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By: Laurie Mercer
Because a municipal clerk, back in the early 1800s, was given the privilege of naming Ovid, the town became an avatar of sorts for a romantic poet from ancient Greece — high on a rounded hill above the shores of two Finger Lakes, Cayuga and Seneca. It’s easy to imagine what the clerk had in mind. Aside from being a pastoral, poetic paradise; it harbors abundant vineyards and year around activities to lure tourists to the Finger Lakes region.
The residents of Ovid today are an eclectic mix of Amish whose buggies are as busy as any soccer mom’s van, corrections guards assigned to a brand new maximum security prison, a drug treatment center, a place for troubled youth, and long time natives (call them locals and it’s alright with them) — including Jack Wickham Jr.
When elected in 1988 at the age of 32, Jack was one of the youngest superintendents ever elected in New York State. In the past election he got more votes than the next most popular candidate — the tax assessor.
The Town of Ovid has a population of approximately 1,800 people.
“I’ve got 42.2 miles of road and 22 miles of county roads that we plow, but don’t sand,” said Jack.
The town’s 2010 budget is $188,000, with CHIPS representing $78,200. As he readies himself looking forward to Advocacy Day in Albany Jack said, “I mentioned to the town board recently that if we ever lost our CHIPS money, with the price of stone, fuel and everything we have to work with, we’d be lost. We’d all have to go backwards to dirt roads.”
Dirt roads, he said, are actually easier to maintain.
“All you have to do is scrape them, not patch potholes.”
In addition to plowing town and village roads, he also plows the school and the “old folk’s home.” The town lays down about three miles of asphalt road per year.
Asked about unusual features, he pointed to a total of six bridges in his care, which is probably more than the county has on its roster.
“There’s a county bridge in Willard [not his] that just fell through. They’ve got houses on the other side. The wooden deck was only about 14 years old, but it rotted out and the decking caved in.”
Jack’s years of experience have given him insight into why bridges fail, and their age is not the only reason.
Jack said that the “Bridges of Ovid” include, “An 86-foot span with a steel deck (that’s the kind you can see through). Another 82-foot span built around 1980. That’s a nice bridge. We also have a concrete bridge that is yellow flagged right now.”
Jack explained that during inspections made by the county every two years, inspectors will flag a bridge if they have concerns about its structure.
“Being yellow flagged means you have a problem, but there is usually a reasonable amount of time to make the necessary repairs.” A bridge that is flagged is inspected annually.
One of the highway crew’s bridges also is causing the town to be sued — a very rare occurrence here — but more about that later. To Jack, repair problems represent more than just safety issues. Repairs to bridges require big bucks in a rural area where the median income of village and town residents is well below the county’s norm.
“I’ve got one bridge being looked at by an engineer, which may need to be totally rebuilt. It’s an old 20-foot span and kind of screwed up on one side. The county may want to put a weight limit on that one, also. Fortunately it’s not that long, so with big trucks the weight is pretty much evenly distributed when they go over it. Since it’s the outside beam, which is under the rail, the damaged part doesn’t hold a lot of weight.”
How could he tell the bridge was damaged? He said, “You go underneath and see it. On this one it’s obvious because the concrete is falling away. Many of the bridges in New York are like this one. People get all crazy about bridges, but nobody wants to give us any money to fix them.”
“The engineer suggests for that the 20-foot span; it will cost the town $300,000 or possibly $400,000 to rebuild. And to replace that little concrete bridge? Over a million!”
Another Ovid bridge worth mentioning is at the very bottom of a steep hill and angles almost 90 degrees at a sharp right, with deep ravines and fast-moving water on both sides.
“We have to lift up the wing on our snowplows to make it around the turn on that bridge. It’s that sharp. That bridge has been beaten up by the plows. You slide sometimes when you are trying to make the turn.”
One of Jack’s crew flipped a truck there a few years ago.
“He started sliding pretty badly, and he didn’t want to go over into the gully, which is about 80 feet down,” he said.
During his defensive driver maneuver the nose of the plow stuck in the snow and flipped the truck over. Then it slid down the hill a little bit.
“We think he was knocked out, because when he called me he said when he came to he saw geese flying overhead, so I knew he was in trouble.”
True to form, the crew quickly had a guy with a wrecker come and cable his unit to a tree. Jack helped pick up the town’s truck with the payloader. It was an effort, but they got the vehicle’s wheels back under it.
“When the guy in the wrecker asked me what kind of engine was in it, I said Caterpillar, and he said it should start right up. We turned the key, some smoke bellowed out, but it was ready to go.”
