Highway Superintendent Michael J. Frederes and the Town of Walworth

Laurie Mercer

When Mike Frederes, town of Walworth highway superintendent, retires at the end of this year's term, he says he will not miss getting up at 2 a.m.

What he does look forward to is jumping into his car with his wife of 32 years, Nancy, and going wherever they want to. He says of his future, “We haven't been West much. Small towns just fascinate me.”

The town of Walworth, with three hamlets, numbers about 10,000 people. A recent 2017 award for outstanding achievements from the Genesee Valley Branch of the American Public Works Association (APWA) is just one formal recognition of a job well done.

Mike couldn't have seen his career path clearly when, in 1975, he joined the highway department to do some part-time snowplowing in addition to his full-time devotion to the family farm. From 1987 to 1994, he was working for of the town's water department. He transferred to highway and became foreman in 1995. The following year, he became highway superintendent, a position he will retire from. In total, Mike has 41 years of employment with the town, including full-time and part-time assignments.

His devotion to the Lincoln Fire Department is even longer with 43 years, including three terms as fire chief. He also has served as captain and assistant chief and is currently vice president of the board of directors. His sons, Dan and Kevin, are also actively involved. And true to his roots, the 250-acre farm is where he still feels most at home while raising black Angus cattle, some crops, straw and hay, and pumpkins, mostly for fun while stocking his seasonal roadside stand.

Mike has a crew of eight plus himself and a part-time office worker — Dottie, whom he calls a “Crackerjack.” Dottie's husband also had many years in the department.

All the roads in Walworth are the responsibility of Mike and his crew. They have a total of 175 lane miles of road, with 116 lane miles in the town, 39 lane miles of county highways, and about 20 lane miles of state highways (Routes 350 and 441). In essence, every road in the town is his department's responsibility.

The budget in 2016 was $1.6 million with $114,361 coming from CHIPS and $26,104 provided by Pave New York.

Plenty of people can plow snow and mow roadways, but it probably won't get you any special recognition. For example, when Walworth recently worked to get a Tops supermarket to come to town, it was the highway crew who assisted in the site work of the commercial development, which represented the first supermarket in town. Among other things, they hauled 6,000 tons of gravel for the parking lot. Likewise, when an enormous array of solar panels was constructed by the town hall in their effort to go green, it was the highway department who helped complete the task by working on the site. They have repaired and installed new water lines in town, built major additions, made capital improvements to the highway facility and the town hall (where they dug the footers), and assisted with three parklands and associated playground equipment.

“The town got a $150,000 grant to create a lodge in the park, and it is always booked for activities,” Mike said. “We helped with the electric, gas and sewer installations, plus the sidewalks and the lodge itself.”

The more typical highway work, including repairing and clearing roads, replacing culverts and bridges, and sharing services and equipment with neighboring municipalities, has been accomplished with an ever-improving array of heavy equipment. Mike also was active on the planning board for several years.

Going From Water to Highways

“I was born and raised in Walworth,” said Mike, whose father once walked several miles each day, year-round, to a one-room schoolhouse. His dad had to go to school early if it was his turn to make the fires or to pump water from a well about a half-mile from the school. Self-sufficiency comes naturally to Mike. His mom still lives on the family farm on Plank Road. Mike and his family live nearby.

“We farmed the muck land with potatoes, onions, lettuce and other fresh produce, plus some beef cows and several hundred pigs,” he said.

After graduating from Wayne Central School, he began farming full-time for the next 13 years. Many of the crops went to the public market and directly to stores like Star Markets, which no longer exist.

“Unfortunately we had some disastrous weather [too much rain], and it quickly became evident that the farm could not support two families,” he said.

By that time Mike had married Nancy, whom he met on a blind date, and become a father to two boys. He credits fate for the union. Once he joined the highway department full-time he said they shifted the farm operations from labor-intensive vegetables to less demanding activities they could handle more easily.

