There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
o!” barks Billy Mossburg at his dog Bull. “No!”
The growling Jack Russell terrier makes another charge at his master’s work boots, then beats a whining retreat. Man and dog square off. Neither is fooling around.
Mossburg puffs angrily on a pipe clenched between bared teeth, spewing smoke through his nostrils in a cloud so thick that it seems his mustache has caught fire. He crouches for mortal combat, even though his opponent is a terminally cute clump of bulging eyes and fur, a couple of pounds of fury no bigger than a football.
“I don’t want none of your back talk,” says Mossburg, stomping his clunky boots on the floor.
Bull answers with a volley of small-dog invective.
The showdown temporarily halts a spirited monologue in Mossburg’s office in North Potomac, Md. For more than an hour, Mossburg’s been ranting about his epic battle against the forces of evil as embodied by local officialdom.
Mossburg is a seventh-generation local; shake his family tree and Hessian mercenaries and Confederate sympathizers fall out. For nearly half-a-century, he’s worked this ugly chunk of roadside property, mercilessly squeezing the land for sustenance. And he has prospered, enriching himself through a series of hardscrabble enterprises, most notably with what he describes as a solid waste transfer station. His neighbors and local officials call it a common dump.
As proprietor of Travilah Recovery Industries, Mossburg was once king of the trash pile in ritzy Montgomery County. For years, Travilah turned tons of construction debris into precious heaps of mulch, making it the county’s largest private recycler. It was a mecca for every dump truck for miles around, but the operation now sits silent and empty, an open sore that produces only travail for Mossburg.
A decadelong series of suits and countersuits marks the battle line between Mossburg and the county, and last winter, smoke turned to fire when his dump burned for months. Neighbors protested with gas masks and signs denouncing Mossburg; local officials showed up with a $2.6-million bill for cleaning up the mess. Mossburg says what they really wanted to do was extinguish his right to do business.
“The county’s trying to drive me into extinction,” he says. “It’s OK for Joe Blow to go through the normal process of the law, but when your name is Mossburg, there’s a different set of rules, because I’m in the trash business.”
Bull keeps yapping at his master as if Mossburg was some suspicious, foul-smelling stranger, or worse, one of those dognappers who recently terrorized the surrounding Potomac area by stealing rich folks’ pampered purebreds and holding them for ransom. Or maybe Mossburg’s faithful dog just isn’t so faithful anymore: Maybe Bull’s jumped on the county gravy train like everyone else. It seems like the whole world is against Billy Mossburg: the government, the goodnik neighbors—now even his goddamn dog is giving him shit.
“That’s it!” he snaps. “It’s over.”
Bull snarls a final round and, satisfied that he’s gotten the last bark, clams up as suddenly as he began. The pair are back in each other’s good graces, and Mossburg kneels to pat his mellowed pooch. “He’s tough,” brags Mossburg. “He’ll go after a deer—he’ll fight anything.”
As Bull licks his master’s calloused hands, Mossburg continues his tirade against Montgomery County: “They’ve lied, they’ve cheated, they changed the laws to get rid of me,” he says, his voice rising. “I could have been here 7,000 years—I could have been here when God appeared, and they’d still be after me, because trash will never be politically correct.”
The smoke and words stream out of him. “If you’re not politically correct, if you’re not a high-tech thing like IBM, if you’re not part of the regime, then forget it. They don’t want you. And then you finally come to realize that you can’t operate—you can’t do anything—because your own government is against you.”
In quick succession, Mossburg compares county government to the Roman Empire, the Great Society, and a communist state—an evil conspiracy of insane bureaucracy and rampant regulations. He paces the floor, arms waving, stoking the pipe with rage as he goes. “It won’t be long,” he says, “when you’re gonna have to have to get a permit to take a shit.”
He sees the besieged Travilah as nothing less than a Ruby Ridge or Waco. The feds may not have come with their guns and tanks yet, but then again, some boys from the FBI did pay a visit a while back, raiding the place after the big fire. Something about checking for documents that would show hazardous waste on the site. The F-B-I, Mossburg says, spitting out the acronym, getting all worked up over a few rotting car batteries.
For many residents, Mossburg vs. Montgomery County has become as much a part of the landscape as the pig races at the agricultural fair—an entertaining if somewhat embarrassing throwback to a bygone era. The fair only comes once a year, though, while Mossburg vs. Montgomery never rests. Like an ancient, festering family feud whose origins long ago became hopelessly obscured, it’s a quagmire so deep and abiding that even the most opinionated local pundits hesitate to play favorites.
“It’s one of those convoluted cases where’s there’s no black and white,” says Blair Lee, veteran columnist for the Montgomery Journal. “There’s been wrongdoing on both sides.”
Billy Mossburg says he’s been doing the same thing he’s always done: turning trash into cash. It isn’t the prettiest way to make a living, but it’s the Mossburg family tradition, and it suits him just fine. He has schooled his three sons in the family business and the tactical aggression required to keep it open. “When you buy a piece of property, you buy it to use, and you try to use every square inch for something that makes sense,” he says. “But in today’s society, they won’t let you.”
