Cover Story: A Way of Life

An old woman and her land stand firm in the shadow of Mt. Rumpke

Jul 11, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Jon Hughes/

Handle Bar Ranch

I knew to arrive from the east, via the Mount Healthy exit from I-275. Off the ramp, you take a turn and descend into the valley that masks the Rumpke landfill rising like a mythical volcano.

Come the other way, where Colerain Avenue becomes Ohio Rt. 27 on street signs, and you're lost before you've started. What will appear later, after the forged mountain looms over you ominously, can rest only in the shadows, forever gloomed by first impressions.

As I approach Handle Bar Ranch, happy to be swaddled by memories of my youth, the rock and wood emerge. I see instantly the ability to make a mark on this place, this land, a mark that stands in earnest against change.

You can toss aside the thumping pace of the city, wiggle into a corner of lost land and carve forever your name. If done correctly, with patience and care and respect for that land, the place you carve will seem not worked by human hands, not wrestled in war against a place, not undeniably foreign, but as if sprouting from the forest, the grass and the creeks. It will seem as if it belongs.

Anna Gay Ritter is one of the few, certainly in our present time, who's created that signature on land, that mark of a life well wrought. To lose Handle Bar Ranch would be the same as losing deer from this place, or black walnut trees and slippery creeks. It wouldn't be the same.

Environmetalists like to speak of indicator species — those large, charismatic megafauna such as bear and wolves that, when thinning or lost, indicate troublesome aspects of an ecological zone. For Colerain Township and Greater Cincinnati, Handle Bar Ranch is fast becoming our most likely indicator species. For decades the ranch has been encroached upon, pushed to limits those other megafauna would have fled from long ago.

But Anna remains. Where else would she and her ranch move to?

A place lost in time
In the early 1940s Percy Ritter, Anna's husband, purchased this land, nearly 30 acres, and began tinkering.

"He liked building things," Anna says of "Ritt," as she calls him.

Her house, across the street from Handle Bar Ranch, riding high atop another hill, was built by Ritt. By hand. Materials taken from the surrounding land.

The ranch encompasses eight of the 30 acres owned today by Anna. Eight acres bordered by two creeks with structures, small in size, all made of rock and wood. Squared rocks, dressed to fit in each allotted spot, form the open-air patios and terraces and steps and columns.

Those rocks, thousands upon thousands, were taken from the creek in front of the ranch. Worked from the water, dressed for the occasion and placed forever in Anna's signature.

Most of the wood that caresses the rock came from these very hills. Black walnut darkened with creosote. Immovable structures.

A cabin sits timeless in the center of the ranch. Ritt purchased the cabin long ago, carefully marked each timber, disassembled, moved and reassembled here, as though it always belonged.

The pieces that bore the name of this place have long since been removed. Handle Bar Ranch came to be when Ritt purchased, stored and rented 48 vintage Schwinn bicycles here. The Ritters stripped the plastic seats, added springs for cushion and leather for comfort and durability. Forty-eight leather-seated cruisers to circle the valley were made available to families, friends, church groups and any other gatherings that sought to spend a day picnicking and playing in a uniquely crafted dent of landscape.

Less than a mile from the ranch, riding atop another hillside, the home of my youth still stands. During those summer and autumn months, lights like fireflies would flutter down our street. Packs at a time. Gleaming slowly. Those lights were generated from the spin of each front tire. The people would ride and laugh, and a carnival of flickering lights would pass in front of our home.

Insurance prices ended the roll of bicycles. After all, it's a business. Ritt and Anna decided, some time ago, that Handle Bar Ranch needed another attraction, something more than the impressive rock structures and bicycles. They decided on hay rides.

"One day my husband says, 'I think we're going to have hay rides,' " Anna says. "I say, 'What's a hay ride?' And he says, 'You get a truck, put hay in it and ride around.' And I say, 'Is that fun?' "

She laughs for a minute and then adds, "I've never been on a hay ride. Never have. You got to stay next to the telephone."

Today, those hay rides are the staple of Handle Bar Ranch. If you know of this place, you know of the hay rides and the long flatbed trucks with painted pictures of Indian art on the sides.

