I have never been good with directions, just ask my husband. So when I turned off the exit ramp into the Village of Nassau I thought I was lost … again! Instead of seeing big-box stores and the four-lane highways I was accustomed to, I saw rural countryside and two-lane roads. Where was I? Wherever it was, it had a certain je ne sais quoi. There was no denying that. I could see it, feel it, even smell it in the air. Suddenly I realized I was in small town America, you know, like John Mellencamp sang about.
So I found it fitting that when I pulled up to the Village of Nassau Highway Department to interview its leader, Dick French, I found a small building that exuded a certain country charm. Once inside, the atmosphere was no different. It was warm and welcoming. Dick took a seat behind his desk while Margaret, the village treasurer, sat down at hers a few ft. away. I thought it was interesting that the treasurer would sit in on the interview. When questioned, the two exchanged smiles and said they also were husband and wife. Now it was my turn to smile. What followed was a pleasant experience that educated me about life in a small town.
Dick French was born in Lawrence County, Illinois. At the age of two his family relocated to Loudonville, N.Y. That is where he spent most of his childhood until his father purchased a dairy farm in Coxsackie and moved the family once again.
“While we were living in Coxsackie I enlisted in the Army for a two-year tour of duty. I was sent to Korea in 1952, where I served one year as a company clerk [administrator]. When I came out of the service my father and I bought another dairy farm in the Town of Schaghticoke,” Dick recalled. “We operated it from 1954 until 1981, when I went to work for Willie Hayes, superintendent of highways for the Town of Schaghticoke.”
Dick worked for Hayes from 1981 until 1987, serving as foreman his last two years. He moved once again, settling in Nassau in 1994 after meeting his wife, Margaret, on a blind date. The two were married that same year.
“Even though I moved to Nassau, I traveled back and forth between there and Schaghticoke until I sold the farm in 1998,” Dick said.
Dick’s position with the village is a unique one. He was elected to the position of trustee in 1998. In the Village of Nassau, that meant he also would be appointed by the mayor to head one of the village’s departments.
“Each of the four trustees is appointed as a department head. I was police commissioner for my first four years,” Dick explained. “Then, in 2001, I was appointed street commissioner [a.k.a. highway superintendent].
Dick credits his experience with Hayes for preparing him for his present-day role. Because of his time in Schaghticoke, “I understood what the job of street commissioner entailed. I could recognize street and drainage problems. I was familiar with the equipment. I had operated most of it. I had plowed snow, salted and sanded.”
In his spare time Dick roots for the Yankees, plays golf and travels. He and Margaret have been to Ireland; toured Alaska on land and on a cruise ship; and spent two-weeks driving along California’s coast last year. The couple also makes an annual pilgrimage to Florida for the month of February. The couple has four children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Dick is an active member of the Rensselaer County Superintendents of Highways Association and a former town board member and deputy supervisor for the Town of Schaghticoke.
Serving his third, four-year term, Dick said it will probably be his last. “Margaret, the mayor and I all say we will be finished when our terms end. We’ll see.”
As for his retirement Dick said, “I am already retired. This is a hobby that I enjoy doing.”
As you might imagine, a small town highway department requires an equally small staff. In Dick’s case, that translates into a crew of two, Tony Tafur and Jay Devlin.
“Tony has been with the village for 20 years and Jay has been here for 19 years. They are great ambassadors for the village. Residents like them, which makes my job easier. They are responsible for handling the daily operations that involve streets, water and recycling. They pick up the village recyclables every other week. Jay also serves as mechanic, welder and carpenter. I don’t oversee their day-to-day activities. I do, however, plan all the village’s major projects, such as which streets need resurfacing, repairing drainage problems, purchasing equipment and preparing the budget.”
As superintendent it is Dick’s job to maintain the village’s 11 mi. of “highway.” That translates into two plowing routes that take approximately two hours to complete. When plowing, Dick explained, “We only use street salt, no sand. There aren’t many steep hills in the village and most of our streets are not through traffic. We can keep them open with salt, so there isn’t any sand and dirt to be cleaned up in the spring. Also, the catch basins don’t get filled up with sand.”
With Dick’s guidance the Village of Nassau’s Highway Department functions on a total operating budget of $867,399. That includes salaries and benefits for its employees and an annual CHIPS allocation of $18,701. Making those dollars stretch can be difficult.
“One of my biggest challenges has been staying within our budget, especially with the rising costs of oil, asphalt and equipment.”
Typical of most small municipalities, the highway department’s office building also houses the village clerk and treasurer, the village court, the judge’s office and the police department. Adjacent to the offices are a three-bay garage and a salt storage shed that handles approximately 100 tons of salt.
“In the back we have a recycling area with dumpsters, our recycling trailer and several storage sheds for lawn mowers or anything else they [his crew] try to hide,” he joked.
In contrast to larger highway departments, Nassau’s equipment needs are small.
