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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,285

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This is the grave of George Roby Dempster.

Born in 1887 in Knoxville, Tennessee, Dempster’s life was not overly interesting in the bigger picture for its first several decades. His parents were Scottish immigrants and his father was a co-owner of a grist mill. Dempster was pretty footloose in the first years of the twentieth century. Like so many young people in that era, he took to the trains and engaged in itinerant labor, in this case more for the adventure I think than outright economic necessity. This wasn’t the kind of background where one was going to become a member of the IWW a few years later. He wasn’t a desperate man. But he was in the thick of the hardness of the American working class in this era. You rode those trains, you saw some stuff. Once, in 1903, he had to live in a hobo camp in Iowa when the railroad was doing odd jobs for got shut down for a strike. But this was no long lasting life. He graduated from high school in 1906, only a year or two later than normal.

Still up for adventure, Dempster then went to Panama to work on the Panama Canal. He already had experience in construction and with machinery and so he helped excavate the thing. This was incredibly dangerous work. The real killer–yellow fever–was recently conquered. But the work was still tremendously dangerous. These projects routinely killed a lot of people due to rock slides and other such things in an era where safety was at best an aftermath. Going back to the construction of the Erie Canal, over 1,000 workers died. By the time of the Panama Canal, concerns for slides and other basic safety issues was still pretty minimal. They happened all the time. And Dempster nearly died several times as slides would overturn his machine and he was stuck in it. He didn’t die, and I don’t think he was seriously injured either, but he easily could have died or suffered lifelong disability in an age when you were on your own if you if you got hurt. He damn near died of typhoid while down there too.

After his Panama experiences, Dempster settled in Knoxville and he and his brothers started a little construction company. They were locally successful, build up roads and small dams, that sort of thing. They got a lot of contracts, they got the work done, it was good. He was a big time Democrat, got involved in local politics, became city manager, and then convinced the state legislature to merge the city manager and mayor jobs, which he would hold. In fact, he was not good at the job and lost his 1937 reelection campaign. But naturally the owner of a little Tennessee construction company and mayor of Knoxville is not going to get a profile in something as august and famous as this grave series. No, it’s because as part of the construction company business, Dempster invented the dumpster.

That’s right, someone had to invent the dumpster and it was this guy.

Back when he was in Panama, Dempster was already experimenting in figuring out ways to empty his machines over the top of the cab for efficiency. In 1935, he and his brother introduced the dumpster, a gigantic waste container that could be lifted and dumped into a giant garbage truck.

This invention made Dempster rich. By World War II, the entire company was dedicated to building dumpsters. There was a nearly limitless demand for these in the early years. Since they last a long time, that wasn’t going to last forever per se, but this was a pretty significant invention in the history of American waste disposal. The company went on to invent the modern garbage truck in 1950, the kind of front loading garbage truck that was the ancestor to the garbage trucks on the present.

Now Dempster was super loaded and he was still super interested in Knoxville politics. He played dirty too. He and the Knoxville News-Sentinel, then and now a very Republican publication, were at total war with each other, which reached its crescendo when Dempster got the cops to raid a party where the publisher of the paper was found with illegal whiskey. This got him back into the city manager seat in 1945 (at some point I guess it was separated from the mayor’s seat again), but then he reneged on his campaign pledge to not raise taxes by suggesting new property taxes. He was forced out the next year when his enemies won the mayor’s office. Exciting stuff, I know.

But Dempster wasn’t really financially hurt by all of this. World War II had brought Oak Ridge National Laboratory to the region and an industrialist like Dempster was ready to take advantage. The company had a big factory and was a huge training facility for the welders who would later gets jobs at Oak Ridge or with the TVA.

Dempster had a last political comeback in 1951, when he became mayor. It was a disaster. The economy of the region was changing rapidly, lots of factories were closing in the city, and then he suggested another tax increase, which led to his defeat in 1955. One thing you can say about east Tennessee, these people don’t like to pay taxes. To his credit here, Dempster was much more open to desegregating the city, including in hiring, than most other southern Democrats and he hired Black people into the city government long before he was forced to do so.

Dempster died in 1964 of a heart attack. He was 77 years old. In remembrance, I don’t know, throw some trash in a dumpster. And no, I do not know if the rhyme with his last name was intentional or not. I imagine it probably was.

George Dempster is buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Knoxville, Tennessee.

If you would like this series to visit other people in the world of American trash disposal, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Helen Stewart Campbell, the home economist who did much to encourage housewives to take trash disposal seriously, is in Eliot, Maine. J. George Frederick and Christine Frederick, who came up with the term “planned obsolescence” are evidently buried apart, with him in Wyomissing, Pennsylvania and her in Glendale, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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