Nancy works as a teaching assistant with computers in a school near the highway barn, which is due to close amid a lot of local dissension, while son, Daniel, is still on the farm and his other son, Kevin, works as a 911 dispatcher in Rochester.

Mike pointed to the overlap of highway and fire departments. “Both,” he said, “require community involvement. In fact, that's how I got this job. I was in the volunteer fire department with the former superintendent, and I said if you ever have a job, give me a call. Not too long after that, he called. I also met my wife through the fire department. We went on a blind date arranged by another volunteer.”

Local family farms have diminished in his lifetime.

“I remember when the milk truck was going down every road in town. People who ship milk now number about four in Walworth when it used to be 45.

“I had worked for the highway department since 1975, mostly as a part-time wingman,” Mike said. “Things were slow on the farm in winter, and they were looking for someone willing to get up at 3 a.m. for $3.85 per hour. I was in my element because I have always loved to run equipment and be around machinery. Back then, small towns had their own water departments, so I joined them and worked for the water department full-time for eight years. I probably helped install about 20 miles of water mains. I am sure I have dug on every road in this town.

“At the time, Dan Keys, who was superintendent for 23 years, was retiring. The man who took it over did it for a year and hated it. So, I ran in the caucus and then in the election. I was first elected in 1996 and have run unopposed ever since.”

The fact that the crew in Walworth is closely knit is evident in the fact that they all bring their lunches and eat together every day. Mike's original Igloo cooler, which he got when he started 30 years ago, is still his “go-to” lunch, even though it's showing some wear. His wife tried to buy him a replacement, but they don't make them anymore.

“When I first started here, an old-timer from the town of Butler told me, 'you just do your job and the rest will take care of itself.' You are going to find out you will lose a lot of friends because they will not understand why, on a Friday night, you can't hang out with them. You have to be on 24/7, but you will make new friends. There is a whole little highway world. And it's true.”

From Farms to a Large Planned Community

Not everything planned comes to fruition, and that is certainly true in Walworth where in the 1970s a mini-town called Gananda was imagined. The planned development was created by two brothers who grew up on a farm in Ontario, N.Y.

Gananda personified the planned community popular at that time with prospects for its own schools, water, sewers and four-lane highways envisioned to take commuters to jobs in nearby Rochester. The need for four lanes never materialized.

“I remember in 1974 when they were building the lake by the golf course there. They had a machine called a Mucksucker. Then the plan all blew apart when HUD pulled the funding on it. They had created their own school district. They had their own sewer plant, which the town now owns and operates. They intended to have factories so people wouldn't have to commute to Rochester. It was meant to be a self-sustained community. Now a granddaughter of the founders of Gananda is still working on creating town houses in Walworth.”

Mike said when the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) officials pulled the plug on the total plan, Walworth was left with several thousand houses intended for people of various incomes. Gananda represents the bulk of the highway department's work in residential neighborhoods, with approximately 1,000 homes in Walworth and more in neighboring Macedon. The crew even has a name for the very tight cul de sacs. They call them “eyebrows” and “lollypops” because of their shapes, which make them difficult to plow.

Gananda is a large subdivision with sidewalks and streetlights. While rural roads get salt and sand treatments, in developed areas just salt is used. And when the roads need repairing, he says they always send a letter out first to inform residents of the work to come and why it is being done.

Roads have an extra wide shoulder near the golf course to accommodate people driving golf carts to a nearby convenience store. The county built a bridge for the town in “In Kind Services” for the labor portion when the bids came in over budget. The bridge here uses a partially wooden structure to save on costs.

When reworking roads, Mike said sometimes going with “worst first” is not the best option. If he knows a road will require a major overhaul, he may let it wait until the condition deteriorates even further. In addition to paving roads, the crew works in road base stabilization, recycling pavement, mill and fill, crack filling, chip sealing and shoulder stabilization. They also supply maintenance on 679 town-owned traffic control and street names sign.

