Superintendent of Highways Ken Dutch and the Town of Ava

Maura Bohart

Ken Dutch, highway superintendent of Ava, said that what makes a good highway superintendent is, “someone that can deal with the public — and can bite his tongue.”

Ken has been highway superintendent of Ava, N.Y., for 21 years. If there is a road construction gene, it runs in his family. Ken’s father, Zigmont Dutch, was highway superintendent before him.

“[My father] liked the work — not the paperwork, but the roadwork,” Ken explained.

Ken’s brother, David, and his son, Ryan, share the road construction gene. David is a motor equipment operator and Ryan may want to become the next highway superintendent.

If his son takes the job, Ken’s advice is, “You can’t let the people get to you. Sometimes, people expect a little bit more than you can do. You have to just try to do your best and that’s all you can do.”

As a child, Ken Dutch watched his father work.

“In the summertime, when I was little, if they were out building a road, I watched them,” he said. “I’ve always liked construction.”

Ken’s first day on the job was a milestone.

“I came to work for Dad when I was 18 years old. I remember it well. It was New Year’s Day 1974. He woke me up to plow and I’ve been plowing ever since.”

Ken is not the only one in Ava that plows. With annual snowfall that often exceeds 200 in., it’s no surprise that Ava’s highway department employees are plowing experts. They developed a sander that several manufacturers have imitated.

Normally, a sander spreads sand out the back of the truck, behind the rear axle. The truck lays sand down to benefit other vehicles, while selflessly driving its own wheels on sheer, slippery ice. The ice is dangerous.

Ken and his crew turned the sander around to face the opposite direction on the truck chassis. The sand is now distributed between the front and rear axle, and the rear axle operates on a coating of sand. This promises to reduce accidents for sand truck drivers.

Zigmont Dutch had an important place in sand truck history as well: he boasted that he purchased the first sander ever sold by Betty Boise, a saleswoman of Wayne’s Welding Inc. in Yorkville, N.Y., who has become a local celebrity among highway superintendents.

“She leaves peanuts,” Ken explained. “If she comes and you’re not there, she leaves peanuts.”

Ken also said that Betty once drove all the way to Saratoga, N.Y., in the snow to get a new motor for Ava’s sander.

“That’s the kind of salesperson she is,” Ken commented.

Ken has lived in Ava his whole life. “To me Syracuse, Utica and Rome are big. I don’t care for all the bustle and tussle and traffic in the cities,” he said.

The bustle and tustle and traffic seem to have skimmed right over Ava, which is described by James Pitcher, town historian, as a “quiet, serene section of Upstate.”

A State of Emergency

The snow, however, has not skimmed over Ava. This year, snowfall in Ava was 208 in.

“Surprisingly enough, [this winter] the town was declared a state of emergency area,” Ken said. “I am really not quite sure why. There have been years that we have dealt with more snow than this. FEMA’s help is certainly appreciated, but it does require a lot of paperwork.”

Paperwork is Ken’s nemesis. “I like the outdoors,” he said. “I like roadwork and hunting.”

Ken thinks people have “forgotten how to drive in bad weather” over the past 50 years.

“People now demand bare roads. It used to be, we would never send the plows out until it stopped snowing and we only laid sand down on the hills. Of course, people then knew enough to slow down on snow-covered roads.”

But there’s a reason people demand bare roads now.

“Of course, years ago most of the residents were farmers who had no place all that urgent to go,” Ken said. “Today, most of our residents commute every day to work.”

Ken and his father always kept a close eye on the weather forecast, so that the department could fight snow before it buried roads in impenetrable whiteness.

“As soon as any kind of weather started, we were up and ready to go,” Ken said.

Preparedness helps the highway department win the ever-present battle against the weather. In any battle, it also is important to keep your weaponry up-to-date.

Ken recently worked with the town board to update the department’s truck fleet. One purchase was a 2006 International tandem axle purchased from Stadium International.

Before the update, it took four hours to plow every road in town once. Now, the snow flurries can be beaten after just two-and-a-half hours of plowing.

Warming Up to Icy Conditions

Occasionally though, snow wins the battle. Ken’s worst day on the job was in early spring of 1990, when a storm completely buried the town’s plow truck in snow.

