Finding Treasure at NH's Transfer Stations

You won’t look at “garbage” the same way again.

You know that old saying about how one person’s trash is another person’s treasure? How about an entire town’s trash? Turns out that along with saving the Earth (and saving the taxpayers some bucks) NH’s recycling centers and transfer stations are hotbeds of creativity. By providing raw materials for artists, inspiration for teachers, even settings for the occasional birthday party, being down in the dumps sometimes means being on the path to reinvention.

With a contagiously wry smile, Gus Pappajohn scans the handful of deal hunters in his store looking for hidden treasure. Or maybe just something funky for the man cave.

“Fifty percent of the people in this world love yard sales,” he says. “The other 50 percent are liars.”

If anyone would know that, it’s Pappajohn, who’s been proprietor of The Second Chance Shop at the Bedford Transfer Station for the last 10 years. His shop has plenty of yard sale stuff — everything from a watermarked 1858 map of Hillsborough County to Helen Reddy vinyl LPs.

His store’s stock — and his easy-going manner — have made him to go-to guy for a lot of Bedford residents. “I have a little wish list in case somebody’s looking for something,” he says. “I’ll call them if it comes in. There are always people looking for all kinds of things, from a table and chairs to a bed. And, of course, they want to pick it up at a bargain price if they can.”

One popular seasonal item is inexpensive furniture for young people just starting out in an apartment or in college: “People come in here every August for their kids and then they tell them ‘just leave it there’ at the end of the semester.”

More from Mike Morin

Listen to Mike Morin talk about transfer stations on NHPR's "Word of Mouth" with Virginia Prescott.

The shop’s return policy has made him think twice about some requests, like chandeliers. He jokes that he’ll never sell any of them to men because the wives always send them back.

Whatever the items, Pappajohn says his store plays an important role in saving the town money. “Waste management is critical and very lucrative if you’re at the other end of it,” he says. “But as a municipality, it’s very expensive. So you always look at areas where you can have people recycle.  We’ve saved the town thousands and thousands of dollars over the years that I’ve been here.”

He takes pride in being a part of Bedford, and thinks of himself as a kind of ambassador to newcomers. “I’m usually the first one they see and I welcome them to Bedford, and if I can do anything to help them, I will.”

"There may be hidden treasures in transfer station stores, but sometimes the real gems are the people running them."

His position has made him one of the best-known town figures. Fans of Pappajohn have even suggested a run for local office. He’s certainly in the know about town affairs. Because he’s right in the middle of a common gathering spot, he’s privy to local town gossip. But he’s not out to get the goods on anyone — that’s not his kind of trash talking. Besides, even when your job is getting rid of things, your focus has to be on the bottom line.

Gus Pappajohn presides over The Second Chance Shop at the Bedford Transfer Station with an affable manner and genuine devotion to helping old stuff find new homes. That includes welcoming newcomers and helping them get oriented in town.
David Mendelsohn

The door of his now-closed shop opens and a young man asks Pappajohn if he has any ice skates. It’s as if there isn’t a “closed” sign on the door. Happens all the time, Pappajohn says. Just another bit of evidence that today’s transfer station isn’t your grandfather’s dump.

Although notably lacking in charm or ambiance, transfer stations in most small towns are a crossroads of community engagement and social interaction — as well as the place you to get rid of your trash. The innovation of the transfer station store or swap shop has expanded all those missions, providing a place where items can be exchanged, gossip shared and even old jokes are recycled.

And while there may be hidden treasures in transfer station stores, sometimes the real gems are the people running them. Take Diane Boyce. In 1988 she took a job as a secretary at Hooksett’s then-landfill. Today she’s not only the superintendent of the Hooksett Recycling and Transfer Department, she’s also curator of what has to be the largest collection of recycled toy trucks in the state.

It all began because landfill employees are really just big kids at heart. They picked a few discarded toy trucks out of the waste stream and inadvertently started a collection.

Now there are more than 200 mostly yellow Tonka toy construction trucks lining the horizontal beams of the department’s buildings, bumper-to-bumper, like a Friday night northbound I-93 traffic jam in July. And the back-up keeps growing.

“We started putting them on the beams and putting more on the beams,” says Boyce. Soon it became a real attraction. Visitors are given tours.

What started as an amusement for some of the “big kids” who staff the Hooksett Recycling and Transfer Department has evolved into what might be the largest collection of Tonka toy trucks and vehicles in the entire state.
David Mendelsohn

When she gave tours for school classes, the kids would ask about the trucks. Before long  they were donating them instead of throwing them out. Then kids began dragging their parents to the facility to proudly point out their donated truck on display with the others. “It just kind of blew up,” she says.

Her favorite piece? “It’s a Winnebago,” she says. “I like it because it’s different from all the other ones and it’s pretty old.”

