I Never Knew There Was So Much Dirt in Ypsilanti

May 2, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

The horse team clopped north over the cobblestones on Huron Street. They pulled a wagon containing a two-foot-thick layer of leaves, sticks, old newspapers, bottles, and tin cans. The handle of a bent black umbrella stuck out. One man drove the horses and two others walked behind the wagon, carrying pitchforks.

Ypsilanti mayor John Kirk began the tradition today known as Pride Day.

Ypsilanti mayor John Kirk began the tradition today known as Pride Day.

The team pulled up next to a five-foot-high pile of trash next to the street. Broken glass and bits of metal in the pile glinted among a heap of shrub and tree trimmings–and one 1907 calendar. “Whoa, there,” said street commissioner William Lewis. He stopped the horses and the two men began shoveling the pile into the wagon. “This is the biggest one yet,” said one. The other put his pitchfork in the wagon bed and pulled out a shovel to scoop up some broken bricks.

Lewis craned around to look at the filled wagon. “We’re going to have to go dump her out and come back,” he said. “Hop on.”

All the way down Huron, other large piles lay ahead of the wagon team, and the day had just begun.

It was Ypsilanti’s first “Pride Day,” on May 1, 1908.

The city had no municipal trash pickup service. Residents tossed broken dishes or empty whiskey bottles into backyard privies or transported trash themselves to the city dump. Flammable items were burned, either in the kitchen stove or a bonfire. The stream of household waste was small, compared to today. Packaging for fresh items like produce did not exist and plastics, for containers and personal and household items, wouldn’t come along until after WW II.

The idea of a citywide cleanup had come from a statewide group. Organized in 1899, the League of Michigan Municipalities was a union of Michigan cities, towns, and villages.

Its purpose was to provide members with a means of sharing information about how to run a municipality. Members, who were city officials from their respective cities, traded such information as the legal aspects of special tax assessments, or whether street paving was worth the expense, or the going price of sidewalks, so as not to be cheated by a contractor.

“[T]he League of Michigan Municipalities has designated Friday, May 1, 1908 as City Cleaning Day,” said a letter from Ypsilanti mayor John Kirk printed in the May 1, 1908 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “[T]he city of Ypsilanti is desirous of taking such action as will tend to improve its condition; it is hereby proclaimed that Friday, May 1, 1908 be designated as ‘City Cleaning Day for Ypsilanti’.”

The mayor instructed Ypsilantians on what to do. “Bonfires are suggested for the purpose of burning all rubbish that can be burned,” he said, “while other rubbish should be placed in the streets and alleys in convenient piles to be carried away in wagons furnished by the city.”

Kirk added, “Do not forget vacant property, as a few unsightly lots will tend to destroy a good work. Property owners must attend to the carting away of ashes as city wagons will not be furnished for such a purpose.”

He concluded, “As this is the first concerted effort on the part of our city, all citizens are earnestly requested to take such vigorous and practical action as will make the effort a success.”

City schools were closed for half a day so that “children may have an opportunity to take part in the work of cleaning up about their home premises,” said a letter from Ypsilanti school superintendent William Arbaugh, printed in the May 1, 1908 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “The idea is an excellent one, and in closing the schools tomorrow afternoon, our purpose is the inculcation, in a practical way, of a commendable civic pride.”

On May 1, 1908, students, their parents, merchants, and other residents raked, cleaned, tossed, and pruned, in the citywide effort. Smoke from burning trash-piles rose from spots all over town.

The next day’s paper said that the day had been a big success. “Street commissioner Lewis had nine wagons busy all day hauling accumulations of dirt.”

The paper quoted one participant. “‘Well, here goes the accumulation of 10 years and good riddance to rubbish,’ said one woman yesterday when the ‘city cleaning wagon’ backed up to her door. There was everything in one heap from tin cans to a broken down baby cart.”

The paper continued, “‘I never knew there was so much dirt in Ypsilanti,’ said street commissioner Lewis. ‘I was on the go since early in the morning in every ward in the city five or six times—and still there is lots to do.’” Eight other wagons in addition to Lewis’s helped with the effort, said the paper, and the mayor’s phone was ringing all day with requests for a trash wagon.

The response was so enthusiastic that the wagons had to finish up the cleanup the next day.

“In all parts of the city lawns were cut and rolled, alleys cleaned, trees trimmed, and an effort put forth to beautify the surroundings,” said the May 2, 1908 Ypsilanti Daily Press. “Mayor Kirk and the committee expressed themselves as much pleased with the experiment and ‘city cleaning day’ is likely to become a permanent feature in Ypsilanti.”

The event was repeated in 1909 and 1910, and became a tradition.

Over one hundred years later, Ypsilanti Pride day in May pays tribute to Lewis’s hard-working teams of long ago and the civic-minded residents that filled his wagons. That same civic-mindedness is evident today in the local nature of the event.

VG Kids designed cheerful yellow Ypsi Pride T-shirts for this year’s Pride day. Local donors of money, supplies, and food for the event’s lunch and afterparty include Aubree’s, Peninsular Place, Bowerbird Mongo, Bombadill’s, Beezy’s, Domino’s, the Ypsi Food Co-op, and others.

The citizens picking up trash, weeding, and planting flowers in Candy Cane Park, Prospect Park, the Gilbert Residence and about 25 other sites this Saturday, May 15 walk in the now-vanished footsteps of Lewis’s horses pulling the wagon with the bent umbrella 102 years ago.

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