POCATELLO, Idaho — Don Aslett may be more than a half century into his fight against dirt and clutter, but he still can’t take a stroll without bending to pick up litter from the sidewalk.
As a child, he can remember cringing at the site of spilled coffee grounds and in high school, finding it strange the other boys didn’t like to clean their rooms. Even now at the age of 76, his battle against grit and grime has yet to relent.
Those who may not understand his devotion, he reasons, have likely never felt the satisfaction of making a toilet bowl shine.
“I’ll tell you, clean is a hard sell,” said Aslett, who has written 37 books on the topic and founded a janitorial business with branches in most states and Canada.
While mothers may threaten their kids with having to clean their rooms as punishment, Aslett knew he was different from an early age.
“I love to clean,” he said with a shrug.
And now, he has a six-story shrine dedicated to his craft — the Museum of Clean — that recently opened to the public in southeastern Idaho.
Among the exhibits: A horse-drawn vacuum dating back to 1902; a collection of several hundred pre-electric vacuum cleaners; a Civil War-era operating table; a 1,600-year-old bronze pick that was used to clean teeth, and an antique Amish foot bath.
If visitors grow weary while touring the building with its estimated 6,000 historical cleaning devices, they can take a seat on chairs fashioned out of garbage bins, a claw foot bathtub and a washing machine from 1945.
There’s also an 88-seat theater, an art gallery, and a gift shop with cleaning kits for kids priced at $9.95 and plush toys in the shape of germs. Aslett’s most prized possession – a 2,000-year old terra cotta water vessel used by the Romans to wash up – is not quite ready for display and kept locked in a filing cabinet.
The idea for the project came several years ago, when Aslett came upon an old pre-electric sweeper vacuum at a Detroit museum.
“I thought, well there’s horse museums, cow museums, train museums, plane museums. Why not a clean museum?” Aslett said.
He started his collection with an old pump vacuum he purchased for about $250 and tracked down more items at antique stores, while others were donated. He soon had enough for a display at his office in downtown Pocatello.
“I found out something interesting, people are into cars and food and sports,” Aslett said. “Cleaning is way down on the list. But if you took something as dull as cleaning and made it humorous, then cleaning goes to the top.”
Aslett started public speaking and writing cleaning handbooks with titles such as: “Is there Life after Housework?” and “Clutter’s Last Stand.” His personal monikers have included the Dean of Clean, the Sultan of Shine and, who could ever forget, Don Juan of the John.
He was featured in People Magazine. He’s also been on “Oprah.” At one point, he started carrying a fiberglass toilet as a suitcase because he felt that was the symbol of his trade. He also enjoyed the suspense of his fellow travelers as they waited by the baggage carousel to see who would claim it.
As his cleaning business thrived, so did the cleaning tool collection. Things got serious when he found a Boston collector with 230 pre-electric vacuums he was willing to sell for $300,000.
“After I got that collection, I found out that I needed a lot more room,” Aslett said. “I thought, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to leave a real legacy.”
Over the years, as the museum missed several expected starts, but Aslett stood firm in his belief: “When you hear Pocatello, you’re going to think clean.”
He was quick to dismiss a website survey this year that ranked Pocatello among the dirtiest cities in the United States based on online sales of cleaning products.
“That’s like saying Pocatello has the most ugly women in the world because we buy the least makeup,” he said
The museum, which took six years to assemble at a cost of about $6 million, marked its grand opening in November. Tickets cost $5 per person or $15 for a family.
Inside, the history of clean begins to the right, with a giant model of Noah’s Ark, a reference to the worldwide cleaning of Biblical proportions. To the left are interactive exhibits aimed at teaching kids how to properly make their bed, clean their room, sweep and recycle.
During a recent tour, Aslett stopped to clean a window display inside a children’s play area. His squeegee glided across glass in a quick flurry of sweeping strokes, like an artist painting a canvas.
“That’s how the professionals do it,” Aslett said, leaning back to admire his work.
He would know.
Aslett first marketed himself as professional cleaner when he was 19 and attending Idaho State University in the 1950s. He charged $1.25 an hour and recalls his first job cleaning around a furnace took him 56 minutes. He was paid $1.18, an amount of money he keeps framed on his office wall.
“I thought, it’s going to be a tough road after this,” Aslett said.
But by the time he graduated, Aslett had launched a construction, facility services and janitorial company that employed about 500 and had branches in three states. Varsity Contractors now boasts annual sales of $100 million.
The cleanliness concept was ingrained into him from the time he was a child, growing up poor in the tiny town of Dietrich, Idaho, where the family grew beans, potatoes and wheat. His mother taught him that clean was something to be desired.
“She said: ‘The reason I married your dad is because he was always clean, he always washed his hands, he always had clean clothes,”’ Aslett said.
He and his wife, Barbara, now split their time between their Idaho ranch and their home in Hawaii. He may be a millionaire, but he also embodies the de-cluttered lifestyle he preaches. He has two pairs of shoes, three suits and the last time he brought a new pair of Levis jeans, they cost $3.25.
“When you’re a cleaner, you look at things a little differently,” Aslett said. “You look at the stuff you have to clean up, the unnecessary bottles and the unnecessary towels, and the garbage …” he said, his voice trailing off as the list went on.
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