“Walworth is in the center of the county. When ice builds up in Lake Ontario, about eight miles away, the snowfalls may differ here from other areas. We may have to follow a different mix of sand and salt. Untreated salt is used in populated areas with storm sewers. In more rural areas a 50/50 mix is usually used. We haven't made the move to treated salt, which you have to watch because the weight is much heavier. If you don't recalibrate your spreaders, you are putting down much more than you need and wasting money doing it.

“Now liquids are the big deal,” Mike added. “If I were going to be here another year, I would definitely move into liquid applications. It's going to require more equipment with tanks on the trucks. The pumps and spray hoses and nozzles are high maintenance. The equipment will set up so there is more care taking with them, and you have to be willing to do it, but I think liquid applications are very effective.”

The Highway Barn Addition and More

In his early years on the highway crew, most of the original fleet was composed of smaller capacity trucks. Working with largely cooperative town boards, Mike said today's equipment is better suited to the job while being upgraded to newer model single-axle and tandem axle trucks. The newest 10-wheeler (one of four) is a 2016 International Workstar that cost $206,000, and in 6-wheelers (one of five), the newest is a 2014 International Workstar. He is proud that because of forethought and planning, all of the new equipment has been purchased without the need to bond, lease or rent.

One important improvement, an Elgin Whirlwind vacuum truck street sweeper/catch basin cleaner and an aerial bucket truck, is owned jointly with Palmyra and Macedon. It was purchased in 2008 due to a $216,000 shared municipal services grant. As part of a public information campaign, signage on the vehicle highlights shared services between the town of Walworth, the town and village of Palmyra, and the village and town of Macedon.

“With a 2 percent cap in place,” he said, “we have had to forgo equipment sometimes. We try to buy a truck every other year, which means we have eight of them that are 16 years old when they go away, even though 10 is the magic number in terms of resale and repairs.”

He has one amusing story about a family outing in the upper part of Maine. As they were driving along, his son in the back seat piped up, “Dad, there's your truck!” They went back to look more closely, and sure enough, an older truck that they had sold at auction in Palmyra was sitting there with two other heavy vehicles. The service records and manual from its start in Walworth were still on the seat.

While the equipment got bigger and more numerous, the need for a larger highway barn became apparent. The 2004 highway barn addition actually began to take shape several years earlier when Mike worked with the town board to start saving money in a reserve account so that the addition would be constructed without additional funding from taxpayers. Accrued at a rate of about $50,000 a year, after five years they had enough to fund the approximately $350,000 project.

Mike knew what they needed, and he worked with the town engineer to get it done. One noticeable element of Mike's design are the many windows in the highway barn's main office, where views from three different directions make it easy to see what is going on outside while still being indoors. That's the kind of detail only a highway superintendent would value. You can see who is coming and going, including activity at the salt barn.

Another personalized detail is the treatment of the lower portion of the walls on the addition. Where the older structure had significant damage from salt in that area, the new addition has concrete block instead. The crew performed all the clearing, grubbing and site preparation work. The new addition, off the west face of the original structure, is 60 feet wide and 100 feet long, constructed in steel with a concrete in-floor heating system. Given 6,000 square feet of addition space, six of the town's trucks are comfortably situated along side other equipment.

The idea of putting money away for capital improvements ahead of time took hold so that Walworth got to replace their aging salt barn with a new one. By 2012, they could begin discussions with a design engineer. The small capacity 40 x 60-foot salt barn was replaced in 2013 by a new 80 x 136-foot barn. While the older structure often meant frequently re-ordering salt to keep it full, the new one has always met the demand. Previous storage capacity went from 800 tons of material to today's 6,000 tons. A small grant of $3,000 came from the Ontario/Wayne Stormwater Coalition. The total project cost of more than $300,000 was accomplished with disciplined financial planning over several years and without any increase in taxes.

