Superintendent of Highways Ron Hurd and the Town of Greenwood

Laurie Mercer

What’s the best way to put out a chimney fire? Ask Ron Hurd Jr., Town of Greenwood highway superintendent that question and he’ll answer, “road flares.” Ron’s garage is often the first to know what’s happening in a geographic area where chimney fires are about as common as black bears and they have a lot of black bears in Greenwood, N.Y.

The important role the highway garage plays in the town’s information highway (Ron calls it “chatter”) might be due to its location. It is located just off the major intersection of New York State Route 248 (north-south) and New York State Route 417 (east-west).

“This was once the main thoroughfare for Route 17, which is called 417 now. All the traffic came right through town,” said Ron. The road was relocated in the early 1970s, which explains the town’s tranquil and picturesque qualities.

In 1850 the town was the Steuben County seat — the pulse of what was happening. The trains came with passengers and freight, helping to build a bustling community. Now, more than 150 years later, things have actually slowed down in Greenwood. The major industries are Southern Tier Trucking with acres of brand new Peterbilts on hand as well as a commercial maple syrup operation that uses reverse osmosis, and also a large dairy farm, one of the last of many that were dominant in the town. All three of these businesses are in one location and are owned by the Mills families. Greenwood also has a variety store and a nearby feed store.

“We had four gas stations, which are all gone now. We used to have an Agway here. We also had two lumber mills, a really nice hardware store and a bank. It’s unbelievable, our local bank, First State Bank, just seemed to leave overnight a few years ago,” Ron said.

But despite missing the businesses that have moved out of town, quiet is how they like it in Greenwood. The American Legion is the only place to let your hair down in public. Residents say that the church-sponsored spaghetti dinners, the Fire Department’s annual auction and nearby Andover’s Fourth of July fireworks and Maple Syrup Festival are all worth writing home about.

The community has breathtaking views, with steep dirt roads that lead to dead ends as often as they lead to someplace else. Once-primitive camps are being turned into elaborate, private year-round residences for retirees who used to come to Greenwood for recreation. For every deck there seems to be a dug pond. You can drive for miles and not see a house, cows or a plowed field. Having a four-wheel-drive vehicle seems mandatory in view of the extreme gravel hills. Ron said residents are so used to the rural conditions that they don’t get upset when they see a pothole. The policy of having bare roads in winter elsewhere in the county is undoable here because salting dirt roads just turns them to slick mud. Gravel roads tend to wash out, leaving a “washboard” effect with horizontal dips. These may be treated gravel and dirt roads, but Ron said the locals still like to motor right along.

“When they do come to the garage to complain about a road,” Ron said. “I always go outside and check their tires. Sure enough, the problem is their tires, not the roads. Real winter tires are needed here. All-season tires give people a false sense of security in these parts.”

Ron said his biggest problem on the narrow dirt roads, often on steep hills, is finding areas where the town roads intersect state roads. These are the only areas large enough to safely turn around heavy equipment. Sight problems and the speed of traffic, often on steep hills, make it dangerous to safely turn around. To correct this problem, Ron is surface treating with oil and stone a section of these dirt roads back to a location where they can turn the equipment around safely.

A Lifetime in Greenwood

“We kind of like it here the way things used to be,” said Ron, a lifetime resident of the nearly 42-square-mile town that sits in a valley surrounded by steep and wooded hills peaking at 2,014 feet. “You hardly need to look both ways to cross Main Street. There are no traffic signals and the water is clean enough to support a stocked trout stream running right through it. With fewer than 900 residents, locals recognize who is at home by the vehicles parked in the driveways. And if they don’t recognize a vehicle, they will find out why it’s there. It’s kind of like a human security alarm.”

“Hunting is big here,” Ron said. Steuben County boasts the biggest deer takedown in the state, with Greenwood being near the top in the county for the number of deer taken. Thousands of heavily forested state-owned acres surround the valley. Hunting camps probably outnumber houses.

Ron is absolutely serious when he compares Greenwood with the mythical “Mayberry” of the Andy Griffith Show. You can almost imagine Ron as Andy Griffith taking care of things in a friendly and engaging manner. He is quick to smile unless there’s a camera staring him in the face.

Ron, 52, only left Greenwood long enough to be part of laying down the infrastructure for the natural gas pipeline. He worked on the pipeline for 16 years. “I was single, on the road, living in motels and keeping up my interest in fast cars.” He still has more energy than two 25-year-olds; he still drives a fast car — a 360 BRP Late Model. His wife and daughter travel with him when he competes. Ron met his wife when her father was his racecar mechanic. Wanting to settle down, he has made the Highway Superintendent’s job his life.