A wily businessman and unrepentant roughneck, Mossburg remains a scavenger of the old school; he hails from this former scrub-pine barrens, which the slick new maps and real estate agents tout as “North Potomac.” Don’t try to tell him he’s been overtaken by progress. Don’t even get him started on all of the bastards who showed up in their Land Rovers and minivans to picket his place when it caught on fire. One of them probably started it, he’ll tell you. He was here a hell of a long time before any of their yuppie asses, and he sure as hell ain’t going to roll over because they got a couple of politicians on their side.
“For years we were fine for the caliber of people here, and then all of the sudden you have these assholes, these high-class people, and civilization moves in,” says Mossburg. “They don’t want something here that’s dirty or got a truck—period.”
Mossburg is a warrior who has honed his battle skills through decades of pissing people off. What does he care if he’s the scourge of the community, the favorite whipping boy for every two-bit editorial-page whiner, and the laughing stock of the local TV news? For him, that sort of notoriety amounts to a badge of honor. Besides, he’s still got his boosters, even if they won’t go public to show their support.
“If you stuck the Mossburgs up in Frederick County, they’d be heroes,” says a longtime observer of the local scene. “They’d be the good ol’ boys, and everybody would slap ’em on the back. They’d be the guys to haul a stump out of your lawn—they’d be folk heroes up there. But Montgomery County, and in particular Potomac, doesn’t want to deal with them. It’s a very elite county. They know their shit stinks, but they just want it dumped in somebody else’s back yard.”
Mossburg would love to get his hands on that so-called shit, but he’s a prisoner on his own property. With no license to operate on Travilah Road, he can only wait until he gets a special-use permit to open a dump at a new site. The place has provided a living down through the years and jobs for his sons, but until he gets a permit, there’s nothing much to do here except pace the worn office carpet and take Bull on walks around the former dump.
“My life has been consumed by one big argument,” he sighs, cramming a refill of tobacco into his pipe. “I live it, I eat it, I sleep it. People say, “Why don’t you give up?’ But how can I give up? If you’re being strangled to death, you can do one of two things: You can just lay there or you can fight for your life.”
The Travilah trash dump blaze erupted in full Vesuvian force early last November, just as a young Montgomery County Republican named Mathew Mossburg was making his first bid for state delegate. On election day, a vile cloud smothered the North Potomac area, leaving the sky birdless, the playgrounds and back yards empty, and the countryside strangely silent. Black shreds of burnt muck rained down on the coiffured manes of prize thoroughbreds and the custom paint jobs of the most cared-for Lexuses.
But the smoke didn’t reach the 39th District several miles northwest, where Mathew Mossburg won a resounding victory even as his father’s incinerated trash pile continued to rain down on the good citizens of North Potomac. In fact, Mathew remains untainted by the Travilah stigma; it would seem improbable that this clean-cut, silver-tongued 28-year-old could have climbed from the same stinking garbage heap as his uncouth father.
“I knew one thing for certain,” he says. “I had to stand by my father and my family through all of it—that’s just the right thing to do.”
Mathew’s career has been forged by Billy Mossburg’s quixotic battle with Montgomery County. A graduate of Georgetown University, Matthew is a disciple of the Milton Friedman school of supply-side economics. He kicks off sentences with a rhetorical “interestingly enough”; he’s also afflicted by the politician’s habit of using conversation to make speeches. Mathew exemplifies the grass-roots version of the contemporary conservative, echoing and ostensibly elevating his constituents’ angry kitchen talk. He damns politicians and government in general, while invoking the Founding Fathers as if they were all gathering for a backyard barbecue that weekend.
“One of my favorite quotes by Alexander Hamilton—actually, I stole it once—and it gets us back to the whole issue of property rights. He said, “Control over a man’s sustenance amounts to a control over his will,’ and I think that’s brilliant, that’s so true….That’s what I try to explain to people when they say “I think the government should do this or that.’ I say, “Look, you’ve got to remember, the government does not make suggestions—they basically have a gun that they’re holding to your head—not literally, of course.’ ”
His father’s battle with the county has schooled him in the banal evil of bureacrats.
“It’s frustrating how blatantly unfair it is,” he says. “If you look at the facts of the case and put the emotionalism aside, then clearly, you see the weight of evidence falling on the side of my dad. Every time the case goes to the courts—when it’s not subject to political pressures—every time, he’s prevailed.”
The eldest son, 31-year-old William III, known as Little Bill, has remained by his father’s side, running the family business through the fires and tribulation, but neither Mathew nor Little Bill share their father’s redneck swagger and salty language—both young Mossburgs would fit right in with the crowd at a Hootie and the Blowfish concert. Like his dad, Little Bill started working at the Travilah business when he was a boy. After graduating from high school, he stuck with the trash. Married with a toddler son, he has a big stake in the embattled company, as well as the trash-hauling business he runs with Mathew.
