Pop cans, beer bottles, diapers (used by both babies and adults), fish guts and fast food wrappers. These are just some of the items found in Douglas County ditches over the years.

Items that wouldn’t need to be picked up by Adopt a Highway volunteers if people would just dispose of their trash correctly, according to Jill Wagner from Integrity Title in Alexandria.

Wagner and her family, including her husband Jim, her son Jared and now her daughter-in-law Hannah, have been picking up trash for a number of years.

“I believe we actually started cleaning ditches 25 years ago, first with our local Kiwanis Club and our church,” said Wagner. “When we formed Integrity Title, we felt it was another opportunity for us to do something for our community so we adopted two miles of road west of Garfield on County Road 109. That was 20-plus years ago!”

Jill and Jim Wagner (right), owners of Integrity Title in Alexandria, along with their son and daughter-in-law, Jared and Hannah Wagner, participate in the Adopt a Highway program. They have been picking up trash along County Road 109 for many years. (Contributed)
Jill and Jim Wagner (right), owners of Integrity Title in Alexandria, along with their son and daughter-in-law, Jared and Hannah Wagner, participate in the Adopt a Highway program. They have been picking up trash along County Road 109 for many years. (Contributed)

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The Minnesota Department of Transportation’s Adopt a Highway program is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. More than 3,800 volunteer groups – ranging from four to 25 people – spent an estimated 272,000 hours cleaning roadway ditches last year, picking up 40,000 bags of trash across the whole state.

Wagner believes the Adopt a Highway program is a great program, but is one that could be eliminated if people would just throw their trash away properly.

She said it is unbelievable – and at times disgusting – what is found in the ditches when their crew goes to clean up. Her absolute worst find was adult soiled diapers. It was awful, she said.

Most of the litter, though, is beer bottles and cans, along with Copenhagen tins or other chewing tobacco tins.

“We usually have some sort of contest, counting who gets the most of a certain beer or hard liquor bottle,” said Wagner. “It is unbelievable the number of cans that are found.”

Wagner’s crew has also found car seats, old tires, furniture and anything else people don’t want to dispose of like they should.

Although Hannah Wagner said she couldn’t top her mother-in-law’s worst find, she said the amount of alcohol, tobacco and fast food trash is astounding on their little stretch of gravel road. Her least favorite find is bottles with chewing tobacco spit in them.

“It makes me gag!” she said.

And although she has never found anything she wanted to keep, Hannah Wagner said, “You can bet that I double check every (lottery) scratch off I find to make sure it isn’t a winner before I toss it in the trash.”

She also noted that it is kind of funny how people who treat their body like trash, treat the Earth that way, too.

“You never find healthy garbage in the ditches,” Hannah Wagner said.

‘Neat thing to do’

After Jill Klimek’s husband passed away in March 2008 from cancer, she decided to sign her family up for the Adopt a Highway program. They began cleaning ditches later that year.

“I thought it would be a neat thing to do in his memory,” she said. “He always liked keeping our yard and his stretch of road looking nice.”

Jill Klimek (middle) stands with her two children, Nick and Chelsey, by their Adopt a Highway sign along County Road 6. The two-mile stretch of road is dedicated in the memory of Jill's husband, Jim Klimek, who passed away in 2008. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)
Jill Klimek (middle) stands with her two children, Nick and Chelsey, by their Adopt a Highway sign along County Road 6. The two-mile stretch of road is dedicated in the memory of Jill's husband, Jim Klimek, who passed away in 2008. (Celeste Edenloff / Echo Press)

On County Road 6, near the intersection with County Road 22, east of Garfield, is the Adopt a Highway sign that reads “In Memory of Jim Klimek.” At the time of his death, the family lived just a mile and a half north of that intersection. To this day, they still clean that two mile stretch in his honor, although Jill Klimek now lives in Parkers Prairie.

Klimek said the first few years, there would always be 30 to 40 people helping out – friends, family, church groups who did it as a service project. They would have a big picnic after the cleanup.

“It was therapeutic and it brought us all together,” she said.

Over the years, she said there are fewer people who help out, but that it still means the same as it did in the beginning. And that they continue doing it for Jim.

She said it was a great learning experience for her children who were quite young when they started. Her children, Chelsey and Nick, along with her step-daughter, Mercedes, are now all in their 20s. Klimek said it was quite a big eye opener for all of them because of the amount of trash that was found.

The group’s finds ranged from underwear to car parts and from gas cans to huge piles of carp.

Standing by the Adopt a Highway sign dedicated to Jim Klimek, who passed away in 2008 from cancer, are his family and friends, including (left to right) Erv Klimek, Michelle Klimek, Ashley Wussow, Darcy Wussow, Rose Kane, Jamie Suchy, Jon Doucette, Mercedes Doucette, Gayle Suchy and Jeff Harstad. (Contributed)
Standing by the Adopt a Highway sign dedicated to Jim Klimek, who passed away in 2008 from cancer, are his family and friends, including (left to right) Erv Klimek, Michelle Klimek, Ashley Wussow, Darcy Wussow, Rose Kane, Jamie Suchy, Jon Doucette, Mercedes Doucette, Gayle Suchy and Jeff Harstad. (Contributed)

Chelsey Klimek said her goal was to always find a wallet with lots of money but that it hasn’t happened yet. She did say that when she was younger, she always thought it was fun, though, as it felt like a celebration in memory of her dad.

Jill Klimek remembered when a younger person in their group found what they thought was a balloon and excitedly held it up and showed everyone. It wasn’t a balloon, she said, laughing, but a condom and the child was told to immediately throw it away.

Although much of the garbage that was picked up by the Klimek family was just that, garbage, Jill Klimek said they have kept large chunks of wood they have found to use as fire wood and also some scrap metal.

She added that she doesn’t feel there is as much garbage now as there was when they started 12 years ago.

“People are getting better at throwing their trash where it belongs,” she said.

About the program

Adopt a Highway volunteers are asked to commit to the program for at least two years and pick up litter on both sides of the roadway a minimum of twice a year. The average length of an adopted roadway is two miles.

MnDOT provides volunteers with safety training, including new COVID-19 guidelines, as well as trash bags and safety vests. The agency also picks up the filled bags of litter, and posts signs along the adopted segments of roads with the names of the volunteer groups.

“The Adopt a Highway program is proof that Minnesotans care about their state. Volunteers picking up litter along our roadways also allows our MnDOT crews to focus on other work, like repairing guardrail, mowing and keeping highways safe,” Ann McLellan, statewide Adopt a Highway manager said in a news release.

There are still more than 630 segments across the state available for adoption.

The Adopt a Highway program began in 1990 after then-Gov. Rudy Perpich visited Texas to speak with Lady Bird Johnson about the state’s anti-litter campaign called “Don’t Mess with Texas.”

For more information about MnDOT’s program, visit mndot.gov/adopt/