Each morning Stan Nichols climbs into his white pickup, loads up Josey, his Jack Russell Terrier and Lilly, his Toy Poodle, and turns toward the Orlis Cox Sports Complex, 901 W. Second St., Ottawa. He passes the ball fields and crosses the dike. That’s when his job starts.
Since February, Nichols has been driving along the gravel road, stopping to pick up trash until he reaches the Second Street Dam.
Thursday was no different. Nichols slowly drives along the road. When he spots even the smallest piece of trash, Nichols stops his truck and uses a trash picker to grab the item and places it in a five-gallon bucket. On this day, as he stops for the second time he finds an empty Taco Johns cup.
“The closest Taco Johns I know of is in Lawrence,” he said. “They might be today’s trash generator winner.”
When Nichols moved to his home on Pine Street, he reconnected with one of his childhood memories, riding a bike with his friends to the dam and going fishing. Nichols remembered riding his bike down Seventh Street which was a dirt road then. The dike was not there at the time and the river ran free, but he and his friends would ride to the dam which was built in 1952. Nichols had two large tin cans strapped to the back of his bike to hold his fishing pole.
“Back then you had the Dairy Queen, you had A&W Root Beer,” Nichols said. “The Dairy Queen served items in paper cups and A&W served their root beer in glass mugs. So back then there wasn’t all the trash that’s generated now with our throw-away society. And that’s why I get on the trash generators because I honestly don’t think they do enough to clean up their own mess. So consequently people get used to that and they get used to littering.”
The first time he drove the route, Nichols said, he was shocked at the trash and debris that lined the road. The area had become neglected. A place where those who used the dam to fish or to just relax was blighted by the litter, glass and drug paraphernalia that was discarded. Along with picking up the trash, Nichols got some help reminding people not to litter. Signs along the route say, “Please Keep it Clean.” Nichols said a friend took on that project.
“I can’t even explain how much trash there was,” he said. “I had a friend of mine, Ed Jukes, that works at the National Sign Company in Ottawa. I had him make four signs that he donated along with the hardware and posts. The city crew came down and put them up. In the first two weeks that I started, I filled up four five-gallon buckets a day, enough to fill up two 55 gallon barrels in about an hour and half to two hours.”
The first time he drove the route, he also noticed that the road was not in great shape. He said it was pretty muddy on the first trip but now, thanks to the City of Ottawa, they have graded the road and put a crown to it that was not there before.
Another sign points drivers to the dam area which goes past the water plant. Nichols said a security camera that protects the water plant along with signs warning of the surveillance kept some people away.
“The signs on the fence say ‘Attention Closed Circuit Television,’ so when people came down here they were afraid to go any farther because of the way the signs read. So I made a sign and eventually people that had never been down here got used to going on past there to where the dam is.”
Along the fence line as people drive toward the dam are trophies placed by past fishermen. The head of a large channel catfish caught over the years has been impaled on each fence post. Visitors start the drive seeing mostly the skeletal remains but find more intact fish as they near the turn toward the dam.
“I guess it’s just braggadocio, which is fine,” he said.
Just before the dam, a large tree stump sits in an area surrounded by a gravel turnaround. Nichols said he has not asked for permission but he would like to make the tree a place where residents can honor current and past servicemen by placing signs on the stump that point to wherever they served.
“We’re going to do something special with the stump,” he said. “We’re going to call it the soldier’s tree. During the Vietnam War, at the river bottoms that are closed off now, people would come and put a yellow ribbon around a tree. There were hundreds of them representing soldiers in the war. It will be another reason for people to come down here.”
Nichols parks his truck next to a line of large rocks that keep vehicles from driving too close to the river. He gets out and again grabs his bucket and trash-picker. He heads down the cement stairs to a landing. When he first came to the dam there was water and mud on the landing that rain washed down the steps and over the ledge. The city installed a cement ramp that now catches the water and directs it away from the steps. Then Nichols painted the railing giving the area a clean, new look.
He points out four holes in the cement below the railing that once secured a plaque honoring Dwight Haworth who owned the Construction company that built the dam. He said it had long ago been stolen but he is trying to get in touch with the Haworth family to see if any pictures remain so he can duplicate the plaque and hang it again.
There is a cement wall that separates the landing from the river bank. It was there that Nichols found graffiti lining the wall full of the kind of words he didn’t want to explain to his grandkids, he said. So he came up with a plan to cover up the graffiti. He did that with stencils made by Schuff Steel Midwest in Ottawa.
“They made a stencil out of plate steel so I can reuse it,” he said. “The stencil spells out the words ‘2nd Street Dam, Don’t Litter.’ I made a template of fish out of plywood and came down with my 6-year-old grandson and painted fish over the graffiti. I had to keep telling him, ‘up stream, up stream, fish swim up stream.’ So we did that and now if people come down and deface it, I can undeface as quick as they can deface it.”
Although he started alone, he enjoyed the help of his family and Ottawa residents in the clean-up effort. There is a trail just off the concrete platform that Nichols can not manage to walk on. He said his son and grandson have taken over the cleanup of that area and come regularly to work on it. Others have caught the vision as well, so many that Nichols can not name them all. His efforts have been praised on the city’s website as well.
His vision for the area includes the soldier’s tree stump and possibly a picnic area across the parking lot. The area is a beautiful spot to just sit and relax even if you are not fishing, he said. You can hear the running water and Nichols said when the water level is right, you can see the channel cats maneuver through the water.
He finishes picking up trash at the dam and climbs back in his truck. He heads back the way he came, stopping just before coming to Ottawa’s Hope Cemetery, 1199 W. Second St., Ottawa. That’s when Josey starts to get excited in the back seat. Nichols lets her out and she knows where he is headed, to the back of the cemetery.
Nichols turns in the cemetery and heads north. Josey keeps pace running beside the truck. At the back of the cemetery is another area he keeps clean. He said its a popular area for people to come to and although there is a trash can right next to it, he still finds a lot of trash there.
“I advocate that if you bring it in you take it out,” he said. “I have a hard time understanding when people don’t do that. You watch people come down and they are looking out for the area. You still have the bad apples, the beer throwers, stuff like that. Those are few and far between now.”
When he is finished, Josey jumps in the truck and they head back home. The area is left better than when they found it, just as he likes it.