Superintendent of Highways Keith Hurtgam and the Town of Hartland

Laurie Mercer

With a bucolic charm and the lowest assessment in Niagara County, what’s not to love about the Town of Hartland?

The basic rural and peaceful character of the town has remained undisturbed since the early 1880s. Hartland actually has three hamlets —Johnson Creek, Hartland Corners, and North Hartland. All three hamlets are dwarfed by comparison to the 31,000 acres of surrounding farmland. The roads are all flat and straight — with neither a hill nor a curve. The Hartland town map, in fact, looks like it’s laid out in all right angles, like a patchwork quilt.

The very center of town, Ridge Road, or Route 104, was once known as the “Million Dollar Mile” because of its original cost when completed in 1914, and also the “Honeymoon Trail” because the iconic blacktop begins approximately 150 mi. past Oswego and goes directly to Niagara Falls — site of many a honeymoon.

“The 1970s were a tough farming climate for farms around here,” said Keith Hurtgam, superintendent of highways of the Town of Hartland, as he explained his transition from farmer to highway superintendent.

Keith began highway work, joining as a truck driver around 1973, when he realized he would have to give up farming full time. In 1984 he was first elected to the office of superintendent. He remains a leader in several highway-related organizations. In fact, he attends highway association meetings at the two neighboring counties as well as his own.

Economic realities indicated that the Hurtgam family farm would have to expand significantly to support two families once Keith married and began a family of his own. Today his family includes Darlene Curry, his fiancee and formerly his wife; daughter, Amanda; sons, Chad and Matthew; and three grandchildren. After living on the same road for 54 years he recently moved — just around the corner.

“My dad is 78 years old and still farming. I help out on weekends,” Keith said. “You might say that farming is where my heart is.”

The Hurtgam Farm raises pigs and beef, and harvests cash crops — mostly field corn — for market.

Keith’s highway crew also is kind of an extended family. The crew includes full-timers Janet K. Slack, administrative assistant; Michael D. Hill, deputy superintendent of highways and MEO; James L. Mandaville, automotive mechanic; Christopher D. Jenks, MEO; Scott D. Arnold, truck driver; Joseph K. Woodmancy, truck driver; and Daniel J. Class, MEO, and part-timers Duane Walker and Duane Bennetts.

The department’s operating budget in 2006 was $910,000 with $75,000 coming from CHIPS allocation. Hurtgam’s leadership role as past president and current treasurer of the New York State Association of Town Superintendents of Highways also affords him a chance to guide the organization as the group seeks greater recognition for increases in programs including CHIPS. To support those goals, the group hired a Washington D.C.-based lobbyist.

An avid learner, Keith has attended the annual school for highway superintendents every year since 1984. He said the courses on drainage have helped him make Hartland, a town with creeks and ditches throughout it, a nicer — and better drained — place to live.

In Hartland, Keith and his crew care for 113 lane mi., not including the 56 mi. they maintain for the county and 19 lane mi. for the state in wintertime — all amounting to quite a bit of work.

The local farms that haven’t survived have been absorbed by operations of more than 1,000 acres. The big operations — including a new 1,000-acre organic farm aimed at today’s health-conscious consumer — have a lot of heavy equipment, on rubber tracks, that can access fields year-round, sometimes ruining the highway, which is often just 16 ft. wide. This leads to the highway department’s biggest challenges — broken down blacktop road shoulders.

Keith is naturally sympathetic but said of the town’s farmers, “All they’ve got in mind is getting that crop in, and that breaks down the edges of our roads. They’re strapped financially. It’s a challenge to farm. They are only interested in one thing — and that’s getting crops off the field. They’ll use whatever means they can to do so.”

Broken down and dangerous road shoulders usually require an excavator to throw loose dirt back in the field, followed by repair.

“We then fill in the shoulder and then fill it back up using a coal mix and chip seal or a pug mill coal mix,” said Keith.

He said that he talks to farmers “constantly” about the problems caused by heavy equipment and calls them “pretty cooperative,” but so far no farms have improved their access to the fields to accommodate the all-terrain style farming equipment they employ.

With 14 in. of rain in October 2006 alone, torn up highway shoulders were readily evident during a recent tour. In a town that prides itself on low assessments, the town board and Keith have found it most economical to repair the damage rather then making it somewhat better by widening the road.

Which brings Hurtgam to another major challenge in town — ditches and drainage.

Ditches — Controlling Tributaries

to Stop Flooded Roads

Beginning a program in 1984, Keith’s crew has cleaned more than 100 mi. of off-road ditches. During these past years there has been a concentrated effort to construct, enlarge, re-do, and create new culverts and ditches. To keep them functional the ditches demand ongoing maintenance and mowing.

“Our biggest problem is the town is flat and we lack drainage,” said Keith. “If we don’t clean off the off-road ditches, the roads won’t drain. It’s an ongoing thing.”

