Cheryl Ward stands next to her truck in the driveway of her home on Harpswell Neck in January. (J.W. Oliver photo)
After more than 30 years of picking up trash and recyclables from hundreds of customers throughout Harpswell, Cheryl Ward made her last rounds in December.
Ward’s dependable schedule and friendly nature made her popular with customers. She grew the business to almost 300 stops before scaling back in recent years.
Ward, from Florida, first came to Harpswell with her grandfather to visit relatives. She liked the area and found “love at first sight” with a young local, Lewis Ward Jr.
She moved to Harpswell in 1982, 16 years old and four months pregnant with their first child. They married in 1984.
Ward cleaned houses and detailed vehicles to make money, then started to pick up trash for Bailey’s Store, in Harpswell Center, with her car. Later, she went to work for a cousin of her husband’s, Johnny Gilliam. Gilliam had a small garbage business, charging $2.50 per pickup.
Ward’s husband drowned while lobstering in 1991, leaving her to raise three young children on her own. Soon thereafter, she took over Gilliam’s route.
The business grew by word-of-mouth, as Ward gained a reputation for her dedication. She bought her first truck, a 1978 Ford, for $75. Her first brand-new truck was a 2002 GMC.
She would pick up trash in the Cundy’s Harbor area on Tuesdays, Orr’s and Bailey islands on Wednesdays, and Harpswell Neck on Fridays. The Neck route was often the busiest. On off days, she would take on side jobs, like picking up brush or construction debris.
She would start her routes by 8:30 a.m. and finish in time to empty the truck at the recycling center before the 4 p.m. closing time. In the summertime, she would cut it close. During the winter, she might finish by 1:30.
It’s a dirty job. “You have to have a strong stomach,” Ward said. The nastiest part of the job: maggots. During the summer, the squirming creatures proliferate in sweltering barrels full of clam and lobster shells. “I just put my gloves on,” Ward said.
From Gilliam’s $2.50 per pickup, the fee ticked up to a flat rate of $30 per month. The business allowed Ward to raise her children and build her home on Harpswell Neck. The kids each rode with her at times. When they were big enough, they helped with the work.
Ward was a favorite of customers and their dogs, catching up with the humans and bringing treats for the canines. She would volunteer to pick up trash for local events, like bean-hole suppers, chicken barbecues and shore dinners.
In recent years, Ward allowed the number of customers to dwindle to about 120. Finally, she had to give up the business completely.
“The only reason why I’m getting done is because of my body,” she said. The work is physically taxing. She would hurl trash over the side of her truck’s dump body and climb into the bed to stomp it down. Sometimes she had a helper. Much of the time she was alone.
“I thought I could go till I was 65,” said Ward, 57. “I swore I was going to, but I can’t.” She has arthritis and back pain, and her strength is not what it once was. “I just hurt,” she said.
“I already miss my people,” she said. “That was my life. I have no routine right now.”
“A lot of my customers have been with me since day one,” she said, and they have grown close. Many gave her cards when she notified them of her plans.
Maggie Baribeau signed on as a customer when she moved to Harpswell Neck in 1997 and stayed with Ward for 25 years. “She’s always been dependable and just a lovely person, pleasant all the time,” Baribeau said. Baribeau admires Ward, calling her a “self-made woman.”
If Ward was going to miss a pickup because of weather or travel, she would always notify customers in advance and pick up on another day.
“She didn’t raise her prices but once, maybe twice, over the years,” Baribeau said, calling her rates “very affordable.” When she did raise her prices, she informed customers of the modest increase and explained that she needed to replace her truck.
“She was very, very emotional the last day she came, as were we,” Baribeau said.
“People are sad and I’m sad but I can’t keep going,” Ward said.
She explored selling the business, offering her client base and truck for $100,000. But a prospective buyer opted to start a competing business instead. Ward has recommended another service, R.C. Rogers & Sons, to her customers.
She hopes to sell her work truck, a 2015 Ram 3500 with a diesel engine, for $50,000.
She is not ready to retire altogether. She took January off, her first vacation in more than three decades. “When you’re self-employed, you can’t take time off,” she said. She planned to travel to Florida with her brother at the end of the month.
Even a short break feels foreign. “I don’t know what to do with myself,” she said on Jan. 11.
Now a grandmother of five and great-grandmother of one, Ward also has four dogs. “My furry kids find it strange too,” she said of her change in routine.
Come February, she plans to look for a job, perhaps in the kitchen at Bowdoin College or at a Brunswick bakery. She hopes to find a position with benefits after 31 years without.
“I’m not a sit-still person,” she said. “I’m bored.”