Little Bill is well-versed in the Mossburg family saga in Montgomery County, seven generations’ worth. The first Mossburg here was a Hessian soldier, a mercenary who fought for the British during the American Revolution. Captured in Frederick after a battle, he stayed in the area after the war. Then there was the Southern sympathizer Mossburg who sided with the Confederates during the Civil War: “Even then the Mossburgs were fighting against the government,” says Little Bill.
Little Bill is a church-going evangelical Christian, and one of his favorite quotes—he’s got it hanging on his office wall—is from Proverbs: “Reckless words pierce like a sword.”
His 26-year-old brother Christopher should have heeded that Biblical advice. According to acquaintances, he’s the wild one of the Mossburg boys, most like his father in word and deed alike. He’s also the prodigal son who was charged with attempting what many a neighbor of the Travilah dump may have fantasized: getting rid of Billy Mossburg once and for all.
According to police, Christopher met an undercover Montgomery County police officer posing as a hit man in the parking lot of Wheaton Plaza shopping center on Sept. 22. Outside a Circuit City store, Christopher allegedly offered the cop $40,000 to kill the elder Mossburg; he apparently hoped to collect on his father’s $500,000 life insurance policy.
But the case didn’t stick. Last month, the county dropped its murder-for-hire case against him: A Montgomery grand jury had failed to indict Christopher. To many, the decision came as a surprise, especially considering that the prosecution claimed to have a “chilling” tape of Christopher ordering his father’s murder, but it was consistent with the Mossburgs’ demonstrated history of beating back the county in the courts.
Christopher chose not to speak about the charges, but his post-court appearance clearly showed a chip off the old Billy Mossburg block: “I love my father, but today I love my lawyer more,” Christopher—a tanned, stocky frat boy in a somber, dark suit—told reporters after his victory.
Billy Mossburg—standing in front of the cameras in his cap, work shirt, and faded jeans—hugged Christopher on the courthouse steps and scoffed at the idea that his son actually wanted him dead: “I have a better chance of getting hurt in traffic,” he quipped, puffing on his pipe and smiling. Lawyers on both sides agree the case was dropped because Billy Mossburg refused to testify against his son before the grand jury. Billy is convinced that the case against his son was just more county foolishness.
“The boy was just shooting off his mouth, and the county set him up,” the forgiving father says later. “I heard the tape, and there wasn’t much there.”
His son has had a lot of problems: As a boy, Christopher suffered a serious head injury when he was hit by brick. He still has a metal plate in his skull. For a while, he lived at the Travilah dump in a converted warehouse that once housed a karate studio. Now he’s staying with his mother, Mossburg’s ex-wife Sandra, in Rockville, but he’s by no means exiled from his father’s world. In fact, Christopher has been running errands for Travilah Recovery in the black sports car his daddy bought for him.
No, the boy will be all right, says Mossburg. He’ll tell you flat out that the only real threat to his future comes from those assholes down at the county building.
To find Billy Mossburg’s garbage dump in North Potomac, you have to traverse some of the most expensive real estate in the Western Hemisphere.
From the District, you take River Road and follow the same route taken by Washington’s elitest elite heading home from their jobs setting the world’s agenda. If you’re tailgating Ted Koppel’s red Mercedes, he may stop at a roadside vendor for an out-of-season kumquat or two, but you should keep right on going, through the Falls Road intersection at the chic crossroads of Potomac proper, where day servants huddle under elaborate bus stops that take the form of wooden gazebos.
You are now in the epicenter of a residential paradise that makes Chevy Chase seem like a sleazy suburb. For miles around lie some of the most elaborate and exclusive pastoral spreads that democracy can buy.
Stay on River Road and go past the manicured, picket-fenced fields and million-dollar mansions, past the stone-gated subdivisions with names like Tara and Belle Terre, past the troops of trophy wives jogging along the horse trails. Take a right on Travilah Road, and after a few miles on this winding two-laner, you’ll notice the strivings of the wanna-be elitists, exemplified by a smattering of brand-new houses with stone façades and aluminum siding. A few more miles and the road veers from suburban splendor to exurban sprawl, where small, ramshackle homes nearly hug the curves—the humble dwellings of people actually born and raised in, rather than retired to, the country.
Around a bend, the asphalt turns a sickly white, bleached by a permanent layer of dust from decades of dump-truck traffic. Welcome to Mossburg Country: On your right, just past a cinder-block chapel called the Church of God of Prophecy, it’s hard to miss a large mound of mulch nearly spilling onto the road. This lopsided, decaying monument is all that’s left of Billy Mossburg’s trash pile.
Pulling into the parking lot of the former world headquarters of Travilah Recovery Industries, you get the feeling you’ve just driven through a Technicolor Shangri-La only to arrive at some abandoned, Depression-era outpost rotting in rainy black and white. A run-down marquee with its message letters skewed or lost reads:NOWSELLING ISHING SULIESBIRD FEEDERS FOD.
