The manhole in our yard
Older homes in the city often bear mysteries and surprises
A couple weeks or so ago, my wife was pulling up some dense plants near the front door of our converted carriage-house home when she called for me to come outside.
“Look at this,” she said, pulling up what appeared to be a manhole in the middle of a landscaped area that had previously held thick, ornamental grasses.
I peered into the brick-lined hole, about two or three feet deep down. We immediately tried solving the mystery, but considering we weren’t around in 1898 when the carriage house was built, nor did we know much of the subsequent history of the building throughout the first half of the 20th century, we turned to the experts.
I posted photos on our Midtown neighborhood Facebook page, and it took only hours—possibly only minutes—before I had enough smart-ass replies to perform a stand-up routine.
But one man, David Zagalik (presumably a neighbor, and clearly a wise man—or at least highly proficient on Google), provided the answer that we all (even the smart-asses) were looking for: This non-cistern, non-well, non-sump pit, non-incinerator, non-septic tank, non-shelter, non-milk drop-off, non-booze hiding place, non-time-travel-portal was, in fact … a subterranean garbage receiver.
Yeah, it’s an early 20th-century underground trash can. Except that, in those days, the definitions of “trash” and “garbage” and “rubbish” were very different things. To quote the WGBH article that Zagalik posted about our mystery: In the early to mid-20th century, “…no civilized person would throw their garbage in the rubbish.”
Before garbage disposals and the plastic trash bag were invented, dry trash and goopy, rotting garbage were separated. The decomposing garbage—mostly food scraps and other organic items—were put in the subterranean receiver in an attempt to contain the smell, limit flies and rodents, and keep the pets away.
Garbage collectors and trash collectors—whether they were the same people or not—had two different jobs. Garbage collectors had the unenviable job of pulling off the receiver covers, lifting out the cylinders that held the garbage, emptying them at their truck, and returning them to the ground. I read that some towns did this twice a week.
So, with that mystery solved, perhaps we will investigate next the minimally documented history of our home serving as the Kansas City Art Guild in the 1960s and ‘70s. Or we could try to sort out the conflicting reports about which neighboring home actually owned our carriage house. Or we could explore the origins of a professionally made, in-ground headstone memorializing a cat in our side garden.