Keith, a member of the Niagara County Soil and Water Board for 12 years, is now chairman of the group’s soil and water district.

“From 1986 until 1990 we got just under a million dollars in state revenues. We shared the cost equally, mostly to do off-road drainage with ditches,” he explained.

Because of roadside and off-road ditching needs for better town drainage, Keith estimated that he has an excavator digging, “Every day, somewhere.” The crew mows at least 50 mi. of ditches. If ditches are not regularly maintained, including mowing, the original work of removing trees and brush and of digging them out becomes useless pretty quickly.

The entire northwestern portion of Hartland now drains adequately for the first time since the town was founded.

“This is my biggest accomplishment,” he said of the miles of wetland that run, zig-zagging across hundreds of acres of cultivated fields and woods throughout the town, later becoming part of a creek that eventually spills into Lake Ontario many miles away.

“I always wanted to get this side of town to drain,” he said, adding that the beginning of Golden Hill Creek is central to his focus on his most recent ditch project. That ditch, with water in it almost year-round, eventually goes right into the Town of Somerset. All ditches use the highway crew’s classic “four-in-one” ditch design, which means the ditch is four times as high as the bottom is wide.

When working with private landowners and the need to ditch, Keith explained, “We don’t go on the property until we have a permanent easement so we can mow later on. We aren’t going to do all this work and not be able to maintain it.”

Keith added that some people sometimes object to trees being cut down and ditches being excavated. “If some people don’t want our help they can live with the wet.”

Things Keep Getting Better

“When I took over there were 18 miles of gravel,” said Keith. “Most of the fleet was junk and in sad condition.”

Now all town roads that are plowed also are paved. The remaining gravel road is seasonal with no residences along it.

“For a small town with low assessment, the town board has been very good working with us on an equipment replacement plan. We’ve even found certain machines like loaders and excavators that we can trade every year profitably. We’ve been trying to trade our 10-wheelers every 10 years and sell them at Roy Teitsworth’s auctions. We were rolling trucks every five years.”

Keith said that increasing “costs for everything” have made it harder for their plan to work, and the highway crew has had to cut back on some of the regular road maintenance.

“Up until last year we tried to do 2.5 mi. of improved roads,” using outside contractors to grind up the surface, and laying it back down with the town crew, using their own paver, he said.

“Now,” Keith added, “With the price of everything out of sight, we chose to just chip seal them. It’s a shame because the demand on our roads has greatly increased.

“A bunch of our roads are coal mix and just 16 feet wide. Until the recent rise in fuel costs Hartland’s coal mix roads were sealed again every five years. Now the turnaround time is seven.

“The board and town supervisor,” he continued, “have been excellent in working with us on what needs to be done to control our costs. I always say that we may not always agree, but we always come to an agreement at the end of the day. I’ve been blessed with good people.”

Part Paver, Part Rube Goldberg

Because re-shouldering roads is a big part of the job in Hartland, the highway crew took three winters to create its own version of the ultimate re-shouldering machine with little money. Even though it looks like something from the salvage yard — and it is — many miles of repaired road in Hartland have their smooth surface due to this machine.

First the base: the drive unit is an old paver. Next, the front is a Midland widener that once belonged to Wyoming County before it traded it in at George & Swede. It was sitting in the Pavilion-based parts dump when Keith found it in a heap of scrap “out back.” During the creative process, the paver came apart, and the screed was removed.

Finally during test drives the crew found it needed more weight in the back, so Keith attended a Roy Teitsworth auction and bought some weights. Thus it became a well-balanced mean machine meant for re-shouldering in a town that values the highway crews’ productivity and mechanical expertise.

More Salt Brine Than Ever

Hartland’s 650-ton salt storage shed is homemade-looking with recycled telephone poles and such, but the two tall towers of salt brine situated adjacent to the shed spell the future for icy roads. Salt brine, under Keith’s plan, will quickly replace the town’s dependence on rock salt entirely. All of the town’s trucks are now equipped to distribute salt brine. The salty liquid is a consequence of natural gas production and is currently free to highway departments who have only to truck the brine and store it.

“We are moving heavily towards salt brine,” said Keith, because with salt, “you get a bounce and scatter pattern, and salt has to become liquid to become effective anyway.”

Keith is confident that he can always count on his crew, especially during the region’s infamous snowstorms.

“Any kind of emergency, these guys will dig in,” said Keith. “When it snows you don’t even have to call them; they come in quickly on their own.”

That good feeling recently extended from the hearts of residents in neighboring towns and villages during the recent severe storm that wracked nearby Buffalo and the suburbs.

“Our crew from Hartland was used to help remove brush so they could restore power to several hundred thousand people,” said Keith. “We were in the Village of Medina, the Town of Royalton, the Village of Middleport, and the Town of Lockport.”