When American Pickers Came to Town

Some of the local excitement occurred a few years ago when the popular television show “American Pickers” came to town, lured by the prospect of inspecting a very old cheese factory that had been abandoned. An autographed photograph of the show's creators is proudly hung across the street in the newly expanded Lincoln Fire Department.

“The cheese factory had been abandoned for about 30 years,” Mike said. “There was another building nearby that the town had acquired for back taxes. It was a hazard, so the town paid to take it down. The highway crew helped to level the site. The second building was thought to be full of treasures, so somebody bought it. Somehow “American Pickers” heard about it and came to town. The owner was going to donate the land to the fire department if he made enough money from the treasures. Unfortunately, the roof had leaked for years and it was a total loss, even though there were two vehicles inside. There was a Fleetmaster Chevy ragtop with no engine in it. The engine was also in there, but it was taken apart. There was also an old pickup. The pickers wanted the Chevy, but they couldn't justify the transportation costs to ship it back to Iowa. The owner is still committed to donating the land to the fire department, but he needs the capital for the demolition.”

An Emphasis on Highway Organizations

Mike has always taken part in annual re-certifications and training opportunities for himself and his crew. He said keeping his crew safe is always on his mind. In June 2016, the Cornell Local Roads Program held its 71st annual highway school, and Mike received his 20-year award for his attendance at the event over the past 21 years. He had already achieved the five, 10, and 15-year awards. In 2005, he received the roadmaster level 1 meaning he had completed six different roadmaster workshop sessions.

Being part of the annual event in Albany, where highway people are conspicuous for their bright blaze orange shirts and caps, is part of who he is. As the commentator mentioned when he got the APWA award, “Mike has led by example and put in countless work hours to the betterment of the town. He has always had a steady hand, a level head, and careful, well-thought-out plans.”

As for challenges, Mike mentioned long hours. “Nobody understands the hours we put in. In a normal winter, we may be in the highway barn more than we are with our families. We are up sometimes at 3 a.m. and not back until 10 p.m. Some crew members live eight or nine miles away. We have had to spend the night here before.”

He added, when an older cell phone needed replacement, he found that it had 41,000 minutes on it, and they also still use two-way radios.

“It can be a strain on family life. When the mother wakes up the children on Christmas morning and their dad is not there, how do you tell a five-year-old that Christmas will be tomorrow instead? What I do see is fewer career guys with 40 years on the job because it can be a strain on young families.”

As for the upside, Mike is quick to say that he enjoys the close camaraderie of highway people, and he enjoys being on a first-name basis in the town of 10,000, having been on the highway crew for 30 years. He cited a funeral he and the crew would attend later in the day. “Even though we never met the gentleman, he was the brother of one of us, so we will attend the service.”

He calls the twice-a-year golf tournaments with other highway people a contest between, “hackers and whackers.” The fun part of the job, he said, is, “I can go anyplace in town and see people I know.”

Being Part of an MS4 District

Because the winter of 2017 had not been typical, Mike's challenge was to switch out the assignments while replacing snow removal with activities like cleaning out the catch basins ahead of time,

“We have 400 to 500 catch basins in town, which we normally service in summer, so we got a little jump on it. We are in an MS4 district because of our proximity to Rochester. We have to follow the rules, which means cleaning the road more often and cleaning the catch basins more often. There is a lot of public education involved to be sure people don't pollute the waterways. We are checking our outflows every year to be sure that nothing that is harmful to the environment is coming out.”

Of his retirement he said, “It's going to be odd the first few months, not waking at 2 a.m. and heading to the highway barn. Some people may think that this is a glitzy job, but not at 2:30 in the morning when the snow is blowing.”

And until the horrific wind and snowstorms that occurred in mid-March this year, it looked as if he was heading into an easy ending on his career. We quickly e-mailed Mike to ask what happened in Walworth during these epic events, including two days of 80 mph wind storms.

