Thursday, February 18, 2016

Confessions Of A Dumpster Diver

“I wouldn't go in if I were you,” Russ said. "Something bad happened in there."

I raised an eyebrow toward the 1870s Italianate farmhouse, pushed askew by a backhow, looking like a house from a Dr. Suess story. “No house has ever given me a more threatening vibe,” he mumbled, shaking his head.

Stove pipe collar with removable central snowflake, salvaged from a farm
house in southern Michigan. When the stove is in place in the winter 
the snow flake is removed. When the stove is moved to the summer kitchen 
in the summer, snow flake is put in place to cover the hole.
We were at an old Hamilton County farmstead. Russ asked me to help him move cut stone steps he planned to use at his historic home in town. We were restoring houses a half block apart. The neglected farmstead was about to be leveled for a new subdivision.

I’d arrived late and wanted to check out the house for architectural salvage, but if Russ said don’t go in, I wasn’t going in. He’s a no bullshit guy. We loaded the cut stone (and amazingly found a native American ax head under the slabs) and left.

I started doing salvage when I was restoring my first home. Living on a teacher’s salary and restoring an 1890s Victorian cottage while raising children made buying reproduction hardware, rebuilt vintage light fixtures, and fresh-milled woodwork unthinkable. Salvage was the only answer.

Empty, aged, abandoned houses – once they’re free of the clamor and glare of a modern homeowner’s technology and decorating and the echoing vibe of personal belongings, their own rich, deeply burnished personality can radiate like a rolling wave spun from a 150 years of babies made and babies born, weddings, parties, dinners, blizzards and thunder storms, Christmases, son’s off to war, funerals, engagements and breakups, Sunday brunches and lonely afternoons, tens of thousands of cooked meals and just as many canned goods grown in the yard and stored in the cellar, faithful dogs and sleepy cats, grandma’s last breath and babies’ first steps, creating an emotional rush that can greet you with welcoming warmth, but occasionally a cold shoulder of rebuke.

Assorted escutcheons salvaged over the course of 25 years

Or not. Sometimes you feel nothing. It’s just wood, nails and plaster. But still, sometimes an old house on its deathbed speaks to you.

I started out picking trash. Pushing a child in a stroller on evening walks I’d find a pile of star bricks discarded behind a garage, knock on the back door and be told I could take them. I built my first patio with street paving bricks taken from an alley where my town’s judicial center is now and built the table that sat on that patio with disguarded oak planks found in an alley while walking a child in the evening.

I began digging in dumpsters parked in front of old house renovation projects. The dumpsters almost always yielded a decorative floor grate or long plank of quartersawn oak baseboard. These were hauled home, filling my little garage and back basement.

It allowed me to replace my 1960s front door with a proper ornate, stained glass door with a matching transom overhead, both salvaged and outfitted with salvaged hardware cast with elegant floral patterns. My porch had been enclosed with cinder block and cheap aluminum windows. Riding my bike to the dentist’s one day, I parked in his garage and saw a complete set of porch posts and ornate brackets stored in the rafters. Once I tore out the cinder blocks and shabby windows, those porch posts and brackets were put in place.

And most of it had been free. Most people I encountered thought it was trash and thought me odd for wanting it.

It may have been a fascination with archeology that kept me salvaging even when I didn’t need anything. My garage got filled with goose neck toilets, porch posts, fireplace mantels, and hand made Civil War-era doors, all of which I had absolutely no use for, they’d simply been in the collapsing old house or dumpster for the taking. I couldn’t bear to see them go to a landfill. Eventually I held a garage sale, promoting it weeks in advance to historic preservation groups throughout the central part of the state.

Carved stone pulled from an Indianapolis demolition site.

And there I faced my nerdy preservation bias. When someone wanted old woodwork or ornate iron just to decorate their walls, it felt wrong. But if it was being used to restore a house, I’d sell it at a bargain price. When you’re restoring a house, salvage isn’t just a compelling decorative item, it’s a necessity.

I bought the rights to salvage a couple houses and ducked into buildings to unscrew and pry thing off, just days, and at times, moments before they were demolished. Once, in Bluffton, Indiana, salvaging woodwork on the 2nd story of an 1880s house that was being slowly demolished by a crew with sledgehammers and a Bobcat, I finished my work to find the stairs had just been pulled free. I had no way to get out. Fortunately, my father-in-law knew I was there and checked in to see how I was doing, shouting up from the street. He brought over a ladder, I tossed all the woodwork from a window into the yard and climbed down.

By the next day the house was gone.
Nickel plated hinge from men's lodge door. Downtown Tipton.

When you love old houses and want them restored, salvage can feel creepy, like you’re stealing wallets and jewelry from a dying person. I’ve had a house give me a cry of mercy (or I was projecting it onto the house myself in sympathy), saying, “Why are you doing this to me?” 

Once I stripped an entire turn-of-the-century farmhouse in Henry County. Six months later I decided to drive by and grab a piece of hardware I knew I’d left only to find the house crawling with workers renovating it.

That made for a pretty shitty feeling.

The doors, floor grates, woodwork, transom windows, lightening rods–you name it, were back in my Hamilton County garage. I called the farmer who’d sold me the rights and asked what happened. He said, “Somebody called and wanted to buy the house and a couple acres, so I sold it. But don’t feel bad. They hate old houses. They want to make it like a new house.

That made for an even shittier feeling. Like I was Dr. Frankenstein and I’d taken all the good parts, leaving someone with the dumb creature that was good enough for their homogenized sensibilities.

Some houses don’t make you feel anything. And dumpster diving is that way, too. At an old house construction site, the dumpster is the organ donor repository. You’re disconnected from the donor. But at several old houses I got a tingling on the spine and hair stood up on my arms, like ghosts were watching me, outraged as I dismantled their stairway with the handrail they’d run their hands along for a lifetime–gripped as a toddler when learning to walk and eventually gripped in feeble old age, not understanding that I was saving it from going to a landfill or being burned as fire department training.

Still, more times than not, the houses felt welcoming, especially on warm, sunny days, like they understood completely what you were doing and why you were doing it, and glad to be of service to another old house.

My salvage experiences inspired my second novel, The Salvage Man, a story about a man trying to salvage his own life, while he strips a Civil War era farm house.

“Kurt Meyer’s The Salvage Man is a gentle Midwestern fantasy made up of one treasure after another. Part historical fiction, part love story, and part rumination on modern day life, this novel asks hard questions about the world we live in and the world we leave behind. I couldn’t put it down.”
Larry D. Sweazy, author of A Thousand Falling Crows

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard


  1. I am intrigued by the axe head found under the foundation... We had a similar experience when razing an addition on our 1880's Madison County farmhouse. An EXTREMELY old (allegedly) spear point found right under the garage foundation - so perfect and grey that my husband thought it was plastic water line. Do these things migrate upward from below? I can't imagine that the folks who poured that concrete originally wouldn't have noticed it...