exposition, and nobody complained about the air quality. Those who visited Portland not only came away with a positive attitude about the Rose City, but soon after the World's Fair closed hundreds of fair attendees decided to just stay here permanently!
With the fair closed, though, the aggressive city cleanup program ended; and within the next ten years, Portland found it necessary to begin looking for a suitable "town dump" for the organized disposal of garbage and trash.
Recycling was not initially a major concern, but by the end of the 1930s it was becoming critical, with World War II already in progress in Europe. And it was suddenly essential to our own war effort when the United States entered World War II in late 1941. With a shortage of war materials like gasoline and rubber tires, the U.S. Government encouraged residents to salvage and collect materials that helped supply the troops overseas.
School children, and Boy and Girl Scout Troops, were recruited to lead drives and collect used items in their neighborhood. Especially needed were paper, aluminum, tin, iron, steel, and rubber. Even odd items like used silk stockings and cooking fat were needed for the war effort; the glycerin in cooking fat was a key ingredient in explosives, for example.
Meanwhile, in the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood, the system for collecting garbage in Multnomah County – right up to the middle of the last century – had been essentially unregulated. Privately-owned garbage companies competed against each other, and residents and merchants could choose which hauler they wanted to pick up their waste. Customers unhappy with their pick-up service simply had to phone one of the 250 other garbage collectors listed in the Yellow Pages of the city telephone book, and hire another service. Today, residential garbage collection in Portland is by city mandate a regulated monopoly in each district.
World War II ended in 1945. In 1947, Vern Heiberg, who lived in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood, decided to start his own garbage business. Scanning the classified ads in the daily newspaper, he found and purchased a sanitation route and a truck, borrowing the money to do so from his brother-in-law, Tony Sanseri, who operated a produce company on the east side of town.
The truck he bought was a 1946 Ford V8 model, with a hydraulic lift; and it included side gates, which could be folded down on either end of the rig to make it easier to empty garbage into the bed of the truck. His wife, Marian, agreed to take care of the accounts.
Adding new customers, sending out invoices, collecting payments, and raising five rowdy boys – Jim, Jerry, Bruce, Brad, and Brian – kept Marian busy. Vern had to apply for a chauffeur's license to drive his vehicle, and he also become a member of the A-F-of-L union.
During my recent interview at the Heiberg Garbage and Refuse office, family members who still run the business showed this BEE writer the original metal chaffers and union pin that Vern kept on hand, just in case he was asked to produce them.
Renting a garage to store the garbage truck would have been expensive, so usually the Heiberg sanitation truck was parked out in front of the house they'd just bought in Westmoreland. Bruce Heiberg, Vern's son, recalls that all the kids in Llewellyn School would gaze in amazement when his dad dropped him and his brothers off at school in the garbage truck!
Later, Vern was allowed to park his truck at the neighborhood gas station, a few blocks from the Heiberg home. And eventually the Heibergs purchased a shop at S.E. 24th and Umatilla Street, which was more convenient, and also helped protect the truck from vandalism.
Vern ran the truck by himself for two years before the strain of lifting and dumping garbage cans became too hard on his back, at which point he hired a close friend, Adam Cooler, to do the heavy lifting and run the route.
And although the war was past, and residents were no longer required to recycle items, the Heibergs decided to maintain the practice of recycling – which not only cut down on dump fees, but also allowed them to receive a fee for collecting and turning in glass, bottles, and rags.
Vern's son Bruce explains that recycling then was quite different than what we are used to today. On garbage day, customers would leave a bundle of tied newspapers on top of their garbage cans. All the men had to do when they picked up the garbage was empty the galvanized can, and throw the recyclable newspapers into another portion of the truck to be sorted at a later time.
By 1947, every household in Portland was required to provide a galvanized-iron covered can for their garbage, and the charge for monthly service was only 90 cents per can.
Trash collecting was still rather primitive, and garbage collectors used whatever means and vehicles they could, for picking up the waste and hauling it away; most junk dealers and collectors used oversized trucks with ladders attached to the side. Trash collectors would throw garbage into the bed of their truck until it was full, and then head out to the nearest dumpsite. On arrival at the city dump, the driver would unload his truck full of garbage by using the ladder to climb up the side of the overloaded truck, and then throw the debris out the back with a shovel or pitchfork.
Back then, only a few trucks were equipped with the hydraulics needed to raise the bed of the vehicle and empty it.
Heiberg Garbage bought their first compactor truck in 1967, making waste collections safer and more efficient. Workers were able to finish their routes faster, and save the company a considerable amount of money.
In the summertimes, when school was out, most pre-teens and teenagers in that era headed for the Oregon Coast on vacation, took overseas trips, or hung out at the Sellwood Swimming pool. But not the Heiberg boys; they were expected to spend their summers and weekends collecting garbage and driving the truck. Picking up waste was exhausting labor for the boys.
Bruce, recalling the days of being a driver during the summertime, recalls, "Times were different back in the 50's and 60's. When the garbage man arrived each week, it was a social experience for many customers along our route."
There was a trust issue between a customer and their garbage man. Unlike today, when customers are asked just to leave their garbage can out by the curb, waste collectors offered more personal service – climbing porch stairs, opening gates, or trudging through backyards to pick up and replace the household garbage cans. It wasn't unusual for them to bump into a housewife, with pink foam and plastic curlers in her hair and wearing a bathrobe – or to encounter an elderly gentleman wearing a night cap and slippers – in the course of collecting the trash.