A few empty, decrepit buildings guard the entrance to the former trash dump in back—now two ridges of dirt towering over rusted trucks and equipment wreckage. The gaping hole between these desolate berms once held a mountain of trash that soared over the tree line back when business was good. But now the weight scales are closed, and an empty flagpole rattles. The only signs of life are a few scrawny crows circling above, searching in vain for the feasts of yesteryear.
The dump trucks still rumble past—a rig about every 20 seconds, in fact—but they don’t stop here anymore: They’re making the rounds at the nearby Rockville Crushed Stone quarry. Next to the roadside mulch pile stands a low-slung shack called the Travilah Trading Company; it’s dark inside, and the shelves are bare. A hand-written sign taped on a dusty window says, “For Mulch Sales Go Next Door to Red Brick Building.”
This L-shaped, one-story structure serves as the offices for Billy Mossburg’s fallen empire, Travilah Recovery Industries. Just inside the front door is a gigantic, 30-by-60-foot, battered American flag lying in a rumpled mass. It’s a gift from a Gaithersburg car dealer known for flying some of the largest Stars and Stripes in the U.S.
“I meant to put it up,” sighs Mossburg. “I just haven’t gotten around to it.” He seems older than his 52 years, with a weather-beaten face that matches his leathery hands. He sits on a Naugahyde couch in his office, a sloppy minidump of its own, with a beat-up desk that looks like it was saved from the landfill. Among piles of papers and debris on the desktop pokes a placard with the punch line, “The Trash Stops Here.”
On some shelves stand the usual assemblage of office photos: A late-’70s shot of a youthful-looking Mossburg standing proudly next to a backhoe (“before the mess with the damn county got going”); a large photo of a prized mulching machine (“That’ll run you about $150,000”); an aerial shot of the dump (“It’s a solid waste transfer station”) in its glory days. There are also snapshots of his three sons in their adolescence and a portrait of his late father, William Henry Mossburg Sr., arms crossed almost defiantly—Billy’s spitting image except for the old-fashioned, thick-framed spectacles.
The office is messy, he explains, because the company is still planning its move to a new site.
Mossburg’s not exactly relaxing on the couch—he’s not the type to sit around doing nothing. He’s busy filling his cheap Blue Dot pipe with a special mix he buys from a man down in Annapolis. Along with his omnipresent pipe, Mossburg wears his stand ard uniform: a green baseball cap, a heavy-duty work shirt, faded jeans, and scruffy boots. No matter that his dump has been closed for a year and that his typical day mostly consists of meetings and phone calls to lawyers.
Mossburg speaks in a rural Maryland drawl—a sort of country cousin of Bawlmerese—that turns “push” into “poosh” and “trash” into “tresh”; his is a blunt tongue peppered with cussing and whatever happens to be on his mind, which is usually the pricks who want to shut him down.
When Mossburg was growing up in the ’50s, Travilah was just a gravel road, and the surrounding area was known as the Big Pines. Even in then-rural Montgomery County, the Big Pines had a reputation as a rowdy backwoods place: “Everybody would say, “Man, you don’t want to go up in the Big Pines’—that’s trouble up in the Big Pines—it was like wilderness.”
In the early ’50s, his father bought the property on Travilah Road and started operating a saw mill, a scrap yard, and a beer joint called Captain Billy’s (“daddy’s workers called him cap’n”). Captain Billy’s became a popular hangout for locals and truck drivers hauling loads from Rockville Crushed Stone quarry a mile down the road. Mossburg began helping out at the family business when he was 8 years old and was privy to the wild, late-night action at Captain Billy’s: “It was a good place to get your teeth loosened up. On a Saturday night, it was nothing to drive up here and see 25 cop cars and 150 people rolling around in this parking lot.”
Hyperbole or no, these brawls taught Mossburg a lesson that he never forgot: Fighting was an honest, even admirable, way to settle differences. “Back then, if you had a disagreement, you settled it one of two ways—you argue and settle it or you fistfight and somebody gets their ass kicked. Then after it’s over, you get up, you drink a beer, and you go on about your business. Today, they sue you, and if you get in a fistfight, they sue you for hitting ’em.”
From his father, he learned the ways of a small-time, backwoods operator: Hold on to everything, ’cause even junk’ll bring you a buck or two. “My father didn’t throw nothing away,” says Mossburg, showing off a broken bootlace he spliced together. “You gotta find a way to use it—that’s basically what we did.” Over the years, Billy Sr. ran a myriad of operations from the wooded lot in addition to a sawmill and beer joint. He would do excavation, landscaping, and sod work, too. But the property’s legacy would be as a dump. Not just any dump, but the most notorious dump that Montgomery County has ever known.
As the sultan of solid waste, Mossburg considers himself one of the area’s first recyclers. One anecdote he’s fond of telling is how his father used the beams from a demolished school on a nearby bridge project. “You’ve heard the saying, “We were country before country was cool.’ Well, we were recycling when it was called scavenging,” brags Mossburg.
He admits that the main attraction was always the money, and there was a gold mine—not in saving tin cans—but in making mulch piles.
