Superintendent of Highways Gary Cole and the Town of Cato

Maura Bohart

Author David Bly once said that striving for success without hard work is like trying to harvest when you haven’t planted. In the highway department at Cato, there is no shortage of hard work and success.

“We do the work ourselves,” said Gary Cole, highway superintendent. “In the two years I’ve been here, we’ve never had to farm out a job to a contractor. If something needs to be done, I rely on my crew.” Gary added, “My employees are great. People think I’m doing a fantastic job, but I couldn’t do anything without these guys. They’re the ones that make me look good.”

But even with a great crew, one town can’t always do the job by itself. We all need somebody to lean on — and Gary Cole, highway superintendent of the town of Cato, has a network of people that lend him a helping hand when he needs it. In turn, his highway department drops everything it’s doing to help its neighbors when they need a hand.

“If we can’t handle it alone or if we need equipment, I call the other towns and we cooperate to get it done.”

It’s a two-way street.

“If they need something in another town, we’ll stop what we’re doing and help them.”

Gary cooperates with the towns of Ira, Victory and Sterling.

“Usually it’s just trucks and manpower, but if somebody has a plow broken down, we’ll send one to help, or if my Gradall breaks down, one of the other towns will send one over.”

And what about when Cato needs big equipment? Well that’s when the Cayuga County Highway Department steps in to lend a hand. With this network of sharing, Gary doesn’t need outside contractors.

Of Snow, Salt

and Sand

Gary has an extra plow to lend out, due to a business deal. The town waited too long to sell its 1995 plow truck and the dealership would only give them $5,500 for it.

“Our new plow was going to cost $175,000.” Gary said.

It didn’t make sense to trade the old one in for $5,500 when it was still usable, especially since a new plow was 32 times more expensive. Gary kept the old plow as a backup.

The new plow, an International WorkStar 10-wheel dump with Viking-Cives plows, has worked out to be a great machine.

“It makes plowing much easier,” Gary said.

And that’s important in a town that gets 150 plus inches of snow every year. The storms in Cato are a force to be reckoned with. The Finger Lakes lie north of the town. When cold air passes over the warm water in the lakes, it produces a concentrated band of intense snow. This “lake effect” snow provides a lot of challenges for Gary.

“In winter, we often plow three times a day. We are responsible for 60 miles of town roads and 30 miles of county roads. A full loop takes about three hours and it’s not unusual to have to turn around and immediately go back out.”

Cato is so cold that even salt can’t combat the ice. After the salt melts the snow, the water taunts the highway department by freezing and glazing right over the salt.

“That doesn’t do us any good at all,” Gary said. “We have to rely on sand, because it’s just too cold to rely on salt sometimes.”

Cato usually mixes at a ratio of 7 to 1.

Gary is a cooperative man and he has no problem complying with DEC regulations, even if they are a bit silly sometimes. Cato protects the environment by keeping its salt in a shed, but until now, the town has kept its sand in a pile outside.

But last year, the DEC asked the town to build a storage facility for its sand too.

“It came from the ground, so I’m not sure what the problem is,” Gary said, “but they’ve asked us to store it in a shed, so we are building one. It will be on Shortcut Road.”

Gary’s employees have job titles ranging from clerk to deputy, but all of them help with whatever work needs to be done.

“I come at three in the morning in winter and load up the trucks,” Gary said. “I run wing on the snow plows and I haul in stone or sand or whatever we need. Wally plows snow and our clerk, Jody Schneider, she plows for us in the morning and at night.”

Getting Beavers to Leave It Alone

The job of a beaver is to dam up water. The job of a highway superintendent sometimes involves removing the dam — and the beaver.

“One of our roads goes through a swamp and there are beavers there,” Gary said. “The beavers plug the water and it goes onto Tim Turner Road.”

Water on the road creates a safety hazard and damages the road over time. There are two possible solutions — raising a 1,000-ft. road 5 ft. above the ground or trapping the beavers. Obviously, the first solution is impractical, so last year, Gary got a nuisance permit from the DEC and hired Joanna Bishop, a professional beaver trapper to move the animals.

“It’s been better lately, because she caught about 15 beavers, but they’ll be back,” Gary said.

Rev Up the Engines

Gary is a hands-on person, the kind of guy who would rather be outside covered in engine grease or in the field operating large machines than inside staring at a computer screen.

“Paperwork is my weak point,” he said. “I’m an outdoors person.”

Fortunately, Gary’s coworker, Walter, is a computer person.

“Wally handles that stuff,” Gary said. “I’m very grateful for his help.”

Instead of computers, Gary likes equipment — and cars.

“I used to play with toy tractors as a kid. Then as a teenager, I got into cars.”

He never got out of them. In his spare time, Gary drag races a 1966 Chevy II Superstreet with a 358-cubic-inch Chevy small block engine.

Some wives would sit on the sidelines while their husbands raced, but Gary’s wife is just as good with cars as Gary is.

“My wife can tear an engine apart and put it back together. She’s good at math and she’s good with computers. She loves cars just as much as I do,” Gary said.

In fact, Gary and his wife developed the interest together about 37 years ago. They decided that, instead of sitting around watching sports, they should get out there and join one.

Today, Gary can go a quarter of a mile in 10 seconds at 120 mph. He drag races in the 1090 class at the local drag strips, especially Esta Safety Park in Cicero, N.Y., and New York International Speedway in Leichester, N.Y.

