"My father was always odd," his son once told reporters (McAndrew and Fish, May 18, 2003, Post-Standard). John T. Jamelske was born in the small town of DeWitt, a community located just outside of the city of Syracuse in central New York. He was an only child, the son of a watchmaker who was also a collector of old clocks. Jamelske attended high school in nearby Fayetteville where he was known as a quiet student who mostly kept to himself. "He wasn't much to talk," one classmate later said to the press. "You'd say hello and that would be the conversation" (McAndrew and Fish). He avoided sports and was an under-achiever in most school academics. The young Jamelske loved history classes but had difficulty with math. Some of the other students at high school called him "Germs" Jamelske because of his reclusive behavior. But Jamelske, encouraged by his father, managed to go to college and later graduated from a state university.
John Jamelske eventually married and had three sons. The family remained in the DeWitt area where the boys played little league baseball and attended local schools. During those years, Jamelske worked in local grocery stores to make money. He was extremely frugal and it was common for him to argue with people over a nickel. He also persuaded local librarians to save food coupons from the newspapers for him. If the coupons were not available, he would loudly berate the library employees until he got his way (O'Hara, July 17, 2003, Post-Standard). "It was one of those things that made him our least pleasant patron," one librarian told the press (McAndrew and Fish).
Nearly every day, Jamelske scoured the roads of Onondaga County for empty bottles and cans which he redeemed by the thousands for deposit money. But despite his penny-pinching, he was not poor. Years before, he had convinced his father to invest money in stocks. The investment grew and when his parents died, the stocks were passed to him. But Jamelske never looked like a wealthy man. He frequently dressed in old jeans and hooded sweatshirts. In the Fayetteville area, he became well-known as the disheveled man who collected bottles and junk. But even as he continued to skimp on costs in his DeWitt home, Jamelske invested in real estate in California and Nevada. In 1988, a large portion of the land behind his home was sold to a local real estate developer. By 2000, Jamelske was a millionaire, at least on paper.
But his home on Highbridge Road in the town of DeWitt remained a chaotic mess of bottles, junk, discarded furniture and debris. Everyone in the neighborhood was aware of the condition of the Jamelske home. Local code enforcement officers visited the property on several occasions. They saw abandoned cars, old kitchen appliances, chairs, sofas, lamps and a multitude of other objects that lay strewn about the land. "Everything we pointed to," one officer later said, "he had a use for it. Or a potential use. He saved everything!" (McAndrew, June 14, 2003, Post-Standard).
Over the years, the local contractor who purchased Jamelske's land developed the property and named the area Waterford Woods. Dozens of modern, spacious homes that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars were built along the same street where he lived. But Jamelske refused to move or improve his blue-shingled ranch style home. Instead, he constructed a six-foot high wooden stockade fence around his one acre property. Neighbors were disgusted by the ramshackle appearance of Jamelske's junkyard. The contrast between the neat, expensive homes with their trimmed lawns and Jamelske's house of horrors was dramatic and shocking. But there was little that could be done about it.