By the ’80s, Travilah Recovery was booming. Every day, battalions of trucks dumped hundreds of tons of construction and land-clearing debris there, mostly wood and cardboard. Laborers sorted the recyclable materials from the dross, toiling by hand, often with Billy Mossburg right by their side. Montgomery’s largest private recycler, Travilah churned out wood-chip mulch from scraps. The rest, supposedly, was hauled to the county landfill.
Captain Billy’s burned, and eventually closed down, but the Mossburgs didn’t need a roadside tavern anymore to help pay the bills. Trash was big business now, and Mossburg was making serious money: He even had his own helicopter. Travilah became the county’s largest privately owned solid waste transfer station, a place where companies could dump without having to make the trip to the county landfill. And it was cheap, too. By charging less than the county’s tipping fees, Mossburg attracted more and more dump trucks to his site. More trucks, more trash. More trash, more money.
But the development producing all the construction trash that kept Travilah Recovery busy also spelled its doom. The suburbs were creeping up River Road, and new, expensive homes started popping up on the horizon. The rich folk had invaded the Big Pines, and they didn’t want a trash man in their neighborhood.
The new neighbors gained political clout soon enough, and Travilah became a prime target for removal. In 1984, county officials suddenly ordered Mossburg to get a license even though he’d been operating on his property for years. His land had never been zoned for industrial use in the first place, and now that the area was a burgeoning suburb, Travilah found itself unwanted, if not illegal.
Mossburg claimed that his business was grandfathered in; always a step ahead in the early days of the squabble, he managed to nab a state license to continue his operation. But local officials started issuing citations for all sorts of violations. In 1985, the warring parties reached a compromise in a consent agreement: Mossburg would move his dump from Travilah Road to another site, away from the residential revolution taking over Potomac. While he looked for a new location, he received a temporary permit to keep Travilah open. But when Mossburg found a parcel on an industrial site in Rockville, county officials blocked his relocation efforts, claiming he needed a special-use permit there as well.
In 1986, the county tried once again to shut down Travilah, claiming that Mossburg had reneged on the consent agreement by failing to move his business in time; officials also said he could continue operating Travilah only as a junkyard, not as a lucrative waste transfer station and recycling center. Mossburg protested the county’s action, and Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Calvin Sanders ruled in his favor. The judge’s opinion, issued on Oct. 8, 1986, has served as Mossburg’s personal Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights ever since:
A citizen, and Mr. Mossburg is a citizen of the County, has a right to assume that his government will treat him fairly. And that’s true whether he is a man of wealth or a man of little means. He made a very good effort to comply with this requirement. When he found the land and ultimately purchased it, the County then issued a limited permit so that he could simply stock junk automobiles when it knew full well that that was not his intention from the start….I do not feel that the county having dealt with one of its citizens in this fashion, I don’t feel in good conscience that the Court can go along with this operation, the effect of which is to drive him out of business when he had been led down the primrose path believing that the County was on his side and simply trying to clean up Travilah Road.
Mossburg claims that the county’s intent all along has been to monopolize the big-money garbage racket; as the only privately owned waste transfer station in the county, Travilah made an easy target: “We’re in the trash business, and they don’t want any competition,” he says. “Judge Sanders told ’em: “You’re wrong—you’re merely trying to drive the man out of business,’ and they’ve continued to do that right on down the line.”
In fact, Mossburg’s notions aren’t far off base. Back in the early ’80s, the county’s director of environment made a pledge to shut down every private waste transfer station in Montgomery, according to a county politico who has followed the case for years, and who requested anonymity: “There were three or four others, mostly stump dumps, really, and he did shut them down. He didn’t run into a roadblock until Mossburg.”
Since Sanders’ ruling, the case has bounced through a dizzying gantlet of suits and countersuits, rulings and appeals. Even with a judge in his corner, Mossburg has been unable to relocate to his two-acre parcel on Southlawn Lane in Rockville. From the county’s perspective, Mossburg is a garbage fly that won’t be shooed.
“Mr. Mossburg has become an expert manipulator of the system,” says David Weaver, spokesperson for Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan. “I have seen him argue a case in court without an attorney present, and he more than held his own.”
Mossburg isn’t likely to quit: He says he made a promise to his father. Back in 1984, just as the battle with the county first erupted, Billy Mossburg Sr. died and exhorted his son to forge on no matter what. “He told me “Don’t give up son, ’cause you’re right,’ ” recalls Mossburg. “He said, “Keep fighting.’ ”
Mossburg may rail against a future that doesn’t seem to include him, but not all of his trouble showed up with the big new houses. His fiercest enemy—apart from the county, of course—lives right across the road, an old woman who has actively reviled the Mossburg clan since the Eisenhower era. Hell, Mossburg has hated her right back ever since he could remember.
Clutching a steaming cup of microwaved instant coffee, Marjorie Hersberger moves slowly but surely through her dark, cramped home. The tiny 74-year-old widow suffers from arthritis, which has gnarled her limbs and made walking a painful struggle. She props herself at her bedroom window and stares sullenly across Travilah Road at the mulch pile lurching just a stone’s throw from her front yard. From this bedside perch—where the mound actually blocks the view of each dawn—Hersberger has witnessed Mossburg’s trashy rise and subsequent abasement at the hands of county officials.
