‘Don’t you recycle?’

Putting a plastic item in a bin is nothing compared to the culture of reusing we’ve lost


For all I know, there could be waterfalls in International Falls, butter in Butterfield and saints in St. Peter. But — for sure — there are no moose in Moose Lake.

My friend, retired airline pilot and writer, Dale Hagfors, told me this. And Dale ought to know. Moose Lake is his ancestral home; his immigrant grandparents settled there in 1919.

A “Hagfors Road” west of town identifies their original property.

Realizing recycling was a way of life for these subsistence farmers — which they passed along to their offspring — recently caused Dale to lament:

I can’t help but chuckle when one of my kids chastises me for tossing some plastic item into the garbage. 

“Don’t you recycle?” they ask, as though to pull me from the dark ages of waste and pollution. 

When I try to explain that I’ve been recycling the important stuff since before they were born, and then attempt to launch into some constructive dialogue, I can see their eyes glaze over. 

When I was a boy, recycling was simply a way of life. Nothing was thrown away that had possibilities of being used again. When the Great Depression was ended and the world was at war, waste became even less of an option.

Tin cans were flattened and collected along with rags by the ragman. Newspapers and magazines were saved for the “paper drives” at the local schoolyard. Used foil and string were rolled into large balls. 

Tires were retreaded and booted until they had no life left. 

Hand-me-downs were a fact of life. My brother was two years older, so I got everything he’d already worn, and sometimes these were used items from aunts or uncles.

The war ended, but the mindset continued. 

Our mothers saved and traded buttons, scraps and sewing patterns, while we kids swapped comic books. Used flour sacks inevitably became aprons or dish towels.

Our dads usually had garages or basements with collections of used nails, bolts and such, sorted in coffee cans. Scraps of wood were stored in the corners for future projects. Even drain oil would find an eventual use somewhere. 

More often than not, when the family car needed a part, a trip to a salvage yard was in order. My dad was reluctant to buy “new” if “used” was available for half the price. Besides, he would reason, “What sense is there in having a new part in an old car?”

I must confess that the contents of my garage today are similar to what I remember of my father’s. My brother, who has a seasonal place next door, never goes to the hardware store without first checking my garage.

You could say I’ve always been recycling, but my kids wouldn’t understand.

Incidentally, just as there are no longer any moose in Moose Lake, there are no Hagforses living along Hagfors Road today.

Not so incidentally, more of Dale’s reminiscences will appear in future issues of Good Age.

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess. Writer her at [email protected].