During cleanup week in Greater Grand Forks, some see piles of potential

As of Friday morning, May 26, crews in Grand Forks had hauled 779.74 tons of items.

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Kelly Nelson, third from right, and daughters (L-R) Emily Harmeyer, Grace Nelson and Molly Matthews look forward to the annual clean-up week in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks to collect items and repurpose them for a big garage sale in the fall to fund Nelson's Halloween house and also to fund a family trip for a gathering of children with Emanuel Syndrome.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

GRAND FORKS – Cleanup week is a family tradition for Kelly Nelson and her three daughters. Each year in May, the four women pile into a truck to drive around town to comb through mounds of refuse, from 8 a.m. to sunset.

By Monday, May 22, the first day of cleanup week in Greater Grand Forks, the family already had put in days of hard work scavenging piles of stuff.

“This is like, hardcore day three,” Molly Matthews, one of Nelson’s daughters, said. “We’ve been pretty much looking since the first of the month.”

Nelson’s backyard held the evidence. Piles of furniture, lawn decorations and scrap wood, all thrown out by another household in town, will be refurbished and sold to fund the elaborate Halloween house Nelson puts on each year.

“Without all of this, we can’t do Halloween,” said Nelson. “We take it and we wash it and we sand it and repair it and then we have one huge garage sale.”


This year, some of the money will also go toward funding a trip for Matthews’ family to Omaha, Nebraska, to attend a gathering for people and families of people with Emanuel syndrome, a rare genetic disease that Matthews’ daughter has.

“We sell it to make a profit, but we’re not obnoxious,” Matthews said. “We may find it for free and have to put $10 worth of spray paint into it, but we only sell it for like $25 – manageable for people to buy.”

Despite the hard work the family puts in while looking for items and refurbishing their finds, their enthusiasm for their cleanup week tradition cannot be curbed.

“It’s fun,” Nelson said. “It’s all four of us."

Nothing beats a day "junking with your daughters," she said.

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Grace Nelson unloads furniture with her sisters Molly Matthews and Emily Harmeyer at home after a successful trip collecting items for the family's annual garage sale. The fall event will fund a family trip for a gathering of children with Emanuel Syndrome and also the family's Halloween House.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Cleanup week isn’t just busy for the people looking for treasures among the trash. For public works departments on either side of the Red River, the week is an all-hands-on-deck affair.

As of Friday morning, May 26, crews in Grand Forks had hauled 779.74 tons of items. Each day, around 40 people help with cleanup efforts, with five or six crews out at a time, said Sharon Lipsh, Grand Forks Public Works operations director. Staff members from other departments often volunteer to work on pickup crews during the week.

This year in Grand Forks, cleanup week had two changes. Instead of placing items in alleyways, residents were instructed to place items on the berm for pickup. In years past, pickup day has been on residents’ garbage days, but this year, crews picked up items on street maintenance days.


Lipsh said the change to pickup from the berms instead of tight alleyways has gone well and likely will continue next year. The change in pickup day was another story.

“There’s a lot of confusion – I’ll be honest about that,” Lipsh said. “We feel we’re fielding a lot of calls about it, but we’ll go back and collect any missed piles within the next week or so.”

In the next few weeks, the department will decide how cleanup week will be handled next year. The changes this year make it hard to compare to years past, she said.

Newfolden among communities that could benefit from $15 million of undesignated funding in the DNR's Flood Hazard Mitigation Program.

In East Grand Forks, just one crew of 10 to 14 people picks up items. The city holds a cleanup week in the spring and fall. Spring cleanup is always heavier than the fall cleanup, said Jason Stordahl, East Grand Forks Public Works director.

“We don’t have a load count or weight count right now, but just judging by the amount of garbage that’s been brought it, it’s a little bit heavier than past years in the spring,” Stordahl said.

East Grand Forks cleanup week ends with a hazardous waste and electronics drop off day on Saturday, May 27. Residents can drop off hazardous waste and electronics at Public Works from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

On Monday, Kelly Armstrong of Mentor, Minnesota, was on his way out of East Grand Forks to process a full load of found items, but instead of selling them, he planned to use everything he picked up. Truck bed and trailer piled high with roadside finds, he outlined plans for all of the items he and his wife picked up.

“Everything here will either be repurposed or reused,” he said.


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Kelly Armstrong, of Mentor, Minnesota, takes a break after loading his pickup and trailer with items collected from city cleanup week in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks on Monday, May 22, 2023.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Among his finds were a weathered wooden picnic table he plans to repaint for his mother to use as a plant stand, lawn furniture to replace the items left behind in a move from Indiana and a heavy wooden dresser for his daughter.

While looking for items, Armstrong said he tries to stay off the main roads and does not dig through piles that would result in a mess for crews or property owners to clean up.

“I’m not going to make a bigger mess, you know what I mean?” Armstrong said. “It’s not worth it to go do that, so I’ll leave that, but if it’s something that’s readily accessible that I know that I can repurpose, I’ll grab it.”

Armstrong planned to make one more trip back to Grand Forks after processing his full load of finds. His list of items to find during his second trip included a fire ring and a bicycle for one of his daughter’s friends.

“I hate to see good stuff just go to waste,” he said. “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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