Taking the Whole Town Out to the Ball Park

The Town of Hartland has been fortunate to have a large number of people who have donated large tracts of open spaces. The highway department traded some land it owned with the fire department. Keith’s crew also can point with pride to the town’s 38-acre ballpark with high-quality baseball diamonds and a food concession, run by the local historical association, that made the group enough money to buy a beautiful cobblestone building.

The new ballpark is on land donated by Leland Seward, a previous highway superintendent, in memory of his wife, Thelma. Of the land, largely scrub and brush, roughly 20 acres was cleared and the highway crew put in a massive drainage system — every 20 ft. – so all of the activity takes place on areas that drain well.

“It can pour all day long and stop, and the kids will be playing on the baseball diamond later that afternoon,” said Keith.

In a Small Town It’s All About Getting Along

“In a small town everybody has to get along,” said Keith of his co-workers and William Annable, the town supervisor. Everybody also multi-tasks. For example, Larry Fuller, water superintendent, has Keith for his deputy, and the only help Larry gets is from the highway department.

Janet Slack is more than the administrative assistant; she is also the office go-to person for advice on computer operations. Janet, who also holds a commercial truck driver’s license, painted the office walls in an attractive faux grain paint pattern during some renovations. The desks are modern, and the lunchroom has a television for the crew to enjoy. The 6,200-sq.-ft., well-run office and garage operations are a far cry from the dusty tool-filled corner in the garage that once was home to previous highway superintendents.

Keith remembers the early days, in the 1970s, when the town had three plow trucks and a sander, and people got where they were going. Today, the highway garage has five plow trucks, and all have sanders, and “people are upset if they don’t have bare roads by 5 a.m.”

Keith’s office is an elected one, so he has to campaign to keep his job. He said that the best piece of advice he ever received came from a senior retired highway superintendent who once told him, “You run for the job every day you are working.”

Given that philosophy, Keith Hurtgam and the Hartland Highway Department would be hard to beat.

About the Town of Hartland

Norman LaJoie, the Town of Hartland’s town historian, said that in the pioneer days, town transportation depended on the condition of the roads. Dry roads were best but dirty, while winter snow could make for a less bumpy ride. Thaws exposing bare roads were the worst conditions for travel.

Hartland’s primary development has been along Ridge Road, a historic federal highway, which connected the young City of Rochester to the rapidly growing Niagara Frontier and the City of Buffalo.

Originally an old Native American path, the route was the shortest and driest way between the Genesee and Niagara Rivers. As early as 1780, history here records cattle drives along the road to the British troops garrisoned at Fort Niagara. Route 104 became a bona fide highway in 1815.

Paving Ridge Road/Route 104 was a big deal for the town in 1914. The rural character of the town didn’t change, but residents could travel to larger population centers to work and shop.

From the very beginnings of the town, the people of Hartland favored fraternal and other organizations. History sites a debating society; an “anti-swearing society;” the International Order of Good Templars, who promoted abstinence from intoxicating beverages; and the “Women’s Christian Temperance Union,” a women’s group urging the same ideals. Both the Masonic Lodge and the Grange Hall were erected here for men and women united by “strong and faithful ties to agriculture.”

The Hartland Historical Society, formed in 1985, holds monthly meetings in the old Hartland District 10 School. It bought the building with proceeds earned at the concession stand in the town’s popular baseball park. Highway Superintendent Keith Hurtgam said the local society has done a good job getting historical markers for the area, which his crew is happy to stake in the right spots.

The Town of Hartland consists of three hamlets — Johnson Creek, about 11 mi. east of Lockport, is the largest and has a creek. Approximately 400 people live there. Once Johnson Creek boasted a lively collection of cooper shops, asherys, blacksmith shops, a cradle manufacturer, a cheese factory, carriage manufacturer, a shoemaker, several retail shops a hotel and a gristmill.

In the western part of town is Hartland Corners. Once a thriving area with a hotel, blacksmith shop, shoe shops, and a few stores, Hartland Corners has 150 residents and a Methodist Church.

Finally, North Hartland, in the northwest part of town, is the third and smallest of the three hamlets. Once the site of a church, blacksmith shop, store, and schoolhouse, the hamlet today is a quiet residential community.

Of the seven cemeteries in town, five are now being cared for by the highway department. The Hartland Cemetery, in fact, is of great historical importance. There the grave of Hiram Southwell (died in 1807) is the oldest marked grave in Niagara County. Henry Bickford, Civil War-era Congressional Medal of Honor winner, also is interred in the cemetery. Bickford was cited for his part in stopping the Confederate attack on Fort Stedman in Virginia.

The year 2000 census counted 4,165 people living in Hartland. Seven years later, give or take a few, those numbers are probably still accurate. Like the map of the town itself, there are no ups and downs in Hartland — but it has always been a good place to call home. P

You can also view previous issues of Superintendent's Profile.

Jump to Profile: