Good job! Thanking those who do what others don’t want to

Every honest job is a good job, but there definitely are some that are dirtier than others.

Laid off from his sawmill job in Bellingham, Washington at the onset of the Great Depression, Grandpa Winters eventually found employment with the federal Works Progress Administration. He spent his days applying creosote to railroad ties, often thigh deep in the noxious tar that no doubt contributed to his death some years later. And then there was Grandpa Bell, who spent his last years coughing up coal dust he had inhaled decades earlier in the mines.

Our region and nation are endowed with millions of such men and women, working without complaint to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads. It’s impossible to live here very long without learning of the amazing sacrifices made by loggers, sawmill workers and fishermen during early settlement days and for decades thereafter — the sailing gillnetters swept out to sea and the men crushed between logs. “Sacrifice” is no mere rhetorical term in describing these losses. It’s as if this land demanded payment in blood.

There still are plenty of dirty and dangerous jobs here in coastal Oregon and Washington. A few of them — such as Columbia River bar pilot, U.S. Coast Guard surfman — even have a certain amount of “glamor” attached, though the holders of these jobs may be amused to see them described as such. Commercial fishing employment is still grueling and risky, but delivers brief spurts of satisfying pay. Logging still claims lives, even though technology means far fewer are employed in the woods.

One of the pleasures of publishing Coast River Business Journal is the license it gives us to shine a light on local people who are going about their lives, showing up for work on time and doing what’s necessary to make homes in this spectacular place. This month we decided to select several jobs that some might consider “dirty” and allow their practitioners to explain how they got involved, what they’ve learned and what they enjoy about careers that might turn others off. The idea was sparked by a Facebook posting about a business devoted to picking up dog droppings — one of the profiles in this issue.

Disgusting as that may seem, it’s nothing compared to what the same activity used to consist of centuries ago, when troops of men, women and children used to go around the streets collecting what was then called “pure” — great quantities of dog manure sold for use in the leather-tanning process. The stench of such ingredients was, in medieval London, one reason tanneries were located downwind east of the city walls. That’s where my immigrant ancestor John Winters lived before becoming one of America’s first tanners by 1636. I don’t know what he did for dog droppings in colonial Massachusetts — wolf poop, perhaps?

What constitutes a “dirty job” definitely is in the eye of the beholder. The five we selected this month are ordinary work that somebody needs to do. We could have chosen a hundred different occupations, and had enough fun this month that we may revisit the topic again soon and explore some others.

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