Boyce does know her trucks. And not just toy trucks.

“I came here as a secretary and one day they needed somebody to run some of the equipment. They started training me and, when we closed the landfill, I ran the big bulldozer. I did it for about 12 years. I can run all the equipment.”

The need for that skill may have faded as landfills became transfer stations but it has made her a serious role model for Hooksett school kids taking tours of the transfer station. She remembers proudly how one teacher pointed her out to the kids and said, “Look, girls. You can do anything you want to do.”

As superintendent, Diane Boyce is a big wheel at the Hooksett Recycling Center, where she helps curate the Tonka toy truck collection.
David Mendelsohn

Perhaps it’s growing social awareness about job equality or environmental stewardship, but the transfer station has become a bona fide educational venue. And even older kids are drawn to their offbeat charm. Take, for example, some students from the Derryfield School who showed up one day.

“They came in here and went right to our metal pile,” Boyce recalls. Before she knew it, they had all picked different things out of the metal pile and were tapping on them, staging a performance.

“There weren’t too many people here,” Boyce says, “but they were awesome. They were all in tune. I asked them to come back for Earth Day. I hope they do. They would get an audience for Earth Day.”

And while you might find a Picasso painting in a transfer station thrift shop (you probably won’t) or get an improv junk rock concert, you wouldn’t expect to find yourself invited to a birthday party there, right?

You might if you are a student of Susan Dromey Heeter’s Spanish class at Saint Mary Academy in Dover. She recently organized a field trip that doubled as a student’s birthday party at Waste Management’s turnkey landfill in Rochester.

“It just happened to be Lilly’s birthday,” says Heeter. “Lilly is one of my favorite students, and I said, ‘Why don’t we make this where we don’t have to go out and buy something new?’”

The cups and plates for the party had all been purchased at second-hand stores. And the menu had a nouveau trash cuisine appeal to it that even Oscar the Grouch wouldn’t be able resist.“We had what’s called a dirt cake. It had Oreos and Gummy Worms and pudding all mashed up to kind of look like dirt. But it’s edible and it’s delicious,” she says.

So, did a party at the landfill make Lilly feel special? “I think she did,” says Heeter. “We all got a kick out of it.” Add the educational components, and it’s clear it was a win-win all the way around.

Scott Bradford of the Peterborough transfer station takes a friend on a tour. He’s collected a menagerie of discarded taxidermy specimens.
David Mendelsohn

In what is arguably the state’s most artist-rich community, it makes  sense that Peterborough Transfer Station’s recycling manager would find some creative inspiration in his work. Over Scott Bradford’s 14-year history at the facility, his hobby of building bird houses from repurposed materials has blossomed into a real business.

“I just started building them for family and then it expanded to friends,” says Bradford. From there they went to nurseries and stores for sale. He also sells at crafts fairs.

But with so many artists in the area Bradford has to keep his eyes open and act quickly to find just the right pieces for his creations. He’s not the only one looking.

“Yes, they do [come], especially from the MacDowell Colony. Every season we have many artists coming up here looking through the scrap metal, the car port and the mini mall where we have the little swap shop,” he says.

The eagle-eyed focus he maintains seems to be good for business, winning him a Recycler of the Year award. And Bradford is not shy about the progress his transfer station has made.

Artist Jane Simpson poses before one of her “recycled” creations made of paper wasp nest, beaver sticks and Atlantic beach stone on display at her J.E. Simpson Picture Framer gallery.
David Mendelsohn

“In the 14 years I’ve been here with the crew I have, which is great, I’ve turned this facility around to a nice, clean recycling center with good customer service that residents are very proud of. They’ll even bring friends and family from out of town here to show them their recycling center,” he says with a laugh.

When Bradford started doing some landscaping around the place, locals began to chip in and made the grounds look so good that it has won a couple of “downtown beautification” awards.

And, he insists, it’s even a tourist destination. He rolls off the names of distant lands that have been represented by visitors, including, notably, Peterborough, England, and Peterborough, Ontario.

Whether from near or far, all visitors to the main building encounter some unusual greeters — a whole wall of critters who had already suffered the indignity of being killed and stuffed only to be sent for landfill extinction. But, rescued by Bradford, they’ve joined a menagerie that includes a boar’s head, moose head, deer head, bison skull, blowfish and other species.

It’s definitely a step up from a trip to the incinerator.

And that’s the new logic of the transfer station. Rather than reducing things down to ash or dirt, the goal is to lift things up to new uses.

That’s what’s on the mind of Dublin artist Jane Simpson, a picture framer who also surfs the Peterborough transfer station for recycled materials for her art projects.