Most residents looked forward to greeting the garbage collector. and perhaps even catching up on neighborhood gossip if they had a moment to chat.
It was hard work, but a wonderful time for Bruce, and he came to know a lot of customers. With weekly pickup service, the garbage man had to know the habits and routines of all of his customers: Bruce knew which households were on vacation; or, he might suspect a customer was sick if they didn't come out to greet him on their regular service day.
Bruce Heiberg reports that one of his customers always gave him a hug every week. And on one occasion, a Mrs. Yanker, a customer on his route, found out that his family was expecting a baby girl, and she presented Bruce with a handmade infants' dress. And, during the Christmas Season, garbage men often had to make room in the cab of their trucks to accommodate presents that many customers would give them.
In 1973, just a year after he graduated from Benson Polytechnic High School, Bruce was given what he considered the golden opportunity to buy the family business from his dad. It was a big responsibility for someone so young, but Bruce said that doing so was one of the best decisions he ever made. Bruce drove the routes during the week, and then on the weekend spent most of his time taking care of the accounts, leaving little free time for other activities.
He operated the company by himself for eight years, and then offered his youngest brother, Brian, the opportunity to join him in day-to-day operations, and become part-owner. Together the two of them increased their customer base, and made Heiberg Garbage and Recycling, LLC the most well-known, dependable, and respected sanitation company around.
One of Bruce's favorite stops was at the "Schoolhouse Antiques Reproductions" store on S.E. 13th Avenue in Sellwood, where a Ms. Kris Kevan worked behind the counter. Kris had arrived in Sellwood as a single parent, and the owner of the store suggested that Kris "check out those young men", pointing to Brian, Bruce, or Brad, each week, as one of them came to pick up the trash. Playing cupid, the store owner even went so far as to lock the back gate where the garbage cans were stored, requiring Bruce or one of the other brothers to go to the front of the store and ask Kris for the key.
"When I saw Bruce, I thought he was kind of cute," recalled Kris, "So I found out that every Wednesday morning he had breakfast at Bertie Lou's at 9 a.m., so I made sure I was there too."
Those early-morning breakfast encounters led to a marriage proposal, and the couple soon married and raised a family that included Joshua, Jonathan, Jessi, Jimmy, and Joe. And, just like Bruce and his brothers, when they became old enough, there was always work to be found for them at the office or out on the road. Almost every member of the Heiberg clan can boast that they worked, at one time or another, in support of the family business.
As the population of Portland and the suburbs began to grow, finding a suitable place to dump garbage was becoming a serious concern. The city incinerator was finally closed down in favor of using landfills – and some of the places chosen for those included wetlands, and covering up the trash with soil. Bruce Heiberg remembers when there was a dry landfill in Oaks Bottom just north of today's Sellwood Riverfront Park, which many garbage haulers used well into the 1970's.
And, during the early years of Portland, even Ross Island was once considered as the location for a dump – but public fear that the smell of garbage would permeate the nearby neighborhoods with foul smells blocked that plan.
Eventually the city settled on a new landfill, this one to be located in the St. Johns neighborhood in North Portland. During the busy season, over 100 trucks might be lined up to use the St. Johns landfill; and, Bruce observed, "For the drivers, it would be a good place to catch up on the news and network".
It was there that they gathered to trade information, discuss business proposals, or gossip about unruly customers they'd dealt with on their route. There, too, Bruce would gather firsthand knowledge about who was deciding to retire or who wanted to sell their small garbage company. He ended up buying a few small businesses that would otherwise have been gobbled up by big corporations. Bruce comments that the Heiberg Garbage and Recycling Company has always prided itself on providing personal service to every customer.
Garbage service has definitely changed. Nowadays garbage trucks have mechanized roll carts, which makes the job easier and faster. Workers usually don't even have to get out of the truck to pick up heavy trash cans. During the early years, Bruce and his crew had to use a "carry can" – which was a huge aluminum can with a shoulder strap. The men would go to 4 or 5 houses and dump each home's garage in the "carry can", and then haul it all back to the truck. The "carry can" could weigh as much as 50 to 60 pounds when full, and that put a tremendous strain on the broad shoulders of garbage collectors.
When Vern Heiberg first started his business, it was with a one truck and it was a one-man show. Today, Heiberg Garbage and Recycling, LLC, operates 39 trucks and employs nearly 55 people – and they collect garbage and recycling in a number of different neighborhoods around the city.
Jessi and Jimmy Heiberg handle most of the current day-to-day operations. An additional 11 backup trucks are kept in good repair and tuned up ready to go in the garage, where a full-time mechanic is needed to keep all of the company's trucks in top shape.
As the business continued to grow, in 1996 the Heibergs moved their operation to Harvester Drive in Milwaukie, where the vehicles are stationed, and the office operations are located.
As part of their community involvement, for the past 40 years, Bruce and the Heiberg family have partnered with SMILE, the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood association, in offering what is now the oldest annual Community Cleanup Day in the State of Oregon. It happens every May. And, Heiberg Garbage and Recycling is now one of the dwindling number of long-time family businesses still in existence in Inner Southeast Portland.
Bruce and Brian Heiberg tell me that they hope that people today, and the generations that follow, will continue to educate themselves about the many ways they can recycle, and help reduce waste and save the planet. That's a wise thought from the men who pick up much of the city's trash each and every week.
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