You know this place holds magic. What you don't know is the frail, gray woman who runs Handle Bar Ranch, what unique character created this place. What you don't know is the struggle she's faced, wrinkled and dignified, against the cone of rotting garbage that hides just beyond her hillsides. I roll along hoping to hear her story.

The office of Handle Bar Ranch sits on the other side of Hughes Road, black logs and a Spanish tile roof, no more than 50 square feet. Cautiously I walk to the office, scanning the images nestled in the earth around.

The place looks lost in time, transported but deftly deposited. Wind whispers through walnut trees as I walk closer to the office and notice the rock bridge, no more than 4 feet wide, that crosses the creek running along the road.

The ranch appears timeless but tucked away, secretly recording the passage of weeks, months, years and decades. The bridge in front of the office used to slope away from the ranch, graded slightly downhill to force rainwater out onto the street. That was planned some 60 years ago.

Today, as I walk closer, I notice the bridge nearly 2 1/2 feet below the packed asphalt road.

She's always been gray
I peer into the office and see the wooden table inside. A lone black book sits in the center with a wooden pencil sharpened nearly to the butt. It's the same type of book, identical, to the one Anna has always used. Inside it are dates and times and names of people who will breathe life into this place.

I smile then. The datebook on the table rekindles my hope. Handle Bar is still alive. Anna Gay Ritter fights on.

I turn from the office, back across Hughes Road, and peer up the hillside crowded with trees. Her house sits on the hill, blackened wood and rock like the ranch below. Up the crumbled concrete driveway I walk slowly, looking at the house as it appears and grows in size. I'm walking into a fairy tale.

The castle sits atop the hill. Rising from the center of the house is a tower, three stories high. I wonder if the promised maid rests there.

If she does, I know she isn't young. Not waiting on Prince Charming. But in some way this place beckons rescue, asks in quiet beauty to be saved. I think as the hill unwillingly drops below me about the inside of the house. The real story starts inside those walls.

A dog barks loudly as I round the last row of crooked rock steps. She has always had a dog. This one sounds ferocious. Good. She could use a ferocious mutt howling at her door.

A few knocks and I wait. I can hear her making her way slowly. The door opens and standing some 4-foot-10-inches she smiles, looks at me from head to toe and remembers instantly.

"Well, Mr. Kleeman, how are you?" she asks. "Come on in."

She looks good. Aged and wrinkled and fired from inside with a force I cannot define. Her white hair winds madly from beneath a ball cap. Einstein. She looks like the famed genius.

We walk through her living room. I see the black grand piano still placed in the center of the room. I wonder if she still plays. She taught my brother to play. Or tried to.

On the walls are canvases transformed with paint and passion into living images of horses and dogs and people. Her artistry was never confined to one singular genre. It spread, like wildfire out of control, to every shape and form around her. Her life is marked with creativity.

I look from the piano and paintings to her. I see that time has been chasing her recently, and gaining ground. But she wears the age like a gown, elegantly. I can't imagine her young. Age somehow completes her.

Down from the folds of her face my eyes see her left arm. Just above the wrist it's twisted 90 degrees from the lower portion of her forearm. She broke it a while back. But doctors were never close to her heart, so instead of having a cast of eight weeks to correct the deformity she chose to live with a crooked arm. The sight doesn't surprise me.

I remember when I was young and she dislocated her shoulder. With a limp arm hanging at her side, my father took her to the emergency room. She didn't have a choice that time. I didn't go with them, but what happened there has always solidified my image of her.

She refused pain medication. Refused to be numbed. My father laughs as he tells the story, like every time before, and shakes his head in disbelief. "That doctor looked at her and shrugged his shoulders and said, 'Alright, lady.' He stuck his foot in her armpit and yanked the shoulder back into place."

When the joint popped back into socket, she didn't scream or cry or show any sign of pain. She stood, with my father, and went home.

We sit on a bench in a small room with stucco walls. Dino, that howling beast, lies at my feet and licks my hand. We talk about my family and what my siblings and parents have been up to. Small talk between friends.

I wonder how old she must be now. I have only known her to be gray. A black-and-white photo of her is on the wall in front of me. She's young and beautiful in that image, and the eyes breathed fire even then.

I don't ask her age though. What business is it of mine if she's 80 or 90 or 100? If she wanted me to know, she'd say.