She may be house-bound, but Hersberger still manages to serve as Billy Mossburg’s bad conscience. For years, she’s had little to do except watch her sworn enemy. She’s an armchair hanging judge, and her verdict’s been the same ever since she saw young Billy take after his shifty, scavenger father: “He’s a damn liar,” she says. “It’s the same old story—poor Billy against the big, bad county.”
Through the years, Hersberger watched Mossburg amass his pile of trash; she watched as he landed his helicopter on the site—the god of garbage come down to survey his dung heap. And she watched the pile burn for months last year, allowing herself to believe that the apocalypse had finally come and redemption would be hers—not in heaven, but right here on Travilah Road.
“I’ve got the patience of Job,” she says, “because ultimate victory is my goal.”
Hersberger has hated the Mossburg clan (“They’ve never been on close terms with the truth”) ever since Captain Billy’s opened in the early ’50s, a decade after she and her late husband moved to the Big Pines from Saskatchewan. She retains a blunt Canadian accent through which she delivers a spirited, sly sarcasm. Hersberger’s husband, a carpenter and construction worker, built their small frame house while the newlyweds stayed in a shack on the property.
Then came the Mossburgs to soil their little patch of rural paradise.
“How would you like it if somebody put up a beer joint in front of your home where you were trying to raise four daughters?” she says. “A Peter Pan Inn it wasn’t—on a Sunday afternoon, these guys would come out behind their cars and urinate on the parking lot in broad view of anybody going up and down the road. Oh, they were classy folks.” Even worse than the public pissing- matches were the used condoms littering the lot after a weekend night: “It was also acathouse, you know.”
Hersberger says Mossburg wasn’t exaggerating about the place’s reputation for violence: Once, her nephew was reported missing for three days. The distraught family finally found him at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, where he’d arrived by ambulance—beaten to a pulp and without any ID—after a fight at Captain Billy’s.
The beer joint bothered her, but it was the industrial shenanigans on Mossburg’s property that eventually began to obsess her: midnight goings on, muddy diesel rigs barreling in and out, churning up nonstop noise and dust, and a new operation—always involving trucks and trash—seemingly every week. “Billy’s had about 10 businesses over there,” she says. “He’d get into trouble with the county with one business, and he’d just switch to another with a new name. It was a real circus over there.”
Hersberger would watch Billy Mossburg roam the place, even far into the night: “You can tell his walk anywhere, he’s got a very particular way of bouncing along like he’s always in a hurry, you know, and he’s always smoking that pipe.” She’ll tell you that the cap and pipe are just props, meant to divert. “I saw them at a funeral once, and all of them, even Billy, were wearing their suits and ties, looking like normal, everyday people,” she says. “This poor-boy costume of Billy’s is just a front.”
The booming trash dump of the ’80s finally pushed Hersberger over the edge and inspired her own battle with the Mossburgs. Her husband had died, her daughters had married and moved out. She alone remained in the old homestead, which was now dwarfed by a looming mountain of trash that towered over the tree line like some implacable eruption from the earth’s bowels. The cheapest place around to dump a load, Travilah Recovery seemed to attract every mud-flapping, muck-hauling truck in Montgomery County—not to mention all sorts of wildlife drawn to the refuse: seagulls, buzzards, and countless big, black crows.
“You wouldn’t have believed the size of these crows,” says Hersberger. “Of course, they were feeding so good. On a Sunday morning when things were quiet, they’d sit on that telephone line like a choir in their black robes. I mean the sky was black with ’em. They’d drop chicken bones and all sorts of trash in my front yard.”
Hersberger finally complained about the dump to county officials. She staked out her yard and filled garbage bags to present as evidence. In her kitchen, Hersberger pulls out several shopping bags bursting at the crumpled edges—not with old chicken bones, but with several pounds of files she’s compiled on the Mossburg case: newspaper clippings, personal notes, and minutes from the public hearings she’s attended for years, trying to close down the dump.
Above the gas stove hangs a small plaque etched with a flowery design and a quote:
LIFEiseasier than you think—all you have to do isaccept the impossible,do without the indispensable,& bear the Intolerable,(and be able to smile at anything).
“That’s my motto for living,” says Hersberger with a self-deprecating cackle. “Some people have said to me, “Why don’t you move?’ And I said, “This is my home—why should I move?’ ”
The county never took action despite her complaints, she says. Only after the new homeowners’ associations and their well-publicized protests drew attention to Mossburg’s dump did officials start listening. And then came the great fire.
The Mossburgs still claim it was arson, but the official cause of the epic blaze of the Travilah trash dump was spontaneous combustion. According to a dump expert—who is familiar with the situation, but declined to be named—Mossburg was sitting on a huge pile of cardboard and paper scraps, waiting for the price of newsprint to rise. The expert surmises that the paper mountain pretty much blew up from its own sheer density: “He let it get way too big—Billy knew that every day that pile sat there, the value was increasing, and instead of killing the pig and getting a fat profit, he was waiting to slaughter the hog—he got greedy.”
