Straight-talking Pa. junk dealer, 83, is set to vote in 15th presidential election

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BRODBECKS, Pa. -- Rufus B. Snyder stands in his junkyard next to the 7-foot stack of tin not far from the neatly stacked pieces of No. 1 iron and the ready-to-go aluminum, telling about the time he made the local school board angry at him.

"I told the school board that more people were coming by to look at my junkyard than their million-dollar school. They did not like it so much."

The word has gotten around.

"We've had cars from out-of-state come by," his wife, Virginia, says. "People hear about the place and want to see it."

Mr. Snyder and his opinions and his orderly and organized

junkyard are well-known in this rural area of southern York County, about five miles from the Maryland line.

At 83, Mr. Snyder, a self-described "York County Dutchman," is unafraid of offering his opinion and unafraid of hard work and has a reputation for both. He has little tolerance for lies and dishonesty, bureaucratic rules and regulations, nonsense and lack of common sense and people who don't want to be neighborly anymore. He was born in this place, which is "home to me."

On Tuesday, he will drive his maroon Ford 4 x 4 pickup truck up to Manheim Township hall and vote -- by his calculations -- in his 120th election, his 15th ballot for president. He says this will be his first presidential vote not for a Democrat. His choice? "I'm voting for the man who knows what he's talking about. Ross Perot. The other fellas don't know a damn thing except lying."

"I started in the junk business in 19 and 32 with a Model-T roadster I turned into a pickup truck," Mr. Snyder says in traces of the Pennsylvania Dutch Germanic accent he has retained. That was the same year he voted in his first presidential election -- for Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Sixty years later, Snyder's Junkyard sits a half-mile or so off Pennsylvania Route 216, mostly hidden from that main road to Hanover by a long hill. Follow Smoketown Road off 216, then turn right and cross a wooden bridge over Codorus Creek and there it is, between creek and CSX Railroad tracks. The junkyard, unfenced, spreads over a small portion of a 45-acre flat grassy area that might have been a meadow in another life. Drive-on scales, three small sheds, a little yellow bulldozer and a sycamore tree are at the entrance, near a "no plastic, rubber or wood" notice. Bordering hills glow with the browns, golds, reds and yellows of autumn-turning hardwoods blended with evergreens.

On a recent partly sunny day, he and Mrs. Snyder, his wife of 40 years, sort through tin, bedsprings and large cans dropped off by a retired Hampstead blacksmith who sold his place and had to clean it out.

"I pay for heavy metals but not for tin," Mr. Snyder says. "There's no market for it. I let people unload tin here if they want to get rid of it."

Six feet 1, 170 pounds, he wears denim bib overalls over a blue shirt buttoned at the collar, gray sweater, maroon jacket, shiny hard hat and black steel-toed shoes. His watch hangs on a chain in the overalls' watch pocket. He puffs on a pipe.

All around him lies what he calls his "investment," 6- to 8-foot piles and piles of metal, sorted by type, blowtorched into uniform lengths. Something like 750 tons, he estimates. There are no automobile bodies because he got out of that "years ago." The Snyders walk along a two-track grassy circle road, then cut through mowed paths between piles.

Mr. Snyder stops nearby. "This is the No. 1 iron pile. Next to it is No. 2 iron pile. Over there is aluminum."

"Who cuts all this stuff up?"

"Rufus," he says.

He walks on, naming the piles:

Cast iron ("Foundries fought over this stuff in World War II."); No. 2 steel ("almost anything"); No. 1 steel ("the heavy stuff"); tire rims (stacked in columns); unclean engine blocks.

"Unclean?"

"The steel and iron haven't been separated," Mrs. Snyder says.

Mr. Snyder says he pays $1 to $2 a 100 pounds for iron and steel and market price for other metals. Buying customers vary -- small machine or repair shops needing hard-to-get parts, a farmer looking for something for an old machine, dealers.

This spring, he had a curious run on iron pipe. "We found out it was being used in racing cars, to reinforce the bodies," he says. "It welds better."

He is not in any big hurry to sell if the situation is not right. For instance, that ready-to-go aluminum is not going anywhere. JTC Prices are down. "It's better to leave it than sell it now and get 3 percent interest on the money in a bank," he says.

At lunchtime, Mr. Snyder walks off to get the pickup truck. Mrs. Snyder waits near the sycamore tree. "He still picks up some of that heavy stuff and lifts it onto the piles. I don't understand how he does it."

When he is in the junkyard, Mrs. Snyder, 63, usually is with him. She worked 16 years for an insurance company before retiring in 1988 as an auditor.

"We're here every day when the weather is nice," she says.

Mr. Snyder arrives, and they drive across Codorus Creek to their white frame house, on the hill overlooking the junkyard. That narrow creek is stuff of more Rufus Snyder lore.

For one thing, Codorus Creek, the line between Manheim and Codorus townships, used to be more crooked.

"We were having some flooding in the early 1970s," Mrs. Snyder said.

"I got out my little 2010 John Deere backhoe and straightened the channel," Mr. Snyder says. "About 600 feet. We didn't ask permission. A fella came all the way down from Harrisburg, said I didn't have a permit and served me a citation."

He hired a lawyer, asked for a jury trial, then got a letter from the state that the charges had been dropped. No reason was given, and he didn't ask.

"We haven't had flooding problems since then," Mrs. Snyder says.

In his basement, where he works at night or when the weather is bad, Mr. Snyder becomes reflective.

"Oh my. These last two years have been too busy," he says. "I can't work like I did 40 years ago."

To allow for that, he no longer works dawn to dusk seven days a week. Now, he starts at 9 a.m.

He says he tires more quickly "nowadays" and gets stiff but has no pain.

A wall of shelves in the room contains jars of Mrs. Snyder's canning in neat rows -- peaches, sour cherries, apricots, sauerkraut, sweet and sour cabbage, chowchow, red beets.

But much of the room is him -- buckets of curry combs, homemade barn hinges and copper wire stripped from electric motors, a box of wagon wheel wrenches, a cigar box of old furniture castors, a tub of flattened aluminum cans, old tools.

For all his opinions and streak of stubborn individualism, there is a gentleness about him.

He has kept a daily diary since the 1930s, writing the day in a notebook every night before he goes to bed -- the weather, thoughts, feelings, opinions.

He yearns for the days when you knew your neighbors and you did things together, when you "disagreed and fought but the next day it was over and you went on to something else," when community meant more than a synonym for a place.

Henry Miller, 85, who now lives in a retirement home in New Oxford, Pa., grew up with Mr. Snyder. Mr. Miller describes him simply as "an honest fella who tries to keep at it."

"I miss my Pennsylvania Dutch buddies," Mr. Snyder says. "They've all died or moved to homes."

But he "keeps at it," vital still, working hard and offering opinions in the neatest little junkyard in the land.

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