Composting Since World War II

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Ithaca Voice      1-12-16

By Adam Michaelides

Those who get into composting often really get into composting. For the 24th year, Master Composter training will be offered in Tompkins County. The training provides an entry point into the world of microbes and provides education in the language and practicalities of making compost. Not all compost enthusiasts, however, have been through our program. Last summer I had the pleasure of meeting an extraordinary one. I’d like to tell you a little bit about him.

Anthony Spellman was 11 years old when World War II got started. During the war, food was scarce due in part to the German U-boats knocking off ships carrying supplies from overseas. The government set up “allotments,” or pieces of land given to the community for the purpose of food production. Food was also rationed. Anthony remembers 10 penny-worth of meat per week, 2 penny-worth extra for corn beef, 2 eggs per week, and so on. As a kid, Anthony would run to the store and he would be so hungry that he would bite off the corners of the bread before returning.

The Spellman family did what they could to scrape together extra food. They participated in the “pig club” with neighbors where each family was allowed to kill one pig per year. They had many practices for extending food’s life like using sheep’s heads to make stock, or making “Woolton pie” using whatever vegetables they had with a crust of mashed potato and a bit of flour. And they used their government allotment to grow extra.

Unlike today where 40% of food produced in the US is not eaten, virtually no food went to waste in the Spellman home. All the inedible parts of fruits and vegetables went to the chickens and pigs. And the vegetative matter from the garden, chicken bedding and manure was composted on the allotment. Anthony handled the compost. This role, combined with a curiosity of his neighbor’s haystack catching on fire, got Anthony pretty interested in composting. At this time he also happened upon a book called “Microbes by the Million,” which Anthony used to learn about the unseen universe of decomposition.

After the war, Anthony trained as a physician, moved to Canada, and then to the US, and served under Governor Nelson Rockefeller in the Department of Mental Hygiene. He retired to Charlottesville, Virginia where he and his wife gardened and composted on an acre of land. There he saved all his leaves and mixed in grass clippings, garden and food scraps into the first bay of his 3-bin system. This first bay was 8x4x4. After the first heating cycle of 4-5 weeks (measured with a compost thermometer), he turned the contents into a second 4x4x4 bay. After heating there for 6 weeks, he’d turn it again into the third 4x4x4 bay and keep it there until he was ready to use it.

Today, Anthony lives in Dryden, close to family. They garden at the Dryden Community Gardens, which was set up a few years back by Dryden resident and Master Composter 2015, Kerra Quinn. Anthony once again takes care of the compost. At 86 years old, Anthony has actively composted since World War II. In my book, Anthony Spellman is a Master Composter though he has not taken our training, nor received a certificate.

Master Composter training 2015

There are over 100 trained Master Composters in Tompkins County; people who have 20 hours of class time, and 40 or more additional hours of volunteer time. Many volunteers trained years and years ago and continue to actively teach with our program. Master Composters help people in Tompkins County to successfully compost, and thereby reduce waste, save money and produce a valuable soil amendment for gardening.

In 2016, Master Composter training will be offered from mid-February through mid-May at the Cooperative Extension. We will meet most Thursday evenings from 6:30 to 8:30pm in Ithaca. We will have fun together learning about, and teaching, composting. Who knows, we might even invite Anthony to one of the dish-to-passes to hear more about his story.

As a volunteer from 2015 said, the program was “well cured, well evolved… high enthusiasm levels, picked me up when I was down… makes one become and feel part of a positive, progressive and shining community.”

Please join us! For more information about the program and an application, visit: or call the “Rotline” (compost hotline) at 607-272-2292. You can also email me directly at <>. Applications are due on Monday, February 1. I hope to hear from you. Happy composting!

Adam Michaelides is the Program Manager for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County’s Compost Education Program. He trained as a Master Composter in 2000. The Compost Education Program is funded by the Tompkins County Solid Waste Management Division.

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