Ron didn’t need to see a Help Wanted advertisement because he said, “In a small town, everybody pretty much knows what’s going on.” Getting the position he has enjoyed immensely for the past 11 years was not a cakewalk. He said, “It was tough getting elected for a two-year term that first time. I went door-to-door and my little girl who was just a baby at the time went right along with me. I had no choice because my wife was working and, besides, it was fun having her with me.” Tammy has been the Postmaster in Greenwood for the past seven years. She has worked for the postal service for a total of almost 18 years.

Since that first election, the term for the highway superintendent position has changed to a four-year term. Ron will begin his 12th year as highway superintendent in January 2009. In that first election, Ron beat his opponent by 16 votes in a town where the total number of votes is only a few hundred.

“The fellow who had this job, Charlie Lewis, was a good friend. He had been our highway superintendent for 16 years. His knowledge and support made the first few years much easier. He passed away a couple years ago,” Ron said.

Haleigh, soon to be 12, is the apple of her father’s eye. Ron recently purchased a paint foal for her and it is now living in a barn that the family constructed specifically for the new baby, whose name is Ace. A goat came along with him to keep him company. Haleigh is thrilled, since she has always wanted to be a farmer. Ron really enjoys getting to watch his daughter compete at horse shows and looks forward to seeing her compete on Ace one day.

Ron also enjoys driving around with his family on outlying roads looking for bear and game, all the while taking mental notes about the road conditions. “We all just pile in the truck and go,” he said with a smile. Maybe it’s a genetic thing. Ron remembers living with his grandparents as a child. They all worked hard on the family farm, and yet they would all drive across the valley to enjoy a picnic in an open field with a view.

“I have a photograph of five generations of family,” he said quietly. “That’s pretty unusual.”

A Multi-Talented Crew

Ron has three members in his crew, James Krisher, deputy superintendent; Jon Jensen, M.E.O. mechanic; and Tom Coates, M.E.O. laborer. This small group has a remarkable amount of experience in various, non-highway related work including mechanics, heavy construction, and carpentry, not to mention culinary skills. The Greenwood highway guys serve up a fresh breakfast every morning before work in the winter. Venison “McMuffin” is a specialty in the kitchen year round.

The highway garage has a furnace but most often is heated with a large, handmade woodstove. Around the stove is a casual arrangement of old car seats and a rocker that comes with a warning, Don’t lean back too far. Probably because of the wood stove, the highway garage’s heating bill is less than half of what it would be.

Ron’s crew frequently does jobs themselves, even complicated projects like installing water systems into each home and business in town because, as Ron puts it, “We don’t pay anybody else to do it.” His crew can pretty much do everything. For example, outside estimates for the water hookup his crew accomplished had come in at $1,400 per home and business. The highway crew did the job, including adding the shutoff to the house, cutting through the front wall, putting in 3/4-inch copper line, sand padding and backfilling the ditches all at no cost to the homeowners.

Ron explained, “The state was going to put in a new road, and since the water system ran down the middle of the road, we knew we had to do something. We got grant money to do it so the cost to the town was minimal. We only had to pay $200,000 with no interest back on the loan. Our old system in town was springing leaks, so we had to do something different anyway. Everything is new now, wells, water main, service line and reservoir.”

The new and improved water system passed the purity tests the first time and has passed ever since. Ron earned his Class C water certification from Alfred Tech by going to night school since nobody else in town was qualified for the job. “We did a really nice job with the water system,” Ron said. “Very professional.”

Ron is a guy who respects consequences, so it was with a real sense of pride that he saw the town’s new water system save downtown Greenwood from a terrible fire. Before the installation of the new water system, there were no fire hydrants in town. The current highway garage replaced the previous garage that burned in 1971. That building was once the old schoolhouse where Ron’s 93-year-old grandmother, who is still with us, attended classes. So when Ron heard the fire siren go off late one night in 1999, he walked out on his porch and saw an orange glow in the sky in the direction of the town, and he said, “This being a valley, it really magnified the glow and I figured the only thing big enough was the Highway Department, and it scared me to death.” It wasn’t the garage after all.

“They ended up tracing the fire to some bad wiring in the old hardware store which at the time was a small store and restaurant. It is now a vacant lot. Right next door to the fire is the post office and next to that was the Town Hall with all the records and microfilm. On the other side of that was a furniture restoration business with all kinds of combustible materials. “If we hadn’t put that fire out using the new hydrants, there’s no telling what might have been,” Ron said.

Another constant on the team’s rotation is replacing street signs, well, one in particular. Rough and Ready, a hamlet near Greenwood’s south town line, has a sign for Rough and Ready Road that is “constantly being taken down and stolen,” said Ron. An article in Superintendents Profile offered a tip he has yet to put to use — smearing axle grease all up and down the pole.