When Simpson encountered this composite photo of a 1929 high school class, she couldn’t resist the appeal of all those hopeful young faces. Now many of them have found their immortality as keepsake pieces of jewelry.
David Mendelsohn

“I like things that have had a previous life,” she says. “I like that someone else has handled it, looked at it. It’s been stored away in a box somewhere and other people have had it for other reasons. That interests me greatly.”

A perfect example is the class picture from the 1929 Dorchester (Mass.) High School for Girls she found in a dumpster .

“I didn’t know what I was going to do with it,” Simpson explains. “I loved the faces of all these women. I love the coloring — the way the black and white had turned sort of yellow.” She found an old mahogany wood frame that matched its age at the recycling center but it was too large. She cut it down and rejoined it to hold the print. But she wasn’t done. There was still more life to be extracted, used, lifted up. She scanned individual faces from the print, manipulated them for contrast and  turned them into the “jewels” of earrings and charms of bracelets.

Another creative recycler, who shares gallery space with Simpson at 30 Main Street in Peterborough, is artist Erin Sweeney. “When I was in art school in the early ’90s, my 3-D class was centered around cardboard,” she says, admitting she became a little obsessed with the material. “My professor called me the cardboard queen. It just stuck.” 

"'The artist community is definitely collaborative in nature,' he says. But there’s competition, too …'these guys are looking for old nails and lumber. Those things garner premium prices.'”

One of her recent pieces is a cardboard version of an old-style mailbox, but the structure was just the beginning. “I really like to have an interactive part of my installations,” she explains.

Erin Sweeney, “the cardboard queen,” works whimsically with a variety of materials and one thing sometimes leads to another. She invited visitors to her gallery space to write stories about their community, which she transposed by hand into small books made of recycled cardboard. Finally, some of the books were stitched to the hands and feet of the large cloth “figures." (She’s holding one of them on her shoulders in the photo.)
David Mendelsohn

Curiously, a mailbox is a symbol in flux, much like the transfer station. Increasingly it’s thought of as little more than a place for bills and junk mail. She wanted her installation to dig deeper. A mailbox meant something different to her.

“I was raised writing thank-you notes immediately,” she says. Inspired by that memory, she created a bundle of notes for her mailbox and invited others to participate. Dozens of people more inclined to sending e-cards and Facebook birthday greetings were suddenly composing thank-you notes to go into her mailbox. A piece of cardboard had been transformed into a gratitude magnet.

Peterborough artist, wood craftsman and former Boston union carpenter, Steven Graves, loves using recycled building materials for his creations that range from home renovations to art pieces, crafted from and framed with repurposed wood. And while scouting for himself, Graves keeps an eye out for other materials some of his friends might find useful.

“The artist community is definitely collaborative in nature,” he says. But there’s competition, too, particularly from those working in reproduction furniture. “It gets kind of cutthroat when these guys are looking for old nails and lumber. Those things garner premium prices.”  

Transfer stations like Peterborough’s are gold mines for creative types, and station personnel are used to unusual requests. Usually they make every attempt to rise to the occasion, but not always. “My ex-girlfriend wanted to get married here on our weigh scale out in the parking lot while we were open to the public,” says Bradford. “We didn’t get married.” Apparently, someone got dumped.

The modern dump usually brings people and things together. And like every good marriage, there’s always something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. Unless you’re looking for something red or green. They probably have that as well.

What's in a name?

If you think there’s nothing amusing about trash, then you might never find your way to a few of the state’s transfer stations, since puns and jokes seem to be embedded in their very locations. The following are just a few of amusing or simply apropos road names given to guide those on their way ta da dump, ta da dump, ta da dump, dump, dump.

  • BEDFORD – Bedford Junktion
  • BRISTOL – Transfer Rd.
  • CHESTER – Dump Rd.
  • HOLDERNESS – Ta Da Dump Rd.
  • LINCOLN – Recycle Rd.
  • LISBON – Ecology Dr.
  • PETERBOROUGH – Sanitation Ln.

What a dump!

The trendy tentacles of political correctness have finally reached the dump.

Oh, sorry. Transfer station. “Dump” is so 1985.

“It doesn’t offend me,” confesses Scott Bradford, recycling manager at the Peterborough Transfer Station. “I don’t correct people. It doesn’t bother me. I grew up with a burning dump in Hancock. I’m used to the word dump. But this is definitely not a dump.”

“Oh my gosh. I pick up awesome things,” says Dublin framer and artist Jane Simpson. “I think I’ve outfitted most of my friends with clothing I found at the dump.” Dump? Did you mean transfer station, Jane?

“I like to use the word because I’m an old New England Yankee and I grew up in New Hampshire, and it’s ‘the dump.’ And yes, I will use recycling center but I have to confess I think that you can find something awesome at a place called the dump. Calling it the recycling center or transfer station sort of elevates it to another level.” 

Categories: Features