“We have a 2000 Dodge 350 flatbed truck 4 by 4 with plow and sander; a 1989 Ford dump truck with plow; a 2004 4-wheel drive backhoe; a recently purchased 2007 recycling trailer; several lawn mowers and a roller. That is about all we need in the village right now. We’re small,” said Dick. He does confess, however, that “a chipper and a small bucket truck for trimming branches or replacing a flagpole would be nice.”
Dick’s penchant for advance planning has helped minimize the amount of street repair that must be done.
“Keeping our streets in good shape is our top priority. They have a solid base that, hopefully, will allow us to stay ahead of any major problems. Roads are resurfaced before they are in total disrepair. That is when it becomes expensive to fix,” he explained.
Much of the summer season the highway department can be found mowing throughout the village.
“We are responsible for mowing two parks as well as up and down the sides of the streets. Jay and Tony also are busy repairing any streets, water mains or catch basins that need attention.”
This year, Dick also is overseeing the re-facing of one of the village’s bridges.
“I don’t think work has been done on the bridge in 30, 40, maybe even 50 years. Now the issue of erosion needs to be addressed before it gets worse. Fortunately, the abutments are in good shape. It [the bridge] has been inspected. Now I’m waiting for an estimate. We anticipate the work will be completed by the fall.”
Seeing projects, such as the bridge re-facing, come to fruition is one of Dick’s favorite parts of the job.
“It is nice to see a major project completed in such a way that it comes in under budget, on time and the way you wanted it. Everybody is happy and what is better than everybody being happy?”
When all said and done how would Dick French like to be remembered?
“As someone who tried to represent the people and make the village a better place to live.”
In response to that, residents would most likely say “Mission accomplished.”
About the Village of Nassau
The Village of Nassau is situated in southern Rensselaer County. It sits in both the Town of Nassau and the Town of Schodack. The village is irregular in shape, longer north to south than east to west. Comprised of 467 acres, the village’s largest land use—205 acres—is for residential. Forest occupies 190 acres and there are 17 acres each of commercial, institutional, public use and brush land; and 15 acres of public lands and recreational areas.
According to the village’s 2000 Census, 1,161 individuals reside in 492 households, with the average household size being 2.55 persons. There are 515 housing units within the village. Other census data revealed that the per capita income is $19,199, with an average household income of $40,789.
The village borders the Valatie Kill, a tributary of the Kinderhook Creek, on the west. The terrain in the western portion is fairly level, compared to the considerable hill on the east side that rises to the southeast. Another hill rises abruptly in the north and occupies the village’s northeast corner.
Roughly bisected by U.S. Route 20, Nassau is the northern terminus of N.Y. Route 203. Exit 11 of Interstate 90 lies 4 mi. to the west of Nassau and Albany is 13 mi. west. With commuting times of 20 to 30 minutes, Nassau is easily accessible to downtown Albany, the City of Troy and points in between. Consequently, most wage earners in the village travel to nearby cities for their livelihoods. Top job categories held by villagers are: managerial and professional; administrative support and precision products; crafts and repair. Daily public transportation is provided by the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA).
Originally inhabited by members of the Algonkian nation, the present-day site of the Village of Nassau lies on an Indian trail that links the Kinderhook Creek with the lakes of the Averill Park and Burden Lake area. It is thought that by 1704 the Dutch explored the region using those very same trails.
What followed was the movement of New England settlers from the east and English and Dutch settlers from the west and south. First establishing crude wooden huts, then buildings proper, the location on the crossroads or the Albany-Pittsfield (Massachusetts) trail and highway south to Columbia County proved to be a durable location and the small village began to grow.
By 1760, records indicate the establishment of “New Stores,” where Nassau now lies. Linked through a tradition of land grants to the ancestral Dutch Patroon, Stephen Van Rensselaer leased large tracts of land in and around Nassau for farms, mills and manufacturing. As a tribute to the then new nation, the village was christened “Union Village” in the early 1790s. By 1806, development had progressed to the east side of the village to merit the establishment of the Town of Nassau. With that, on April 6, 1808, Union Village became Nassau.
The Village of Nassau was incorporated on March 12, 1819. In the 175 years that followed, Nassau grew from an agricultural center to one of manufacturing, transportation and industrialization. By the late 1800s, Nassau was home to a number of foundries, bottle and shirt works, a piano action factory and electrical railroad. Home of the annual Rensselaer County Fair, at the turn of the century Nassau was a bustling commercial center with fine homes, tree-lined streets and suitable accommodations.
Today’s legacy of those days long ago lingers in rich architectural heritage and a “small town feel.” With more than 50 structures included on the National Register of Historic Places, Nassau actively preserves her past for future generations to enjoy. Examples of such preservation include the Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian and Queen Anne styles of architecture that can be seen throughout the village.
The village also has a Beautification Committee. Spearheaded by Kurt Vincent, the committee is responsible for overseeing a variety of village activities throughout the year, including Nassaufest, Octoberfest, community band concerts at the village gazebo and a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
As Nassau’s motto proclaims, “A Progressive Village with Traditional Values,” Nassau continues to attract residents to a peaceful way of life with active community organizations, responsive local government and convenient connections to the Capital District.
(History courtesy of the Village of Nassau’s Historic Preservation Commission.) P