Feeding uneaten and spoiled food to pigs was not the first option. When the odor of piled up garbage and the vermin that feasted on it became too much to bear, it was thrown into the Grand River. So much was tossed into that waterway that in 1895 the Army Corps of Engineers said floating garbage had become a navigation hazard.”Whenever there is a need, before long, you will find an entrepreneur with a better idea.”  Take for instance, “piggeries,” a story I wrote as part of Last Chance Mile: The Reinvention of an American Community. Piggeries were a short-lived, commercialized effort to systematize what had been a natural way to dispose of garbage. Grand Rapidians would throw their uneaten food out the back door. Wild animals would eat it. It was nature’s way. It worked until so many people moved into Grand Rapids that too much garbage was created for even the wild animals to eat. The piggery concept was born.

Alvah Brown had a better idea. He signed a $1,200 contract with the city of Grand Rapids to haul away its garbage. It is possible that Alvah neglected to tell city leaders what he was doing with it. Perhaps they didn’t ask. He was trucking it to what is now a southeast side Grand Rapids neighborhood, at Alger and Plymouth, where he cooked the garbage, mixed it with water, and fed it to 500 pigs. But the smell of that proved so atrocious that Brown was forced to move his operation into the countryside.

Two other agribusiness entrepreneurs soon formed their own piggery operations, and Grand Rapids had its first piggery cluster. But Grand Rapids failed to become the Piggery City. The garbage the pigs were eating made their pork taste so bad, that the pigs could not be sold to pork producers. There was also one documented case of pigs eating peaches that had been thrown away after being pickled in alcohol. They were what they ate. The pigs collapsed, too drunk to stand.

Enter the practice of the chemical incineration of garbage.

The need for improved sanitation in Grand Rapids led to another better idea from yet another entrepreneur that last a while longer and was markedly more successful.

No one worried about littering at the turn of the twentieth century. Everyone just did it. And spitting? Every man who chewed tobacco, and there were few who did not, felt free to let a long stream of tobacco juice fly when needed.

All of that spitting and littering and open garbage led to thousands of flies. The insects were everywhere there were people in Grand Rapids, and along with flies, came disease. Flies were such a problem in the homes of Grand Rapids that a new business was created to manufacture a brand of flypaper called Tanglefoot.

Ribbons of the sticky paper were hung in Grand Rapids homes for years to capture flies.

It was a better idea, but not good enough.

Families still battled flies “that swarmed by the hundreds” at supper time, using whatever was at hand to chase the insects out of their kitchens that usually doubled as dining rooms.

Window screens would be the next “better idea.”

Two of the more recent better ideas in metro Grand Rapids have involved entrepreneurs, government officials and community leaders.

In my next GRAPE blog, I will tell the stories of these better ideas involving trees and beer. Until then, what about your better idea, or the better idea that you’ve heard about? Let me know, I’d like to learn more. Email me anytime at rod@rodkackley.com. More of my writing is available at www.rodkackley.com

Rod Kackley is a journalist and author who has written for Crain’s Detroit Business, MiBiz, and The Detroit News. He is also the author of Last Chance Mile: The Reinvention of an American Community, a book that tells the story of the creation of Grand Rapids’ Medical Mile. For more information please go to www.rodkackley.com

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