Hersberger agrees with this scenario, saying that she saw fewer and fewer loads leaving for the county landfill, as the mountain of debris rose ever higher. “I don’t begrudge Matt his college education,” she says slyly, “I just wish he’d taught his father a little something about spontaneous combustion.”
Fire officials say the blaze started deep inside the 40-foot-high pile sometime in the fall of ’94. The Mossburgs couldn’t contain the fire, and by November, county officials had taken over the effort, which became a major operation involving hundreds of workers. For nearly two months, Montgomery County firefighters camped out at Travilah and fought the blaze round-the-clock. “It was so fascinating to watch that I couldn’t sleep,” says Hersberger. “I was up sitting on the end of my bed and watching them fight the fire all night. It was a real education.”
The slow smolder spewed clouds of acrid smoke—filled with floating ashes and shreds of trash—and a putrid odor that engulfed the North Potomac area for miles around. The noxious fumes temporarily shut down Stone Mill Elementary School and forced residents from their homes; some had to take temporary refuge in motels.
“It was raunchy,” says Hersberger, who recalls waking up in bed—just a few hundred yards from the red-hot core glowing underneath tons of trash—her eyelids literally stuck together by the smog that had seeped into her house.
“The smoke was pretty bad,” admits Little Bill. “The whole thing just took on a life of its own.”
Billy Mossburg was a reluctant host to the firefighting encampment, which he still refers to as an invasion. But he proved an amiable presence on local TV-news broadcasts, whose crews staked out the scene as aquirky and dependable show-closer: “Travilah burns on, sports next.” At home in front of the cameras, Mossburg explained but never apologized for his quandary and suggested that the county was delaying putting out the fire in order to make him look bad. He remained serene through the fire and ensuing hullabaloo; he mostly just puffed his pipe and showed off his MOSSBURG FARMS cap, as if advertising a going-out-of-business sale on burning rubbish.
The long, drawn-out blaze didn’t exactly improve Mossburg’s local reputation, or the county’s, for that matter. Furious mobs of local residents protested at the site as if Travilah was some sort of CO version of the Three Mile Island disaster. Back from their commutes, still in their business suits, they donned gas masks and waved signs that begged “Do We Need Dead Bodies To Get Help?,” “How Many Months To Put Out The Travilah Fire?,” “Give Us The National Guard,” and “Help—We Are Breathing Poison Now.”
The county eventually hauled away more than 93,000 cubic yards of construction debris before the fire was extinguished; the bulldozers also uncovered some interesting items: tires, rotting car batteries, and containers of acetylene, oxygen, and freon—even a small boat had found its way into the pile. Authorities also took a huge pile of mulch that they claimed was precariously close to the blaze. On Dec. 12, Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan stood in a hard hat among the putrid ashes and announced to the world: “The Travilah fire is out.” Duncan had just taken office, and putting out the Mossburg mess had been his first order of business.
The fire officially shut down Travilah Recovery Industries, but in May another fire erupted in a smaller mulch pile that remained on the site. Again, the Mossburgs claimed it was arson. Nevertheless, the county billed Mossburg $2.6 million for the first cleanup effort and for hauling away the debris to the county landfill.
Mossburg counter-billed the county for $5.6 million for this emergency removal: He claims that they stole his mulch.
Not one to gloat, Hersberger remains fatalistic about the situation: “Well, the trash is gone, but we have no idea what he’ll put in place of it.”
It’s 9:30 a.m. on a weekday morning, and the Mossburg clan has gathered for breakfast at Faye’s Family Restaurant in old town Gaithersburg, a short drive from Travilah Road. Faye’s is a quaint, cheery diner, right across from the railroad tracks. Here among the friendly regulars, perky young waitresses, and free coffee refills, Billy Mossburg feels at home. This morning, he’s joined by Little Bill and Mathew; Christopher is conspicuously absent from the table. The boys order plain bagels and cream cheese with their coffee.
The patriarch—his cap laid on the table—calls for his regular meal of bacon and eggs. “Are you married yet?” he coos at the waitress, sneaking his arm around her waist and winking mischievously. “I’m too young,” she replies good naturedly, as if this is their regular routine.
The topic of conversation at the table centers on the county’s dirtiest blow yet.
Montgomery County Councilmember Michael Subin of Gaithersburg has proposed an amendment to the zoning ordinance that would ban all privately owned solid waste transfer stations in Montgomery County—forever. The action comes less than a month after a state court of appeals had ordered the county to let Mossburg open a transfer station at his Southlawn Lane site—his goal for nearly a decade.
Subin admits that his amendment was prompted by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals’ ruling in Mossburg’s favor, but he says the proposal wasn’t directed solely at Mossburg—this despite the fact that Travilah Recovery is the only transfer station seeking a special-use permit from the county.