“We replaced the side mirror, and in two hours we were out plowing snow again,” he said.
Home Town Pride
When he needs to relax, Jack heads to a cottage on the shores of Cayuga Lake, which has been in his family for more than 100 years. He said the sound of rain on the metal-roofed porch is very soothing.
“I’ve been in Ovid all my life,” he said. “The Wickhams were among the town’s earliest pioneer families. My father was an insurance salesman. We also owned an auction service, which my parents, my three brothers, and I ran as a family business.”
Jack studied carpentry at Alfred Tech after high school, but there were lots of carpenters around. He said, “Once you get out, everybody is a carpenter or they think they are. I was offered a job at the highway garage in winter plowing snow as a wingman. They offered me a full-time position in 1976 after another guy got hurt. I worked my way to the top.”
The superintendent at the time, Lew Moore, retired after 36 years with the department. Lew handpicked Jack for the job.
“He took me out for a ride one day. He said, ‘I’m going to retire and I want you to be the next highway superintendent.’ I said, ‘No thank you.’ I was young enough that I hadn’t been expecting it. So Lew said, ‘Now Jack, you think about it. You get to be your own boss, and they give you a free pickup.’ There was a big raise, too. Suddenly I thought, why wouldn’t I want that?”
“Back then we used to have a caucus. At the caucus Lew said he’d retire, he nominated me, and it was done. Nobody ran against me.”
Today it’s a four-year term.
“I just took over the paper work and continued to do what I was doing. When I first ran my campaign, I said I intended to be a working superintendent. I’m one of those guys who is here every day even though I don’t have to be. I’m always working with the crew out in the shop.”
In Ovid they work four 10-hour days in the summer and cover winter weather with routine eight-hour days. Sharing equipment and crew with nearby Covert, Lodi and Romulus, especially for oil and stone hauling, helps all four towns control costs.
Jack transitioned to the position of boss and buck-stopper in his small crew of three by telling his workers, “I’ll make a decision, but if you guys know a better way to do something, tell me and we’ll do it.”
He said his first run for office was, “very scary. Plus it’s hard to campaign here because we have all these corrections officers who are not residents. I had to find out who was a resident so I wasn’t knocking on doors of people who couldn’t vote for me.”
Single Dad and Proud of It
Jack’s house on Main Street Ovid is right next to the school, and his son, Jesse, age 15, is a kid magnet so the house is always busy.
“I call myself the Pied Piper,” Jack said. Jesse is both a basketball and football talent; Jack is fan #1. Jesse calls me his ‘Mad’ which means Mom and Dad.” Jack’s first marriage ended in divorce; his second lasted 11 years before a divorce. His stepson, Steven, from that union is 25.
As for interests, Jack’s are as fast-moving as visits to the Daytona 24 where he manages to stay awake watching the action for at least 22 hours, or as rural as participating in a Squirrel Derby.
What’s a Squirrel Derby? In the Derby cash prizes are awarded for various criteria including the largest squirrel and the most killed. He will also go after rabbit, coyote, deer, turkey, and any other wild game, dressed in just a flannel shirt for the outside layer, even in mid-winter.
His dream is traveling around in some kind of competitive car with his son by his side riding shotgun.
Amish — What We Call Quaint
Within a small four-town area including Ovid are at least 90 Amish families. Nationwide the Amish have shown remarkable growth in the past 10 years. The Amish tend to have large families, which means more kids needing more farmland for their own families to work. To accommodate the Amish’s building spree on family homes, Jack’s crew puts in new driveways.
Having a dozen children in these parts is not unusual, and the clotheslines for drying laundry are often three-tiered and fully used, even in winter. Even though the Amish present a Normal Rockwell-like picture to the world, their buggies have horrendous collisions with cars. Sometimes old world ways meets new with blinding cultural force. Jack commented that in one buggy accident a young Amish woman, who had never ridden in a car, was airlifted by helicopter to a nearby hospital.
New York State now mandates turn signals and headlights on buggies, in addition to the ubiquitous orange triangle on the back that the group fought having to add as a safety precaution several years ago. The Amish have their own rules. For example, they won’t own a telephone but often need one to communicate with other Amish families. The solution for some in Ovid has been to have a pay telephone booth installed just off their property, at the end of the driveway. Jack said they can’t have answering machines but can use an answering service.
Sometimes when they need automobile transportation for something like a family-wide round of eye appointments, they hire non-Amish local retired folks to drive them in their vans. Also surprising was the time an Amish angler won the lake trout derby using a pole made from bamboo. It won him a big cash prize.