We begin talking about the past, about my youth in this place. My connection. My first job.

At the age of 10, armed with a chrome bicycle and the unbridled curiosity of youth, I followed my two older brothers down our street and into a world where creativity ruled and work was merely an expression.

I picked weeds between rocks. Small slivers of grass and dandelions, seemingly week, insignificant and no match for thick and mighty rock and concrete. But those miniscule beginnings of plant life, if left alone, would slowly dismantle the stone. So I picked and plucked for 25 cents an hour. And happy to do so.

She laughs as I talk and latches on to images of time-gone-by but never gone. I remember Brat Sittin', as she termed it. I remember the idiotic urban legends pimply-faced teen-agers tossed around for laughs and machismo.

I refuse to repeat the legends, though. They were ignorant and false but a part of teen life in these parts. But teen-agers can't come and look; they haven't learned to respect things yet. And so, when they came late at night armed with spray paint and beer bottles, we sat waiting, hidden, Brat Sittin'.

In the beds of hay trucks with tarps concealing us, my brother, Anna and I would wait. When the sun dropped completely and nightfall descended upon us, we'd laugh and talk and wait for the first squeal of tires around the bend. When we heard voices, loud and drunken and gearing up for mischief, we'd spring from the bed of the truck and yell and flap our arms. Scared senseless, the teens would run, leaving beer and paint behind, and what began with burning rubber ended with burning rubber.

As we talk and reminisce, another visitor enters her house. His name is Steve. I know him. We went to the same grade school. He was my oldest brother's age.

Now a police officer for Colerain Township, Steve still helps during his off-hours. He helps Anna continue to do the things she loves.

The three of us leave the house with an ear of corn and two carrots. I'm surprised she still has a horse in the pasture above her house. She used to walk this hillside every day, up into the pasture where her Arabian, Raflo, pranced in tall grass. My brother used to ride Raflo bareback then. I was too young to try but plenty old to watch and laugh.

Raflo has been dead for years. We're on our way to see Anna's current horse, Tessa. Instead of walking the hillside, age deterring, we hop into a green jeep. Steve drives. Anna sits in the passenger seat, and I ride bumps in the metal back.

We reach the top of hill that opens from thick trees into a flat grass pasture. Tessa notices the jeep immediately and moves closer. White with black spots. She casually walks to the side of the vehicle.

Anna sits in the front seat with the window down and hands the corn and carrots through the opening and into Tessa's mouth. She coos and caresses her horse. Calling her sweet names.

She says Tessa needs a friend. The horse is alone up in the pasture. She wants another horse.

But Tessa and Anna seem the same. Alone. Woman. Strong.

Ritt died about 15 years ago. They never had children. He died and she continued on, continued to run Handle Bar Ranch with a couple of helpers. Mostly by herself.

"I'm as independent as a hog on ice," she says and laughs. "I don't know what that means, but it's an old saying."

When she was young and her passion was played on a piano, Anna attended the Cincinnati College of Music. She taught piano at Wurlitzer's downtown on Fourth Street. And although gifted, working full-time and studying piano became difficult.

"I was in a contest over there, a scholarship type thing, and when it was over the guy in charge told me I would have won the thing but I was a woman and didn't need it," she says. "So they gave it to Joe over there. I told him, 'I guess I don't have the necessary appendages.' "

She laughs. Setbacks only allow her cynical wisdom and humor to fly forth.

After feeding the horse we bounce down the hill, pass the house and park on the side of the road. As we cross the street she says sarcastically with just a touch of sincerity, "Don't get hit by a dump truck. I'm surrounded by Rumpke."

I almost forgot. You can't see the mountain of garbage from here. You'd think it didn't exist.

Rumpke brothers take a different path
A few years after Handle Bar Ranch began, a pair of brothers moved into the same corner of Hamilton County. They came carrying garbage, truckloads of it.

In the 1930s, Bill and Barney Rumpke were hog farmers. To feed their pigs, they collected garbage from neighbors, drove and slopped and fed the hogs. Their business in Porkopolis was growing, and they found new land just over the hill from the already established Handle Bar Ranch.

In the 1950s, the FDA came to the new farm and declared their hog business unsanitary. They were denied the ability to feed hogs refuse, but the Rumpkes soon realized that collecting garbage was far more lucrative than raising hogs.

