The Last Ashman

For many, many years, the biggest problem in waste disposal for cities wasn’t what we think of as garbage — there was hardly such a thing as packaging, what there was was biodegradable, and food waste was hardly an issue. No, the problem was the daily disposal of coal ash. Nearly every building was heated by coal, and every day a furnace, fireplace or oven was used, there was coal ash that had to be shoveled out. (Yes, there was wood ash, too.) So there was the ashman, who came around with a horse drawn wagon, added the ashes from your scuttle to his cart, and carried them off to some smoking dumping site. Swamps were filled, shorelines altered forever, by the practice of landfill.

Eventually, of course, all this changed, and the horse-drawn cart gave way to motorized trucks. By 1947, Joseph Bell was recognized as the last ashman in Albany. The Knickerbocker News reported on him under the headline, “Ashman with Horse, Wagon Helps Adjust ‘Wild’ World.”

“Joseph Bell, who says he’s the only ashman in Albany still using a horse-drawn dump wagon, hasn’t adjusted himself to the ‘wild’ modern world — he finds ways of adjusting the world to his ways.
“A strenuous worker at 72, he has convinced the Embossing Company, 20 Pruyn, and one apartment house owner that he and his two horses can take care of their ashes as well as any truckman. And some small farms still want his team for plowing and cutting and harvesting hay.
“Although he works around his own farm at 549 Delaware Ave. until he’s ready to drop into bed, he says life is easy now. ‘I don’t bother to work hard anymore,’ His days of real hard work were before steam shovels and bulldozers came onto every construction job. Then he dug cellars with an iron scoop drawn by his horses and built concrete foundations by hand.
“’Now everyone is wild with speed, the way they work,’ he says, and he has had to give ground to the machine. ‘But still I make a better living with my horses than plenty of truckmen do.’
“Mr. Bell has lived and worked along all his life. At 16 he left his family’s farm in Germany and came to this country to work in a Pennsylvania coal mine. He didn’t like it, and soon headed north to Albany, where for 50 years he and his various teams of horses have worked independently.
“There’s a legend among the Embossing Company workers that Mr. Bell won a fortune in a sweepstakes, which enabled him to buy the old Bohl farm where he now lives. The workers say he collects ashes now because he can’t stop working. But he says he has earned every nickel. He never married and has no relatives in this country.
“Every morning he drives his two horses, Nick, 13, and Jim, 8, down to the Embossing Company. He shovels the ashes about six feet up over the high side of his 25-year-old wagon, and in 15 minutes has it full. Then he drives it to a dump, pulls a lever and the load falls through the wagon floor.”

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