Since most of Jack’s lane miles represent slower roads, his primary concern with the Amish is their steel tires and what is called “bleeding” on his largely oil and stone road surfaces. He said, “All of our roads are stone and oil except a half mile of dirt and a couple of mixed paved roads.”
He explained one of his challenges. “Stone and oil roads will do what we call ‘bleeding.’ If traffic goes real slow, the vehicle will pick up stone around the tires and pick chunks right out of the road. Bleeding leads to potholes. With the Amish, they are hauling a wagon load of hay going about 1 mile per hour with a horse up the road and the steel wheels are pulling chunks from the road.”
Jack’s solution has been lots of direct communication.
“I just get with the guy who is doing it. They are not bad to deal with. I ask them to call me so I can put some stone on the road, so their tires won’t stick to the tar and loose stone. Or they’ll tell me they are going to do the work after it cools off in the evening. We use spreader boxes off the back of a truck because it’s cheaper. Knowing how to do it, without a rented machine, is also an art in itself.”
Even harder on country roads are the trash haulers who come to an enormous landfill located between Seneca Falls and Waterloo. Trash is coming from as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania. Jack said that from the top of the trash mountain you can see the town of Lodi.
“The numbers of trucks and the weight of them are causing problems running through all the towns, including Ovid. The landfill makes money, but taxpayers are paying for the roads.”
One possible solution being proposed right now is restricting trash haulers to a truck route.
Local Trash Counts, Too!
While semis full of trash along country roads cause problems, it is only fitting that Jack’s department runs the town’s busy transfer station. The crew understands the issues surrounding solid waste first hand. A retired gentleman is on hand at the station to receive trash on Saturday and Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“We have a compactor and an open container where residents can bring construction debris, tires, and metal.” Garbage today is good money. He said last year the town made $4,800 on donated steel alone¸ plus $2 a bag for bagged garbage.
Near the transfer station also is a natural shale paradise right on the surface of the earth, with easy digging for road repairs and rebuilds.
“All the roads around here were built on shale, which sometimes gets a bad name for itself. They say shale eventually turns back to mud, but I’ve seen shale as good as it was 30 years ago when they put it in. You just have to keep the water and air off of it.”
Jack said they used the stone to build up curbs because it’s cheap, with little digging and hauling required.
As for treating oil and stone roads, Jack has found crushed stone works best. He said, “We experimented with gravel because it’s cheaper. Gravel has sand, dirt, and round stone in it, but not sharp edges like crushed stone.”
A Mellow Hill Between Two Finger Lakes
“I live on Doppler, it’s a big part of my life,” said Jack. “I live in the village, so I watch to see if the trees are moving. When I see even the slightest movement, I know I have to check the roads because it will be blowing hard in the country.”
As for snow he said the big blizzards of the 1970s appear to be a thing of the past.
“Our roads go from lake to lake, and for some reason the snow often goes over these two lakes and misses us. Or we can get six inches on the hill and have nothing by the lake.”
People have been living in these parts for so long that the pioneer cemeteries from the early1800s are full of sinking ground, toppling tombstones, and in need of repair. One local gentleman is actually replacing some of the early stones. Jack said he’d like to get heavier equipment into the cemeteries and help fill in the holes when he re-sets stones, but the weight of the heavy equipment will only make things worse.
“For five years we had prisoners help trim brush. They were in a 90-day shock camp, and out in public they were very well behaved, all ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’. The work program ceased, Jack said, because many inmates said they were Muslim and they couldn’t work in a Christian burial ground.
For whatever reason, this valuable no-cost help that benefits society is no longer helping to maintain Ovid’s dearly departed.
Wish Lists, Equipment
While the Ovid highway department was built around 1954, there’s nothing fancy about the building. Snap shots of heavy equipment on its side in snow banks, a younger Jack Wickham Jr. receiving some award, and other articles relevant to local roads look like they were tacked to the office walls many years ago.
To save money the town crew uses an abandoned salt storage area, no longer of service to the county, which is close to their property. He mixes salt and sand in a 3-to-1 mixture for town roads. They use 120 tons of salt a year, usually from Cargill. The sand is supplied by Elim.
Inside the garage plenty of well-kept equipment of every vintage is kept. Recently Jack got one piece on his wish list — a new International 10-wheeler with plow and attachments for $177,000 by using a state bid. A rainy day at a Teitsworth auction also got him a 1991 International with plow, wing, and sander from a suburban Rochester area for $18,000. He said, “The board was really proud. We got a helluva a deal on that one.”