“We had to pull it with a D6 dozer and a winch and hoist it with a crane before we could get it out,” Ken said.

Actor and Director Carl Reiner once called snow an “unnecessary freezing of water.”

Ken Dutch agrees with him. “As I’m getting older the cold and the snow is probably what I like least about Ava,” Ken said.

But where does all this frozen water come from?

Ava is close to the Finger Lakes area. This area gets its name from its four largest glacial lakes — Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga, which look like the fingers on a hand.

When cold air crosses over the lakes, it picks up water vapor. The vapor freezes and becomes snow.

When Ken started plowing, it was with a snow-moving monster — a 1963 Walter — that was owned by the town.

“That 1963 Walter truck was operated exclusively by my father,” Ken explained. “No one else was allowed to operate it.”

No one until Ken joined the highway department in the mid 1970s.

“He broke me in on that 1963 Walter. That truck was just retired a few years ago. As near as I can figure that truck was operated by a Dutch family member its entire life.”

Like Zigmont Dutch, the 1963 Walter has an offspring still in commission at the highway department. It’s a 1973 Walter with an 871 Detroit Diesel engine. It is believed that only four trucks with this engine were ever made.

Like all towns, Ava sometimes has to pull workers away from plowing during severe storms if “either it is snowing so hard you cannot see or the men have logged in so many hours it is no longer safe for them to operate.”

Stemming the Tide

Water was all that could be seen on July 4, 1999.

“It was the 4th of July and heavy storms dumped 8 inches of rain overnight,” said Ken.

A beaver dam tore open and water flooded the streets, taking out an 8 by 12 ft. culvert. The flood was unnerving and destructive.

“Road damage was significant,” Ken said. Some streets had massive holes in them.

With this torrent of water, Ava received no help from FEMA.

“It took most of the summer to do the repairs,” Ken said.

Digging Up Trouble

There used to be a gravel bed approximately 0.5 mi. from the highway department’s garage. It was large and the department used it to make sand for about 40 years.

“I liked it,” Ken said. “We didn’t have to go anywhere else to get gravel.”

But that changed when the bed — owned by two Ava residents — was sold to a developer last year.

Not long after, the town received a phone call from the DEC saying that the land did not meet DEC requirements. Ava held the permit to the land and would have to fix it.

The highway department reclaimed the gravel bed and sloped the banks until they met DEC requirements.

“We worked most of the summer on that land,” Ken explained.

Ken’s Department

In Ava’s highway department, all employees pitch in with whatever is needed. “Everybody does everything,” Ken said. “This morning, I swept the floor.”

The motor equipment operators, Kevin Phillip, Doug Howard and David Dutch, also sweep floors, operate equipment and do anything else that’s needed.

Life in Ava

Ava is in northwestern Oneida County. As of the 2000 census, it’s population was 725. Ava was once an agricultural community, but there are only two working farms there today.

Now, many Ava residents are in manufacturing, education, healthcare and social services. Most travel to Rome or Utica to work. Ava itself is mostly residential.

It’s a cozy community with little crime and lots of snow. In the words of James Pitcher, “Ava provides a quiet, unpolluted refuge for families who may work in nearby villages and cities. The continuing desire to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life is evidenced by the increasing number of residences being erected. Ava is a quiet, serene section of Upstate, the people there like it that way.”

The sentiment is reiterated on Ava’s web site, which introduces the town by saying, simply, “Ava is the home of fresh air and clean water. People who live here know they have a small slice of the best there is to have.”

Most of Ava’s residents live along the rolling hillsides at the foot of the Tug Hill Plateau. Ava is at the eastern-most edge of this plateau.

Numerous streams and tributaries of the Mohawk and Black Rivers run through Ava. The Mohawk cuts through the heart of Ava as it winds its way south. On the west, Ava is bordered by Fish Creek.

The most prominent man-made structures in Ava are the Hilltop Methodist Church and the Ava Town Hall, which are almost directly across from each other on Ava Hill, and are visible for miles in several directions.

Camp Kingsley, a well-known boy scout camp is located in western Ava. Comprised of about 500 acres, the camp has hosted thousands of scouts since it opened in 1921. Scouts brave tough winters and enjoy summers in tents and log cabins.

