Thursday, June 8, 2000

Trash service gallops ahead: Horses enter fourth year as contract faces new review

Published in the Addison Independent

BRISTOL - Bristol's unconventional garbage collection is moving into its fourth year at a steady, trotting clip-clop pace.

New Haven carpenter Pat Palmer spends his Tuesdays driving a pair of draft horses around Bristol, pulling a custom-designed wagon, slowly filling it with trash and recycling.

The entire run, Palmer said, is about 11 to 13 miles, depending on how many trips he has to take, and lasts five to six hours.

It's an intricate route through Bristol's small roads, weaving through the downtown residential area's one-way and dead-end streets.

"We start way away and then we get closer," Palmer said. He serves up to 300 homes, not all of whom use the service every week.

He does some of the pick-ups in his truck before taking the horses out, in a couple of hilly areas and dangerous spots near the Lord's Prayer rock.

In between stops to throw bags and boxes of trash and recycling onto the back of his wagon, Palmer discussed his experience running a national rarity: a public service powered by draft horses.

The past three years have been fairly eventful, he said. Not only have tourists and national media organizations shown interest, but the weather and the seasons have made it an enjoyable adventure as well.

"We've done it in rain, snow, sleet, sunshine and sometimes all in the same day," Palmer said, showing his easy, wide grin.

He shrugs off the media attention, though. Palmer considers the media attention as much of a public spectacle as the TV stations think he is.

"It was kind of interesting when "Good Morning America" was here, and we had Trent (Campbell, the Addison Independent's photographer) taking pictures of them taking pictures," Palmer said.

"It comes in droves. Now and again we get reporters or independent writers, doing their own story to sell," Palmer said of the media interest.

Horse-drawn trash collection was a national news story when he got the contract, but it's not such a big deal at home, where even Palmer isn't sure what will happen next week when the town contract comes up for review.

The choice, he said, is for the town to make. That choice is between having him continue to make pick-ups or making everyone take their own trash to the town dump.

According to Town Manager Bob Hall, the selectboard will be discussing the issue at the board's next meeting on June 19.

Not surprisingly, Palmer thinks it's become a great part of life in Bristol, though he doesn't flatter himself.

"I think people want to keep it," Palmer said. "I don't think people care much about me. It's basically about the horses."

Cost is an important issue, though. Until recently, town refuse charges were $1.50 per bag for the pick-up and $2 per bag at the dump. But people complained that the self-serve dump was subsidizing the pick-up, so the town selectmen raised pick-up costs to $3 per bag.

Recycling is free.

"We had difficulty financing the pick-up under those conditions," said Bristol selectman David Sharpe. "We may discontinue. Obviously, we don't want to do that."

The increased rate cut Palmer's load, from 4,000 pounds to about 3,200 per week. Now he sees a lot of recycling put out, and not so much trash. He's concerned that the pick-up service may not be able to pay for itself with the rates so different.

"In order to keep (the service), they may have to lower the difference between taking it to the dump and getting it picked up," Palmer said.

"It's worked pretty well, but it just needs some adjusting," Sharpe said.

But Palmer is still more than willing to do the job, "as long as they want," he said. "This is a perfect town to do it in because it's generally flat."

It has its own rewards, beyond the fiscal.

"I just like the constant interaction with the horses," Palmer said.

And he's good with them. Chief and Spud are a team of brothers he bought in January. Together, they weigh nearly 4,000 pounds in harness. Palmer gets them moving with a soft-spoken, "Okay, giddup."

He's very calm around them, and works with them easily.

"Some people when they drive they have to raise their voices to get to the horses, but he's very gentle," said Ashley Oosterman, who sometimes helps with the driving.

Palmer has the horses so well-trained that they can basically do the route without him at the reins. But, he warns, "they like to cut corners."

That can be dangerous with small spaces and with fire hydrants and other obstacles ready to snag the wagon if Palmer isn't careful. When at the reins, though, he can maneuver the wagon in very tight areas, with only inches to spare between it and a parked car or a telephone pole.

His trash-collection service has the support of many town residents, he said.

"Everybody tells me they look for it," Palmer said. "There are two or three people who leave carrots out for them every week." And one woman leaves a couple of buckets of water at the curb for the horses.

Palmer and his helpers are on the lookout, too, watching the changes in town at one-week intervals.

"You get some really nice yards and the houses are all fixed up," said Bill Oosterman, who has helped Palmer with the route for about a year.

Palmer has had tourists along on the wagon from Kansas and Miami. A couple of those visitors were also waste professionals. A recycling coordinator from Detroit came along on a sleigh ride and saw a picture Palmer has up of the horses. "He stayed an extra day so he could ride around with me and take pictures," Palmer said.

He's bemused by the attention, and keeps his high spirits at an infectious level. Halfway through the day, Oosterman carefully balanced a box of cardboard atop the burgeoning load.

Oosterman lifted an eyebrow at it, and then at Palmer, who grinned.

"Oh, it'll stay," he laughed. It did.