While another New York highway guy had sold the truck because it was on a rotation plan of every 10 years, Jack said his board favors a 20-year rotation plan. Fortunately he has Dale “Buzzy” Hendrix, a talented mechanic. “We do all our repairs right here,” Jack said with a mixture of pride and awe.
“These are good mechanics and good maintenance guys. They can build anything. We just rebuilt three Dodge Rams and a snow plow. We put our own bottoms on trucks, boxes, and ramps. We’ll do anything that needs to be done.”
The Ovid crew is indeed made up of seasoned, hometown people who know what they are doing, but safety training courses offered by the county on topics including roadside mowing and loader operations have been well received. When one is dedicated to the job of highway work there are always skills and things yet to be learned or improved upon.
Future Forecasts —
What It’s Like to Get Sued
Advanced training in a variety of subjects is increasingly becoming a part of the job for highway superintendents. Jack has found additional background in legalese to be especially valuable. Personal injury suits brought against the Town of Ovid, which includes the highway department, are rare. The last one was 40 years ago when a driver back ended a plow during a white out.
However, television advertising by law firms targeting prospects probably encouraged one family so sue the town recently. Jack has already spoken to the insurance adjustor more than a dozen times, and the case has only just begun.
“Bridges,” he said with a sigh. “We’re getting sued over a bridge right now.” The incident involves a young boy whose bike wheel was caught in the expansion gap — the open space that has to occur on a metal bridge where it meets the road.”
It speaks to modern times that in addition to the usual highway work, Jack also has to provide documentation on when the road portion was paved, the seal applied, and other details that once were just part of the job.
“It’s not a problem if you keep everything in order,” he advised. “This family was not going to sue the town, but then an insurance bunch got hold of them.”
And the rest, as they say, is history, and not the good kind.
About the Town of Ovid
The first white people to encounter the Native Americans in the Ovid area were often French Jesuits. In 1671, Father Raffeix, a Jesuit priest wrote that the area now called Ovid, “is the fairest country I have seen in America. It is a tract between two lakes and not exceeding four leagues in width, consisting of almost uninterrupted plains, the woods bordering it are extremely beautiful. Around Giogouen (his name for the area) there are killed more than a thousand deer annually. Fish, salmon, as well as eels and other fish are plentiful. Four leagues from there I saw by the side of a river (Seneca) fine salt springs.
Little more than 100 years later General Sullivan’s army march into the area and helped eliminate the natives. Each lake was named for the indigenous tribe who lived around it. Sullivan’s army reported they found plains covered with quantities of corn, beans, melons, apples, plums, and peaches. A traveler passing through in 1791 said that the country between Seneca and Cayuga lakes was incomparable to any place on earth.
The first known settler, Andrew Dunlop, came in 1789, following in the tracks of Sullivan’s army.
The four towns of Ovid, Romulus, Lodi and Waterloo are often described as one area. All four were settled in 1781. The early settlers were German, Scotch, Irish, Dutch and English. Ovid had a courthouse and jail by 1806. Because the town was considered too far from the center of the county to be a county seat, that honor went to Waterloo in 1819. One historian said the removal of the seat of justice gave the thriving hamlet a setback.
Ultimately both Ovid and Waterloo were made county seats.
Ovid was created as a part of Onondaga County in 1794. It extends about eight miles from lake to lake, and its highest point is more than 700 feet.
The Indians valued the quality of the soil and so did the pioneers. For 50 years wheat was the primary crop planted. Mills multiplied in towns around Ovid, and flour became one of the principal exports for the county. Eventually potatoes and dairy caught on, but fruit in abundance, especially grapes, is what many people identify with farms in this area.
Transportation had to grow before commerce could get moving. As early as 1790 a ferry worked Lake Cayuga. By 1800 they had built the Cayuga Bridge.
New York State Route 96, 96A, and 414, along with County Road 139 all converge at the village of Ovid’s four corners. Though largely rural, Ovid is part of an area that early on was slated for development. For example, the state’s first chartered agricultural college opened in the hamlet of Willard in the town on Dec. 5, 1860.
Their timing proved fatal. Following the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861, the Civil War basically took all of the college’s students and much of its faculty. Just one year later, several hundred of the original 900-acre property was sold because of debts.
But Ovid’s residents were resilient and petitioned to have the location of the agricultural college transformed as the site for a new state asylum for the insane. For more than 100 years the Willard Asylum for the Insane was a robust area employer. The first 200 female patients were admitted in October of 1869.
Willard was the name chosen for the facility honoring Dr. Sylvester Willard, who had done a study on the need for another state institution for the insane poor. Willard died of typhoid fever just days before the bill he authored authorizing a state asylum for the chronically insane was passed.