History of Ava

Prior to European settlement, Native Americans from the Iroquois tribe occupied Ava and surrounding areas.

The Iroquois were a powerful Native American group that consisted of six clans: the Oneida, Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and Tuscarora.

They occupied much of what is now northern New York as well as Pennsylvania and southern Canada. The Iroquois were a farming people, raising corn, beans and squash. The men hunted for deer and elk and fished in the rivers and lakes.

The Iroquois had a confederacy that existed before the arrival of Europeans and some people believe it was a source of inspiration for our country’s founding fathers. It had a constitution known as Gayanashagowa.

By 1677, the Iroquois had formed an alliance with the English through an agreement known as the Covenant Chain.

During the French and Indian War, the Iroquois sided with the British against the French and Algonquin, both traditional enemies of the Iroquois. They hoped that helping the British would bring rewards when the war ended.

In 1763, after the war, the British government issued a royal proclamation that restricted white settlement beyond the Appalachians.

During the Revolutionary War, the Iroquois clans were divided. Many Tuscarora and Oneida sided with the Americans, while Mohawk, Seneca, Onondaga and Cayuga sided with Great Britain.

The Iroquois participated in several successful attacks against American settlements. The United States reacted with vengeance. In 1779, George Washington ordered Col. Daniel Brodhead and Gen. John Sullivan to lead expeditions against the Iroquois nations to “not merely overrun, but destroy,” the British alliance with the Native Americans.

The campaign did dissolve this alliance, but it also left much of what is now Oneida County devastated.

On Nov. 11, 1794, the United States entered into the Treaty of Canandaigua with the Iroquois. This treaty established peace. After that, Captain Joseph Brant and a group of Iroquois left New York to settle in Canada.

Before the war, Britain had kept settlers from expanding beyond the Appalachians, because of their alliance with the Iroquois.

Ava’s First Settlers

After the war, adventurous pioneers started to explore these forbidden territories. One of those pioneers was a man named Ebenezer Harger, from Connecticut, who came to Ava with his family in 1797 or 1798.

Some claim that Ebenezer Harger and his family built the first log cabin about three quarters of a mile east of what is now Ava Corners.

At that time, the area was a forest still inhabited by remnants of the Iroquois. Panthers hunted in the woods and trees towered in the sky. According to local legend, the Hargers were friendly with Native Americans, and even exchanged visits and gifts with them.

The first Caucasian child born in Ava was Chauncey Harger, born in March 1800.

Harger and his family were soon followed into the town by other settlers, including Zephaniah and Abner Wood, who arrived in approximately 1800.

Another early resident was Salmon Bates (sometimes spelled Salomon Bates). In 1800, Bates opened his home as a tavern and inn, the first one in the area.

Trees and Cheese

The early settlers cleared many of the trees. In 1801, Philo Harger and Benjamin Jones built the first saw mill in the town on the eastern branch of the Mohawk River. Settlers felled trees of beech, curled maple, hemlock and spruce and brought them to the sawmill, where the bark was removed and the lumber was cut. Lumber was important in Ava’s early history.

After the trees were cleared, the land was used for farming. Most of the early settlers were farmers, including Eli Mitchell and his family, who moved to Ava in approximately 1807. Lemuel Wood and Justus Beardsley also took up residence around this time.

The settlers made themselves cozy, and by 1800, the population of Ava was a whopping nine.

But colonists continued to come, including Rickerson Kenyon and Joseph Hunt. Hunt took up residence near the Corners.

Surrounding areas were being settled as well. Luke Harger, son of Ebenezer, married the daughter of Major Alpheus Pease. The Pease family was the first to settle what is now West Leyden.

About 1800, Daniel Buck settled in the northeastern part of Ava. He had a son, Jonathan Buck, who passed his life in the town.

Isaac Knight came to Ava from Rhode Island in the late 1700’s. His farm would later be occupied by Fenner Rockwood.

According to James Pitcher, in one account, it is noted that Isaac Knight boasted of being able to catch a washtub full of brook trout from Moose Creek in only one day.

Despite Knight’s success at fishing, life was difficult for the early residents of Ava. It is claimed that they endured hardships that other neighboring groups escaped.

