For the past 35 years in Custer, Tim Sander has been trash.
Let us explain.
Since he first climbed in a garbage truck in 1982 for the first time for what would become Sander Sanitation, Sander has been synonymous with trash collection in Custer County and throughout the region. Tim turned a one-truck, two-person operation into one of the most recognizable business names in Custer and the Black Hills, and 53 years after he first started slinging trash for his father at age 14, Tim has sold his business and retired.
Tim began to think about retirement five years ago due to his age and the fact that none of his three children — Clayton, Nastel or Mandy — wanted to take over the business.
While Tim is exiting the garbage business on his own terms, he didn’t necessarily enter it on his own terms. Rather, he was born into it, one might say, and it kept pulling him back every time he tried to get away.
Tim’s father, Lester Sander, was the original garbage-hauler of the family, having an agreement with the city to pick up its trash in exchange for paying the city 3 percent of what he collected on fees. When the Forest Service demanded the old dump site at the intersection of what is now Sylvan Lake and Willow Creek roads be closed, the elder Sander decided it was time to retire. He made an offer to his son to help him keep the family business operating, but Tim declined, wanting to do something else.
When Tim turned 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, thinking it would get him away from the trash- hauling business he had done four years with his father.
“My first job (in the Marine Corps) was picking up cigarette butts,” he said with a laugh. “So I was back to picking up trash.”
Not only that, whenever he came home on leave, he helped his father with trash collection. The final 30-day leave he took as a Marine came after his father had surgery and needed his son’s help with trash collection. Part of the reason he didn’t stay in the Marines, he said, was his father’s need for help with the business.
After leaving the Marines and his father’s retirement, Tim tried many jobs, including making fence posts and poles and logging.
“It didn’t take me long to go broke,” he said of the latter.
He enrolled in an ironworkers’ apprenticeship and spent the next nine years in that trade, helping build such things as Spearfish High School, Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, Rushmore Mall and pipeline for Homestake Mine’s lagoons.
As the jobs in that industry took Tim further from home, the more he wanted a change. He and his late wife, Kim, wanted to live and raise their children in Custer. Soon thereafter he went back into the woods working for a contractor. It wasn’t long before trash came calling again.
In the fall of 1981, the company collecting the trash for Custer went bankrupt, with Tim saying the owner of the company at the time left town, leaving behind his wife to inform the Custer City Council their garbage wasn’t going to get picked up.
Black Hills Refuse told the council it would pick up the trash, but was prepared to tack a hefty price tag onto the collection, knowing full well it had the city over a barrel with nowhere to turn for trash collection.
The city and Black Hills Refuse entered into a 120-day contract, and one of the council members turned to Tim and asked if he was interested in the garbage business. Tim told him that’s why he was there.
Shortly thereafter, he and Kim were in Rapid City to visit with garbage equipment dealers whom his father had dealt with nine years previously. They also came into contact with a new dealer who turned out to be helpful for both equipment and financing.
As he and his wife were set to leave that office, another city council person tracked them down and told them they had received notice from Black Hills Refuse that due to “legalities” they would not be able to honor the full 120 days of the contact. Their collection of Custer’s trash would end Jan. 31.
Another emergency council meeting resulted in the council putting out bids for a garbage service. Tim, Kim, Tim’s parents and one of the equipment salesmen came up with a business plan and a price per household for collection of their trash. The city drew up an ordinance that made garbage collection mandatory and a part of the city’s billing process, along with water and sewer.
The bids were so close that at first the council didn’t know to whom to give the job. Tim and Kim eventually won and received their first contract.
With only one garbage truck in the operation (and it being the first truck in the state to use an automated side load with a mechanical arm) Sander Sanitation Service was born, with Tim the lone truck driver and Kim at his side.
For three years, it remained just the couple working at the business. By the summer of 1985, however, business was booming and Tim was spending 15-18 hours a day in the lone garbage truck, recalling one time he spent 36 straight hours in the truck.
