Near the mouth of the Santa Clara River in Oxnard, where scrub brush clings and wild things creep, a strapping entrepreneur named Willis (Bill) R. Bailard once strode the sandy soil, thinking of lemons.
The year was 1933, and Bailard dreamed of crowning a citrus king in Ventura County. He envisioned million-dollar harvests year-round, a ceaseless parade of colorful packing crates speeding their aromatic cargo to sun-starved Northern towns.
Suffice it to say that, when Bailard surveyed those Oxnard grounds half a century ago, he did not envision a mountain of garbage, or the municipal squabbling over the landfill that would one day rise from the site and bear his name.
Bailard was a rancher from a pioneering Santa Barbara farming family who joked in Spanish with field hands and called himself senor sin pelo --the man without hair--to poke fun at a bald spot on his head.
In the early 1930s, armed with a business degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and a decade of work experience here and abroad, Bailard returned to his hometown and soon hatched a plan to open the wallets of wealthy investors: He would scout out good lemon-growing lands in Ventura County, plant and harvest the crop, and process it for market. Investors would provide the capital in return for 80% of the profit.
Bailard planned to work the citrus groves for 30 to 40 years until development from Ventura and Oxnard began to encroach from either side.
Business blossomed, and in 1940, Bailard and his partners founded the Ventura Coastal Lemon Corp., known today as Ventura Coastal Corp.
The only open land Bailard could not plant lay near the Santa Clara River, on low-lying soil that sometimes flooded during winter storms.
In the early 1960s, Bailard hit on what everyone thought would be a clever use for the unplanted lowlands. His plan would shore up the area from river flooding and bring in some extra money.
Bailard decided to open a dump.
As a kid, Gary Haden of Ventura used to hang out at the county dumps.
"We'd take .22s down there and shoot at sea gulls and rats," Haden recalled. When the dump operator spotted them, the kids would run away, scrambling gleefully out of trash bins and over mountains of refuse to safety.
Today, "I'm the guy who has to go chase the kids off," said Haden, 39, superintendent of solid-waste operations at Coastal Landfill and the now-closed Bailard landfill in Oxnard. "It's a little bit like the Twilight Zone."
Coastal, which handles trash from Ventura, Ojai, Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Camarillo, is the only big dump open in west Ventura County. When Coastal reaches capacity--perhaps as soon as March--the county wants to reopen Bailard, which lies next door.
In 1962, W. R. Bailard did succeed in turning his low-lying farmlands near the Santa Clara River into a dump. He leased the site to a private operator, who ran Bailard until 1975, when it was shut down because of environmental violations.
W. R. died in 1981 at the age of 79.
Today, Haden works out of a trailer on the Bailard property, a flat stretch of land covered with hard-packed dirt. The area around the dumps remains agricultural, although flowers and green vegetables have replaced the citrus.
Haden's scavenging days are long over, since health and safety laws now prohibit people from rooting around at the landfill. But the dump manager, a genial, bearded fellow whose attire runs to work boots, blue jeans and a leather jacket, has not lost his fascination with trash. He calls himself the "guru" of the dumps.
"Going through trash is like snooping or reading somebody's diary. It's something that anthropologists do to find out more about people. It's like a time vault, a treasure hunt.
"Once, when I was young," he confided, "I found a brass bed."
Nobody writes odes to municipal dumps, but Coastal Landfill does evoke at least one artistic reference--to Dante's Inferno.
At Gonzales Road and Victoria Avenue, Coastal sprawls across 70 acres, and at its highest peak, rises 90 feet, almost 10 stories high, with layered trash and dirt. Each morning, engineers designate a 200-foot-wide "open face" where that day's 8 million pounds of trash, the equivalent of about 60,000 trash barrels, will be dumped.
The rest of the site remains covered with a 12-inch layer of dirt to satisfy the health code. It would resemble a freshly plowed hill if not for the stench of decaying organic matter and the occasional rusty tin can, orange peel or plastic bag that pokes through the dirt.
On the open face, yellow tractors splattered with dried mud careen up hills, grinding down soil, pillows and dog-eared phone books. The 8-foot high tires compact the trash and squish everything together "like a fruitcake," Haden said. Walking here is like treading on wet sand: The ground sinks underfoot.