Apparently, feeding hogs garbage was unsanitary but dumping garbage on the land and covering it with topsoil wasn't. The FDA never came and declared the landfill unsanitary.

On the contrary, today the sign in front of Rumpke declares the place to be a Sanitary Landfill. Certainly the place meets the requirements to be considered "sanitary" by government standards.

Regardless of the terminology, Rumpke is equally entitled to run their business as Anna Gay Ritter is to run hers. That cannot be argued.

What is troublesome, though, is that the plastic terminology doesn't end at "sanitary." It isn't the only phrase manufactured to create an image. "Family business" is another, along with "environment" and "community." These words can mean anything.

What Rumpke declares a family business is now the nation's seventh largest waste collection, hauling, disposal and recycling company. What started as an 80-acre hog farm is now nearly 440 acres in Colerain Township, with eight other dump sites in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. The company has more than 3,000 employees. That's one hell of a family.

In their defense, nearly 90 blood relatives work for Rumpke. Still, I'd like to think a true family mom-and-pop business rests just behind their landfill. I'd like to think Anna and Handle Bar Ranch are the definition.

And then there's community. "When Rumpke started hauling waste in Colerain Township, our biggest concern was keeping our community environment clean and safe," declares the company's Web site.

The community immediately surrounding the landfill is nearly gone. Rumpke owns my family's old house. They own almost all the houses on Hughes Road. Anna is one of the few residents in the vicinity still left. Who were they concerned about?

I'm in my car again, heading back to Colerain Township. I'm not going to see Anna this time, not heading to the fond memories of my youth.

I'm taking that other road, the gray one that rolls right into the face of the landfill. I'm going to speak with Bill Rumpke, the son of Bill Sr. and now company co-president. I have a few questions. And I hope, above all, that my biases about this place can be set aside for one day, for one hour.

I'm a little nervous. Not to meet Bill, not because I plan on asking him difficult and certainly sensitive questions, but because the task of setting aside a decade worth of images, foul air and thick gray creeks is nearly impossible. But he deserves that.

Shelly Sack, Rumpke's director of corporate communications, is the first to speak with me. I walk into a large white house across the street from the dump, one of the many houses on this road that were purchased by Rumpke and transformed into offices. When Shelly gives me directions she tells me to park in the lot next to the "big white building with pillars." She never calls it a house, although that's what it used to be.

We sit at a conference table and begin discussing the logistics and technology behind a landfill. She speaks about Subtitle D regulations and the treatment of the land before garbage is deposited. It's all very technical and pleasing to hear.

"How long has it operated this way?" I ask, hoping my perceptions have been wrong all along.

"Since 1988," Shelly answers with a smile.

But the landfill hauled its first load of garbage here in 1945. That's 43 years of garbage piled without Subtitle D regulations. My skepticism returns.

We leave the conference room after some time, hop into an SUV painted gray with dust and take off for the landfill. I'm going straight into it. On top of it. Inside it.

"I just love this place," Shelly says. "I love getting out here."

She's talking about the dump. Talking about riding around on acres of garbage. I stumble at this statement.

But Shelly is informed. She tells me about the garbage cells, about the plastic liner 16 mils thick that's placed on the ground before the garbage. She tells me about the leachate collection system and the enzyme mist sprayed to control the stench. All of these things give me hope. All of these instruments and guidelines instill a different viewpoint.

I lived below this garbage, though, for almost 18 years. My youth is clouded with other visions.

Up the hill we climb, like a rover on the moon, and pass garbage trucks dumping and plodding along. Atop, the valley below is visible. I see the home of my youth lurking just below the garbage.

"That's my old house," I say.

It looks weatherbeaten and drowsy. It looks like it too is slowly sinking.

We finish the tour and roll along to the main offices. I'm in search of Bill Rumpke. Shelly says that he's a "colorful character" and usually provides a lively interview.

I know him, though, and her words slip from me. I know his family. We went to the same grade school, played on the same sports teams, went to the same functions. I know him. And he knows me.

We walk into the office, roomy with newspaper articles and pictures of family on the walls. Behind a large wooden desk Bill sits comfortably in a burgundy leather chair. He wears a maroon polo shirt with a Rumpke insignia.

