2018-07-21 / Columnists

A Look at History

History of Composting Center Is Reminder of Forgotten Realities of Life


“I saw your Island on TV the other day,” the woman said. The show had been the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” program, the one with host Mike Rowe and the loaded dray that goes up the hill and hauls horse manure to the composting center. A once-forgotten patch of Mackinac Island soil has become a visual Mackinac image to viewers all over the world.

Approximately 80 acres in the Island’s northern interior has been open space for more than 200 years. For more than half a century the land has been used as the place where Mackinac Islanders send their garbage. It is the former John Early farm, a parcel of land northeast of British Landing Road. A relic of the end of the Ice Age, the former farm field is a rare small plateau on Mackinac Island. This flat space, with its sand and silt, was not really good soil by the standards of the United States as a whole, but it was as good as Mackinac Island had to offer, and it was grabbed up by the aggressive fur trader Michael Dousman in the U.S. Land Office claim cycle of 1808.

Morning light on British Landing Road. The old Early homesite is now a rest area. Wawashkamo golf links are to the right. Morning light on British Landing Road. The old Early homesite is now a rest area. Wawashkamo golf links are to the right. Dousman hired farmhands and grew essential supplies, such as corn and potatoes, for the growing village on Mackinac Island’s southern end. The open space became part of the field of combat in the 1814 Battle of Mackinac Island. Farming continued into the busy decades after the War of 1812. The first patches of land to be cleared of trees were of limited fertility, yet Islanders’ axes cleared more and more land. Fallen trees were hauled away to feed the Island’s roaring hearths and winter fireplaces, and the open space grew. Fort Mackinac records indicate that, by the 1830s, much of the Dousman land was no longer good for row crops and was used as pastureland and a place to grow baled hay.

Near the airport clearing on British Landing Road, trash is headed for sorting at the Island’s solid waste facility. Near the airport clearing on British Landing Road, trash is headed for sorting at the Island’s solid waste facility. In the 1800s the Dousman farm became part of the property of the Early family. Eventually two Earlys reached a compromise, with Peter Early taking the land southwest of the road – the land that is now Wawashkamo Golf Links – and brother John Early gaining possession of the parcel we are talking about, the parcel of land northeast of British Landing Road. Islanders had moved on from firewood to coal and the woods were beginning to press in again upon the open space, but John Early’s relatively good pastureland was enough to support a house and family.

With the opening of the State Park era in 1895, the future for this plot of land changed. New technology was producing more and more items, such as discarded steel food tins that would not rot or burn. This growing volume of durable trash, and changing public values during what we call the Progressive Era of the early 1900s, made it unacceptable to throw out household waste on one’s private property, as Americans had routinely done in the 1800s. The Island had to put together a system to collect and dispose of garbage. An incinerator was built southwest of Harrisonville in the 1910s, but this did not prove to be a permanent solution. As tourism swelled after World War II, the Island’s garbage was hauled by horsedrawn drays to the former John Early farm and buried there.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, landfill technology was simple: spread out the garbage, and put something solid on top of it. The Mackinac Island landfill was good news for seagulls, who found the Island spread had lots of food service waste in it. Located as it was on the northern end of the Island, the landfill was adequate to take care of the waste generated by the Island’s tourists, who no longer had to look at the garbage they themselves were helping to generate. The landfill operated successfully for more than a generation. More and more day visitors came to Mackinac Island, and they threw away or generated more and more trash. All of it, however, by the standards of the day, could be spread out and covered.

But the Mackinac Island landfill followed the incinerator into Island history. “Toxic waste” scandals, including the Love Canal news stories in 1977, began to show that some American residential suburban subdivisions had been built next door to (or even on top of) waste and garbage landfills. In some cases, furthermore, these urban landfills had been used as deposition points for industrial waste. This had never been an issue here – major cargo categories in the Island drays that plodded to our landfill included raked leaves, restaurant grease, and horse manure – but new laws passed by Congress, and by the state legislature in Lansing, placed new mandates on everyone and tended to think about urban areas rather than outlier-communities such as Mackinac Island. Legal orders came from on high to tell us to shut down our humble landfill. Its spread-out-andcover technology no longer conformed to the boundaries of acceptability in the disposal of municipal waste.

The active participation of Island businesses, led by Grand Hotel and Carriage Tours, made it possible to go down a new path. Mackinac’s unusual waste stream made it possible to send most of our garbage to the new Mackinac Island Solid Waste Facility for composting and recycling. Bio-trash is mixed with a superb composting medium, the product of our Island’s summer horse population, to generate approximately 1,000 cubic yards of compost every year. The new waste cycle has freed up part of the old landfill, and the Mackinac Horsemen’s Association has built a barn and horse rings on part of John Early’s old farm. The Early farm home site has not been completely forgotten, either; a quiet rest area, across the road from Wawashkamo’s first fairway, recalls where the home once stood.

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