In June 1850, an article about Ava appeared in Roman Citizen newspaper. The article said, “There are many anecdotes to be heard of the new settlers of these north towns of our county — the privations and hardships they endured on first entering the unbroken forests, away from settlements — no mills, no schools, no meeting houses, such as their fathers worshiped in — away from kindred and friends — alone in their log huts. One told me whose head was frosted by seventy winters, he had to go in the middle of winter to Judge Sawyer’s, in New Hartford, 35 miles, and buy a bushel of corn, get it ground and carry it on his back, with snow shoes on — as there was no road to their new dwellings, but by marked trees — in order to keep his family with bread.”

But the hardy New Englanders pulled through their hardships and formed an enviable community.

Soon, there would be new additions to this community, most of them from Germany.

In the 1800’s, there was a rigid social structure in Germany that made it hard for poor people to own land.

In addition, a massive Prussian army was drafting unwilling Germans into its service, and there were famines and plagues due to population growth and crop failure. Many Germans wanted to escape these problems.

Some saw America as a solution. American business cycles, wages, food prices, and standards of living were widely publicized in Germany in the 18th century, because land and railroad companies wanted new settlers to move to America. These companies often overstated opportunities for settlers willing to try their hand in the colonies.

As a result, many Germans immigrated to the United States during this time period, and some of them settled in Ava. These settlers had a lasting impact on culture, bringing foods and traditions that endure to this day.

The Germans also brought knowledge of cattle farming with them. Since soil conditions were better suited for grazing than growing grain in Ava, their knowledge was a perfect fit for the little town. Raising cattle became a common livelihood.

A June 1850 article in Roman Citizen newspaper reported, “As a dairy town [Ava] will soon be equal to Steuben; its land is less broken and more easily tilled; its products of lumber, butter and cheese, are to be seen almost every day in the year in our streets.”

In the early days, the area now known as Ava was considered part of another town called Leyden. In 1805, a part of Leyden branched off to form a town called Boonville. For many years, the area that is now Ava was part of Boonville.

On May 12, 1846, a legislative act formally declared Ava its own town. Truman Harger presided at the first town meeting of the newly formed Ava some 50 years after Ebenezer Harger had first settled there.

Early Schools

With Ava officially a town, it did its best to educate its children. An early history of Oneida County, titled “Our County and Its People” states, “Children received such education as was possible under the circumstances; those in the eastern part of the town were compelled for a number of years to go to Boonville, while others went to the log school houses that gradually came into existence.”

Ava residents still travel outside of their town for school today. With no schools in Ava, Ava residents are part of the Adirondack Central School District, which has schools in Boonville and West Leyden. Of course, the schools today are considerably more advanced than those in the days of the Harger family!

Early Worship

For many years, there was no formal place of worship in Ava, and settlers held religious services in their own homes.

The first building dedicated to worship was a house used by the Society of Friends, also known as the Quakers. Known Friends included the Adams and Beardsley families.

The Society of Friends was a popular religion in some parts of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts. It spread to many other areas throughout the colonies. Quakers believed people should focus on their own direct perception of God or “Inner Light” instead of simply following doctrines and rules. They also believed in Pacifism.

There are Quaker burial grounds in Ava. They are hard to locate, because of the no-frills custom of using unmarked field stones as grave-markers. Quakers still existed in the area into the 20th century. Their main meeting place was in West Branch, a few miles south of Ava.

In 1869, the Hilltop Methodist Church was built. this church continues to be an Ava landmark.

Spirit of Ava

In 1860, Ava’s population peaked at 1,260 but soon, many of these residents would go to war. In the mid-1860s, community members served and gave their lives in the Civil War, including members of the Harger and Mitchell families.

In 1897, Ava’s Town Hall was built of stone, weatherboard, asphalt and brick. It was built by Philip Shankenbery in the late Victorian architecture style. Today, it stands across the road from the Hilltop Methodist Church.

Through the 20th century, Ava’s farms were slowly replaced by houses and the people got jobs in manufacturing, health and education. Still, the spirit of Ava’s early pioneers exists in the hills and rivers of Ava — and in the people who live there.P

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