Fulfilling Equipment Needs

Ron said, “When I first came on the job and saw the equipment they were handing me, I knew I’d either need a wrecker or a mechanic. Now Jon is our mechanic.” New equipment that is worth its weight in gold includes the excavator they originally leased from Baschmann Services Inc. in Elma, N.Y., with an option to buy. “Once we saw what a big excavator like that could do during our work with FEMA, after some substantial flooding, we wanted to own one. The crew used it to replace old culverts and pipes caused by water damage throughout the town.” Ron said, “When the county removed the bridge on Cole Creek, they replaced it with a small pipe. It stopped up when water and debris came off the hills and stuff went everywhere.”

“The solution was being able, with the county’s help, to install the proper size box culvert at the proper angle, along with rip-rap and shot rod. The FEMA money from this project and several others helped us buy the excavator with no direct cost to taxpayers. The cab has air conditioning, which is essential when working on dirt roads. Our new 84-inch Vibromax roller also has a cab and air-conditioning. No more dust to eat. The Steiner tractor, another new equipment piece, has proved invaluable for snow removal from sidewalks. A lot of the residents in town are older and this helps them tremendously. On the ‘wish list’ would be a covered salt storage area. This seems to be especially crucial given the proximity of a stocked trout stream,” Ron said. “A tractor with a side boom mower would be nice for brush control also.”

For the most part, the department just takes great care of old equipment. “There’s only 56,000 miles on that 2001 truck,” Ron said. “Preventative maintenance and paint help deliver a professional appearance. For example, when we bought the 2003 Ford F550 new, it had a white cab and orange M & G all-season box. Some of the townspeople told me that it looked like an NYSEG electric truck, so I had the guy that does the graphics and numbers on my racecar put some orange splashes up the side of the truck and he came up with a neat town highway logo. There is no mistaking who the truck belongs to. We just bought a new GMC 550 with an M & G all-season body. We use these trucks a lot when the weather conditions allow. It saves wear and tear on the 10-wheelers and also the roads, as these trucks are much lighter.”

As another cost-saving measure, the crew has turned to having material tail gate spread at the job site, from a pit in Alfred. This saves on personnel, fuel and wear-and-tear on the town vehicles.

Greenwood has 40.7 miles of gravel roads and 6 miles that are paved. In addition, the highway crew takes care of town water, its parks and seven cemeteries. Ron said, “Everything we have in roads is straight up or straight down, and it washes. With FEMA’s help we got to resurface 11 miles of road this past year. The town’s budget alone would have allowed us to address just 1.5 miles.”

The Highway Department has actually encouraged the town to give a few seasonal roads back to certain landowners of camps and fields because of the dirt roads. These are often dead ends, are of limited public benefit and costly to maintain. Another section of road was given to the county because it was the natural continuation of the county road. Ron has thus cut several miles of town roads from costly maintenance.

“It didn’t behoove us to keep them up, and often the camp owners didn’t want them upgraded because it would increase traffic to their land, which they didn’t want,” Ron said. He explained that in this quiet town with a moderate tax base and good roads, nobody is asking for asphalt.

Greenwood and neighboring towns help each other out in many ways with loans of equipment and labor. A simple handshake is the only agreement they need. Ron controls his expenses the old-fashioned way — writing longhand in ledgers. He said he can quickly put his hand on any item related to the past eleven years he has held office. “I have each year’s worth of every voucher and invoice and what budget line the item came from,” he said. “Of the town’s total highway operating budget of $350,000, $90,000 is the CHIPS allocation. Of that, $30,000 goes for general repairs. We live within our means here. We have no equipment payments, nothing is owed out.”

Jacks-of-All-Trades

It was the highway crew that built a new Little League and soccer food stand that closes up, when not in use, securing the team’s equipment. Ron explained, “They used to bring a grill to sell hot dogs, now they have a nice stand. They raise their own money so they don’t have to ask the town for it.”

Ron’s favorite movie that reminds him of his town is “Hoosiers,” in which a small town defeats a larger one in sports. Greenwood’s moment came in 1984 when the tiny town’s basketball team qualified for the state finals in the Class D Championship against a team from Long Island. Points from a last minute rim-shot-making-the-basket cost Greenwood the championship, by one point. However, the players were awarded a hero’s welcome home. There was a mile-long row of honking cars when they returned from the playoffs in Glens Falls.