“He can call me an audacious toad, and I don’t care,” says Subin. “I have nothing against the man. I’ve never spoken of doing anything to, for, or against Mr. Mossburg. The issue is protecting the public in how we deal with transfer stations, which are not the most desirable land use.”
Mossburg snaps when Subin’s words are relayed to him. “We’ve got the only [private] transfer station in the county, and he wants to eliminate them, and he says it’s nothing personal.” He grumbles that they saw Subin at a nearby table right here in Faye’s, a day or so before Subin made his proposal, and the councilmember didn’t say anything about his plans.
“Yeah, Subin was just in here the other day,” echoes Little Bill. “He said “nice to see you’ and sat there smiling.”
“It was just a chance meeting,” says Subin of the encounter at Faye’s. “I just asked how he was doing—it was purely an exchange of pleasantries and nothing more.”
Back in his rowdy days, says Mossburg, he would have challenged Subin to a fight and whupped his butt—or something worse.
While the boys nibble at their bagels and sip orange juice, Billy Mossburg wolfs down his hungry-man breakfast, making bacon sandwiches with folded pieces of toast and wiping his plate clean. He gulps some coffee, and his dark mood continues when the subject of his neighbor across Travilah Road comes up: “One thing you can count on from Marjorie Hersberger, from the time I was a child all the way to today—she’s negative, and she don’t like nothin’. She didn’t like my father or my uncle, neither.”
Getting angry, Mossburg tries to explain Hersberger’s long-standing grudge against him and his kin:
“This old woman is living across from a beer joint, a saw mill, a trash dump—she’s living across from an industrial park. She’s out in the country—she don’t drive—she just got stuck there and we’re right across the street, so in her mind, we’re the bad guys. What happens, Mrs. Hersberger, if everybody in the world goes away and the only people left is you and me?”
He pauses and says sadly: “She’s been there forever, and it’s unfortunate. I don’t have any hard feelings for her anymore.”
The almost tender way he ends his rambling about his old enemy seems to have struck a chord of compassion in him.
“A few years ago, I used to be a mean person,” says Mossburg. “I mean just plain ornery. I used to be a despicable son of a bitch.”
Billy Mossburg is at the wheel of his red Ford Explorer, far from the Big Pines and deep in enemy territory. “We’re on county property now,” he says, turning onto a gravel road that snakes into the woods off Interstate 270 near Clarksburg.
For the past hour, he and Little Bill have been on a reconnaissance mission around Montgomery County.
First, he barrels through the snarled traffic of downtown Rockville to visit the proposed site of the resurrected Travilah Recovery Industries. Along Southlawn Lane, he points out a concrete plant, a scrap metal lot, and auto junkyards, among a throng of smokestack operations: “Now is that industrial or not?”
He pulls up the Explorer to the chain-link gate of his two-acre property.
It is a tiny, forlorn-looking lot, more like a hole gouged out of a clay cliff that exposes the dangling roots of trees high above. It’s truly remarkable that somehow Mossburg was able to find an even uglier parcel than his Travilah Road site. To him, of course, it’s beautiful: He envisions a brand-new waste transfer station featuring state-of-the-art equipment, dump trucks going in and out in some exquisite ballet of diesel, steel, and trash.
Then he heads for the county’s solid waste transfer station at Shady Grove, his former competitor. He swings through the sprawling lot, cursing the gigantic cranes and fancy new machines—paid for by those same tax dollars the county’s using to fight him. He parks for a while near the entrance, watching trucks roll in: Then he starts waving to the drivers one by one, a stiff arm held out the window that seems more like a goodbye: “He was a customer, he was a customer, he was a customer….”
And then, boiling with rage, he announces, “I want to show you something,” and he heads north toward rural Clarksburg. On the way, he rails against the county in a flurry of insults—“a fucking heated garage for county parks trucks while people are starving!” A worn cassette of Peruvian pan pipe tunes—which he often uses for “traveling music”—remains on the dashboard.
He steers the Explorer over the bumpy, tortuous road devoid of signs or markers, past some abandoned brick houses, and finally into a meadow on a bluff out of view of the interstate traffic.
On the far edge of the meadow, a patch of something shimmers in the sunlight. As Mossburg pulls the Ford closer, he’s getting visibly excited. Then he guns the engine, and the Explorer bursts onto a surface that feels like a gigantic mattress. He makes several wide turns and then stops near the edge.
Beneath the parked Ford sprawls a 20-foot-high pile of brown, musty-smelling mulch as big as four football fields.
“This is ours,” says Mossburg, surveying his stolen domain. “Holy Shit! This ain’t a pickup load or something. When you can actually drive around on the damn thing for 10 minutes, you start to realize how wild all this is. They just took our material and tried to hide it up. Unbelievable, isn’t it?”
Mossburg and Little Bill jump out of the Ford and take in the view before they head to opposite sides of the pile and relieve themselves, re-staking their claim to their turf.
“It’s ours!” shouts Billy Mossburg as he pisses on his pile of mulch. “It’s ours!”