“Even my own dad told me I was crazy,” he said.
Although he was home every night, he wasn’t seeing his children, as they were in bed when he woke up and when he got home. He and Kim realized they either had to get bigger or sell out. They got bigger.
With the help of a loan, the Sanders bought a second garbage truck and brought a brother-in-law into the fold. Tim and the brother-in-law both drove a truck and, by this time, they moved part of the operation to where the transfer station now sits, which had been constructed by the man who took over the trash collection operation after Lester Sander retired.
The business continued to grow. For 13 years, Sander had a branch in Gillette, Wyo., before selling it in 2011. More trucks were purchased and more services were added. By 1993, Sander Sanitation was offering roll-off dumpsters, portapotties and septic truck services. The business grew from one garbage truck to 14 trucks, including semis, transfer trucks and roll-off trucks.
When he sold his business earlier this year, he had 22 employees and contracts that see Sander collect trash for a variety of entities from the Nebraska state line to the south and Ft. Meade to the north as well as from the Cheyenne River to the east and the Wyoming state line to the west.
Sander Sanitation gave Tim the freedom to be his own boss and make a living to raise his family. Collecting trash even gave him a chance to meet his wife; she worked at a grocery store that young Tim would collect trash from with his father. Trash has been his life, and it’s been a good run.
“It’s been a business that has been really good to me and my family,” he said. “It’s kind of like any utility; it’s there every week.”
Sander said one would be surprised how political trash can be and remains. He said something he missed out on in the business was the time, like when his dad collected the trash, when the collector would see 30 percent of their customers and be able to engage them in conversation or at least say hi. These days, the collector maybe sees a couple of their customers before it’s on to the next one.
“I got to the point the last few years if I was out in a truck I wanted to go out in a septic truck,” he said. “When you show up to do someone’s septic tank, it’s a good opportunity to visit, get acquainted or get reacquainted.”
As one might imagine, in over 44 total years of collecting trash, Tim has some stories to tell. He frequently gets asked what the strangest things he has ever seen thrown away, but there are too many to mention.
“I guarantee you, if you want something, if you wait long enough, it will come through the garbage,” he said.
One such thing he recalls was a brand new bright green plaid shirt that still had the tags on it. It fit, so Sander took it home for when he gave presentations on recycling to school-aged children. When they asked for an example of something he had discovered in the trash, all he had to do was point at his shirt.
“I saved it for that reason for a long time,” he said.
The other thing that gets thrown away more often than it should is money.
“It’s pretty rare when you can’t go up to the transfer station and walk across the floor and pick up change,” he said.
One evening he and an employee were unloading a truck and came across an unusual number of pennies. Before long, they discovered that someone had thrown away a penny collection. The employee kept the pennies and folders they came in and still has them.
It’s not just change, however; the type of money that folds can often be found in the garbage as well.
“I never found a hundred dollar bill, but I had employees who did,” he said. “I had at least four employees who found hundred dollar bills. Mine was mostly change.”
The change Tim is discovering now is the kind that will see him go from being owner of his own company to spending more time at home and with his grandchildren. Chasing cows, fixing fence and chopping bug trees is his new line of work as he settles into his new life that doesn’t involve being the man in charge at Sander Sanitation. That change has pros and cons.
“(I won’t miss) the phone calls and being on constant demand,” he said. “The buck stopped here. I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t need that anymore.”
The buck now stops with Chad Gollnick, who purchased the business from Sander in April. Gollnick also owns Iron Outfitter, a heavy-built waste and recycling equipment manufacturing company in Black Hawk. It is Tim’s hope his customers will continue to be loyal customers of Sander Sanitation, which will keep the same name under Gollnick’s watch.
Tim said he greatly appreciates his customers for their loyalty and support throughout the years, saying the personal contact with his customers is the thing he will miss the most.
“I always enjoyed that — the visiting,” he said. “And I will always miss that.”