More Than Roads Alone

“We do a real good job here,” Ron said, and he isn’t just talking about the roads. As an example of the more unique work his crew has done he points to a situation where a former bank (donated to the town for $1) needed to become a new Town Hall, and it was his crew that did much of the bull work. Central to the adventure was removing the former bank’s vault. “The highway crew went in there and jack-hammered 36-inch-thick concrete. The door of the vault had to be removed first, and it was quite a trick. We took out the big window in the front of the bank and balanced the rear wheels of a roll-back truck (borrowed from a crew member’s family) on the windowsill then tipped the vault door over onto the truck and winched it on. The number of head-scratching spectators grew as the vault door was loaded onto its transport. There is some talk of trying to sell the vault door on eBay. I can’t imagine that somebody wouldn’t want something like that.”

Why the highway crew? Ron said, “The town would have to pay somebody to do it. And we wanted to help. They had to deal with a great big safe on wheels and extremely heavy safe deposit boxes, all empty. We used the same method to remove these! Those were pretty frugal people that worked in the bank. We pulled up the counter and everything, and we never found as much as a dime.”

Out on a Limb Saving More Time, Money

Times have changed due to better preventive maintenance, and Ron said the old days when tree branches blocked roads after a big wind storm are now a thing of the past. Thanks to the improved equipment, brush is cut back away from roads. “It’s very rare to go out and pick up limbs, and that used to be where a lot of time was spent,” he said.

“I’m the last person to want to take down a tree, but if it’s a sight problem, down they go. I’ve had roads shut down for two weeks because we couldn’t get to them.” He’s quick to add that they plant new trees when it will improve the sight-line for drivers at certain points in the road.

When Ron first took the job, part of the problem he faced was gaining access to privately held land. On one large farm, talking face-to-face with the owner proved to be effective. He explained, “We had an old farmer that the highway crew was afraid of. He would not let anybody on his property, ever, and he owned a lot of it. He knew his rights. Whenever we had a strong wind we’d have to head to his property to get big old poplar tree branches out of the road.”

“People don’t like change,” Ron said, “until they see it.” He convinced the farmer to let him take down old fencing and bury it, put a culvert through a big ravine and get rid of a lot of old material in his barnyard by burying it with the excavator. “The family had lived there for more than 100 years, but they no longer milked cows and things had become overgrown. The improvements would also benefit the roads. We basically made an old-fashioned agreement with him, you help us and we will help you. When we were done he told me this is the best the road has been since he lived there,” Ron said. “It took some talking to get him used to the idea. When people see the finished product, when things are put right, nobody stays upset.”

Changing Times, Changing Weather

Initially Ron said he was nervous about keeping a budget. But the former Superintendent told him, “That’s the easiest part of the job. They won’t give you any more money!” He was right. “Although wages and benefits have changed, the budget stayed the same for the first few years, then we doubled the amount budgeted for equipment from $15,000 to $30,000 and just the last two years budgeted a little more for fuel. For the first time since I’ve had the position, the 2009 budget carried an average of about five percent increase in all line items.”

Times have changed here and so has the weather. Ron estimates that it’s been 10 years since they needed the old “V” plow to move heavy snow. There is more ice instead. “This year for the first time we are mixing our own salt and sand to save money.” What is the difference in cost from pre-mix? Ron said it cuts the cost in half. The town uses about 1,500 tons of salt and sand mix.

“When these wheels are turning (meaning the Highway Department is working), that’s spending money.” So Ron switched the working hours to a 5:00 a.m. start to get ahead of any weather issues. The crew also works four 10-hour days during the summer.

Ron’s four-man crew is entirely new since he took the job 11 years ago. He said, “I’ve replaced everybody since I’ve been here. In the old days the job used to be done by farmers. They would do their chores and then come to the garage. When I came here, the three guys had close to 100 years of service when they all retired.”

His newest hire is Tommy Coates, the son of Duane Coates, who was a Greenwood highway guy for 36 years. Tommy has returned to his hometown after years in the Air Force and ten years as a police officer, including a SWAT team in Colorado.

Tommy said he not only values the time he now has to be with his family, including his mother, wife, and infant daughter, but he also appreciates what his Dad did for the town all those years. In fact, the vehicles from the garage played a colorful role in his father’s funeral in 2003 when the old 1987 yellow Mack truck he often drove led the funeral procession. At the service, the highway crew sat together wearing their distinctive Greenwood highway shirts.

At the cemetery, in addition to the Mack, was the 1972 Oshkosh plow truck (which they still have “Because we’re going to have a big winter sometime,” said Ron), and a 1986 Chevy that Duane once tipped over. Ron said of the vehicles that were part of the man’s life, “We had them all cleaned up and parked at the cemetery.”

In May 2008 Tommy joined the team. One day not long after he was hired he was sitting in the old Mack, probably reminiscing about his father. He reached into the ashtray and found a box of mints left there by his Dad. That’s the kind of moment can happen in a place like Greenwood, making Ron enthusiastic because young people like Tommy are following their hearts back home.

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