Shelly introduces me and we shake hands. Bill looks for a second, as if pondering silently in his mind, and says, "What was your last name?"

"Kleeman," I say, "You know who I am."

"Oh, yeah," he says and smiles, as if the name needed repetition. "How're your mom and dad?"

I tell him they're fine.

We begin speaking casually at first. I say I'm interested in the history, the story, the how-this-came-to-be part of Rumpke. I'm interested in his relationship with Anna.

He begins telling me the beginnings of the business. He talks fondly of his father, calling him "Pop." And I have to admit there's something about his character, about his visions of riding in the back of garbage trucks at an early age and stomping up and down to compact the trash, that allows me to dismiss my feelings toward him. He tells me he has several crushed vertebrae from those days.

Bill Rumpke knows the smells associated with collecting garbage. He knows what it feels like to be an average Joe. He did the grunt work. Got dirty with sweat.

I respect him for this. I respect the fact that he's not just a corporate executive in a dirty business who keeps his hands clean.

But the conversation turns. He asks what Anna Gay Ritter had to say about him and his business. I tell him she's not fond of him, but he knows this already. He grins slyly and sarcastically says, "Annie loves us."

I laugh uncomfortably. He seems unhurt by this, the ill will between neighbors bouncing from him easily.

"She's a bitter old woman," he says and smiles again.

She isn't to me, and I tell him this. I tell him I have only fond feelings toward her.

I ask him why so many of the homes surrounding Rumpke have been purchased by the company since the early 1990s. I ask him what connection to community the business has.

He smiles proudly and begins listing from memory the organizations Rumpke supports. They've built ball fields at Corpus Christi Church on the corner of Springdale and Hamilton. They've donated countless money and man-hours to St. John the Baptist Church, where our families went to school. Certainly they've given to the community.

Bill confirms they've purchased many of the nearby homes. He says it was a benevolent action on the part of Rumpke.

"We let them bail out," he says. "We always offered fair market value. The intent was never to bulldog or push people out."

But fair market value and letting people bail out isn't necessarily the benevolent action he wishes it to be. Those neighbors didn't have many choices. Almost nobody else would want their property. And how connected to community can you be, I wonder, when purchasing the community is your connection to it? The relationship seems tenuous at best.

"You give back to a community," he says openly. "The style and nature of our business, you need to show you're part of it. It takes the sting away from people who feel short-changed."

I ask whether the residents have been short-changed. He says there are some nuances associated with this type of a business.

"We believe we're doing as good as anyone could do," he says matter-of-factly.

Maybe. I think maybe they are. How would I know?

All I know is what living next to a dump for 18 years can teach you. All I know is the sting he refers to and brushes aside. I still sting. I sting because Anna sits below. I sting because it's difficult for her to get customers for picnics and hay rides so close to a landfill. I sting because he calls her bitter and old and doesn't know Anna, at least not the way I do.

I sting because there's little she can do. I sting because a life of creativity and passion has been hidden with mounds of garbage.

Slowly sinking
Leaving, I go past the creeks that border Handle Bar Ranch, the same creeks that drain the Rumpke landfill. I look back at the mound of garbage reaching in the air with the flag flying. It looks like the moon, but this flag marks not a giant leap forward for mankind.

I think about the place I just left, the marked contrast between two businesses, between two ways of life that started nearly the same time in nearly the same place.

Success is usually ranked in dollars, money, assets, Forbes 500 lists. If you use that sort of barometer, there's no question which of the two businesses has been more successful.

But Anna Gay Ritter's goal was never to make a slew of cash. She was never in it for dump trucks of money. She's lived a life in connection with things primordial, things living but silent, things our eyes see but our hearts remember.

Union. That's the best way I can think of describing her relationship with this land. Or maybe communion. I can't avoid the spiritual linkage.

As I slide past the mythical mound, I feel it's staring at me with contempt, and I can't help from throwing the cash-influenced barometer of success in the dump. I can't help but think, inspired and dejected, that she has fulfilled the American Dream. That she alone is the image of success.

The mountain continues to grow. Even as I drive by, it swells. My garbage goes here. So does yours, probably.

But as it grows, as it stretches barren and bald into the air, another place hides behind. Slowly sinking. Pulsating in the shadow.