He wrote back, “As requested, here is a briefing of the wind storm and its damages. At one point on Wednesday [March 8] every north and south road was closed due to trees down and poles/wires/transformers down. Most of them were reopened by Saturday afternoon. About three-quarters of our residents were without power until Friday night and Saturday afternoon. We ran out of barricades, flashers, and cones and borrowed some from other towns in Wayne County. Monday morning [March 13] telephone crews were still hanging wires on poles that had to be replaced. We are bracing for our 10 to16 inches of snow due in the next two days. Never a dull moment!”

The blizzards matched by high winds that followed were like a last hurrah for Mike. The town ended up with 27 inches of snow, followed by some flooding issues. As Mike expressed it, “What a way to go out!”

About the Town of Walworth

Before the town of Walworth was named to honor General Chancellor Walworth, a state official, it was just another vast tract of uninhabited forest. There is not a lot of evidence of native Americans here, but in 1799 four brothers — Andrew, John, Samuel and Daniel Millet and their families — left their Connecticut homes and became the first settlers in the town. Their log cabins began the history of Walworth's homes.

The Millets' personal history is somewhat grisly. Daniel soon moved on to Ohio where he was mistaken for a bear one evening, and was shot and died. And Andrew, distressed with the amount of lumber being taken down, felt the world would soon run out of wood. Not wanting to live in a treeless world, he hanged himself. The remaining brothers were joined by another named Alexander. Their personal histories were much happier.

The first formal burying ground was laid out in 1803. The first post office was established 20 years later. By around 1835, hotels and livery, three general stores, a jewelry shop, two cooperages, two physicians, an academy, a public school, a harness shop, a shoe store, a millinery, a harness shop, a tin store, and two churches were quickly assembled to serve a population of about 450.

These were rough times for pioneers. For example, when Nathan Palmer erected and operated the first saw mill in town, circa 1810, it was situated on a small stream, and the dam that supplied the necessary power caused such an overflow on adjacent lands that the inhabitants assembled one night. The vigilantes tore down the dam and burned the mill. Justice prevailed when Mr. Palmer was somehow able to recover damages and costs.

Two more Connecticut Yankees, Stephen and Daniel Douglas, came in 1811 and upscaled their domiciles to become the first frame houses on the present four corners in the hamlet of what is now Walworth. The emerging community was known at that time as Douglas Corners, until 1825. Stephen's frame home, constructed at the end of a log cabin, also operated as a tavern. He later demolished that construction and built a larger hotel, which he ran until his death in 1812. Stephen Douglas later drowned in the canal. It is worth noting that few people at that time knew how to swim.

The town of Walworth was created in 1829 on slightly more than 20,000 acres representing the highest elevations in Wayne County.

There is plenty of history in this town, but the most momentous contribution came in 1879 when Theron Yeomans, a local man of means who arrived in 1830, first introduced Holstein cattle into the United States. Theron brought 32 Holstein cattle, including two bulls, from Holland. To a non-dairy person this may not seem very noteworthy, but imagine the output of your product being nearly doubled overnight. The Holstein, black and white in color, out-produced every breed being milked at that time. As a result, today the black-and-white spotted dairy cows dominate the American dairy industry in high volume milk production.

Theron also had a major influence in the nursery business, which the soil found in Walworth helped to nourish. Many of the orchards found in Walworth and throughout New York state came from Theron's stock. When he built an impressive white frame house in town, the view from the front door also lined up the entrance to a church he had constructed just down the street.

Theron's own progeny also helped bring president Grover Cleveland to town. That visit began in 1870 when Susan Cleveland, sister of the president, came to town to become the principal of Walworth Academy. It was here she met and married Lucien Yeomans. In June 1891, the president came to town to attend a double wedding of his two daughters. This was actually his second visit to Walworth. While governor of New York State, he had been a guest of his sister's at Thanksgiving about 10 years earlier.

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