Amid a lot of protests, the Willard facility was discontinued as a mental hospital in 1995. The buildings were converted into a drug treatment facility, still in use.
In Romulus, a town tightly bordering Ovid, is another facility with a fascinating history and a strong influence on the town.
The Seneca Army Depot is located on 10,600 acres — stretching from Cayuga to Seneca Lake. Beginning in 1941, the facility has been used for the storage and maintenance of strategic weapons, critical materials, and general supplies, including hazardous materials. A government document states, “As a result of normal operations and storage practices, chemicals have been released to the environment.”
Radiological wastes were stored at the depot as soon as it opened.
At the peak of its activity, the Seneca Army Depot was the third largest employer in Seneca County, with more than 2,500 civilian and active duty personnel. The depot is essentially now closed, with a skeleton crew and lots of high tech surveillance. The security fence, which protestors once tried to summit on behalf of peaceful solutions, will be maintained by the military for only a few more years.
New among the grounds is a brand new maximum security prison called Five Points for men and women. Jack Wickham Jr. says it is outfitted with a death row.
On the other end of the emotional scale, a few organized bus tours of the now empty place with a murky yet intriguing history have taken place. Trapped inside the fenced-in perimeter are hundreds of white deer (not albino) with a recessive trait, plus other conventional white-tailed deer. Of the herd of 700 or so, about half are white. This may be the world’s largest white deer herd, and its future is dependent upon plans for the old base where radioactive material has been remediated. According to the Army (www.atsdr.cdc.gov/HAC/PHA/seneca/sad_pl.html), it “poses no apparent health hazard.”
This unusual herd — which apparently began to gain ground after a military commander at the depot spied a white buck and gave orders that no white deer were to be shot on his watch — can today be hunted with a limited number of permits.
What to do with these thousands of acres of land is now the question asked by the site’s newest owners — the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), which owns most of the 10,600 acres. The IDA is deciding what to do with the land, including 7,500 acres completely enclosed by a 24-mile fence, which is where the deer herd has reproduced safely away from traffic and natural predators.
Also on the site and of interest to possible future tour groups are more than 500 abandoned igloos—bunkers that housed munitions, small arms, rockets, missiles, and other weaponry. For example, the highlight of Building No. 803 on any tour would be that it’s not a building at all. It was meant to fool the Russians! Made of solid green painted concrete, it rests atop four subterranean steel vaults that housed the triggers that armed the first generation of atomic weapons.
Strange history abounds. For example, Echo Block which stored the uranium used in the Manhattan Project to make the first two atomic bombs.
In more active political times than today — during the summer of 1983 — 950 women were arrested and jailed here during a number of anti-nuclear protests.
For military history buffs and others, the Seneca Army Depot is now out of use but physically intact, right down to housing developments that are now empty. It’s probably no coincidence that the writer Rod Serling, who created “Twilight Zone,” lived and died nearby. For science fiction fans, a visit to the depot would be like visiting sacred ground.
There’s also a landing strip with a modest control tower and miles of roads.
Land that was once mowed like a military haircut is now reverting to brush and forest. The facilities owners are an arm of the government. The Seneca County Industrial Development has a mission of job and tax-base creation in addition to wise land stewardship.
Navy SEALS still parachute into the area for practice maneuvers. “Nobody knows much about what happened here,” said one recent tourist to the area, “so tours are a great idea.” The world outside the fence sure didn’t know what was going on. An area called The Q, which opened in 1958, had triple fencing. Utility poles carried lights and motion sensors equipped with bulletproof lenses. An MP force of 250 patrolled with machine guns 24/7. And if someone did get in, a vomit-producing smoke mixture of ammonium chloride would be detonated and razor wire would be dropped on their heads.
On the other hand, the site is a natural but fenced-in paradise. Something even Disney would find hard to create. In addition to the rare white deer herd, there are nesting raptors, eagles, waterfowl, turkeys, songbirds, beavers and coyotes in an area where the boundaries help to create natural “sightings.” The area includes a 60-acre pond and many wetlands.
All that nature and a military ghost town.
Future plans for the land include many possibilities in addition to conservation. Residential and resort development, power generation (including wind), and training facilities are under consideration, as is a 1,500-acre spot that has been earmarked for future large-scale development.
Who Was Ovid?
Unless you’ve studied ancient Greece, you probably have no idea why the name Ovid sounds familiar to you. Thought to have been born in 43 B.C., Ovid was a Roman poet who liked to write about mythology, love, and exile. Because of a scandal, Ovid, a social creature, was banished by the Emperor Augustus to an area near the Black Sea, where he died. P