His wife, Charmaine, races a 1972 Pro Street Camaro with a 350-cubic-inch engine and 4-speed transmission.

The DNA of Roadwork

Is it possible for a job to be encoded in someone’s DNA? If so, that strand of DNA runs in the Cole family’s genes.

Gary’s grandfather, Henry Cole, was the first to hold the job. He served as highway superintendent of Cato from 1965 to 1975. Gary’s father, Robert Cole followed in Henry Cole’s footsteps, serving as highway superintendent from 1978 to 1992.

Sadly, Robert Cole died of cancer while in office.

“That’s when Wally took over,” Gary said.

“Wally” or Walter Joshanski served as highway superintendent from 1992 to 2007. When he was ready to retire, he called Gary.

Having retired from truck driving, Gary was ready for a new challenge. He was elected highway superintendent in 2007.

Walter stayed part time to teach Gary the ropes.

“Having Walter here is critical. I would not have run for the job without the assurance that Walter would be here to guide me. His input has been invaluable. My two weakest areas are paperwork and computer work and that is one of the areas that Walter shines in.”

So has Gary passed the highway superintendent gene on? He has three sons. Rick is 39 years old, David is 35 and Matt is 25. All three have inherited their parents’ mechanical aptitude.

“They all work on cars,” Gary said. “But they are not looking to be highway superintendents any time soon. They all have their own jobs.”

But, Gary said, it is not out of the question. His sons have what it takes, so they could run for highway superintendent some day.

Roots in Farming

Living on a farm means living with equipment — tractors, plows, disks, balers, hay bines, milking machines, planting machines and skid steers cooperate to keep the cows fat and happy, the crops planted and the people in business.

“I was born and raised on farms, so you get all kinds of mechanical experience.” Gary laughed and added, “whether you want it or not.”

Farms are still common in Cato, which has rich soil and a long history of agriculture. Is his 20s, Gary was a farmer.

“I owned a dairy farm with 85 cows,” Gary said. “That was a pretty big farm back in 1972, but by today’s standards, it’s nothing.”

The 85 cows kept Gary and a hired hand busy washing cow udders, putting on and taking off milking machines, binding up and serving hay, keeping cow records and cleaning out cow stalls.

“It was a lot of work for two people,” Gary said.

But Gary loved the farm.

“You were your own boss.”

Being your own boss is always easier, because there is no one to argue with except yourself.

Today’s dairy farms are often large, with more than 200 cows.

“There are quite a few farms here in Cato. The little guys have gotten driven out by the big guys, so there’s not as many as there used to be, but there are still quite a few.”

Gary farmed for five years. But then, he broke his elbow “into pieces.” The doctors told him he had to stop moving his elbow. Maintaining a dairy farm without an elbow is an impossible task, so Gary sold the farm.

He went into another field that required much less elbow movement, but still allowed him to work with big machines.

“I drove trucks for the next 35 years,” Gary said.

During that time, Gary shipped everything from fertilizer to McDonalds hamburger buns.

When he retired from trucking, he moved on to his job as highway superintendent of the town of Cato.

99 Days Out of 100

Overall, Gary really likes being a highway superintendent.

“Ninety-nine days out of 100, it’s a good job.”

What happens on the other one day?

“Too many things break at once,” Gary said with a laugh. “One time I had a snow plow broken down for 8 hours.”

But the occasional broken plow or busted backhoe is worthwhile, because Gary likes helping the people of Cato.

“Every once in a while a citizen asks us to clean a ditch or repair the end of a driveway where a plow messed it up. I like to do things for the people of the town when we can. It is nice to help them.”

He has had a few requests he couldn’t fulfill though, especially when residents ask him to dig ditches.

“A few people have asked us to put ditches behind their houses — usually farmers that get standing water on their land. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about that.”

Blessed With a Great Town Board

Any highway superintendent knows that up-to-date equipment can make highway work much more efficient.

“Gary has been blessed with a great town board, which has allowed him to aggressively keep the fleet up-to-date. As a result, the roads in our town by and large are in great shape,” Walter said.

The plows and loaders are all equipped with the latest time-saving and energy-saving features.

“In 2002 we purchased New Holland loader backhoe from Tracey Road Equipment. We use a tilting ditching bucket on the backhoe to do our ditch clean up and it is a great machine.”

While new equipment can save the town a lot of money in some instances, Gary also believes it is important to be a good steward for taxpaying citizens and to use discretion when deciding which equipment to buy. For example, some have suggested that ditch clean-up would go even faster if Cato purchased a Gradall, but Gary believes his current equipment is sufficient for the time being.

”I am very glad the town board understands the need for equipment, but I’m not sure that the need [for a Gradall] is all that great.”

Gary also believes the town’s motorgrader is sufficient for current needs.

“We have an older 1964 Caterpillar model 12E motorgrader that you would think we should be replacing also, but I’m not pushing for it. We don’t use it that much anymore. We use it to pull the shoulder on roads to lower the bank, and from time to time we use it to push back snow banks.”

Maintaining the Roads

Gary commented, “Since I have been in office we have focused on mix paving at least one road each year. If we maintain that cycle, our roads will always be in pretty good shape.”

Gary hasn’t had a lot of road disasters — only one that he can think of. One year, Cato received 5 in. of rain. It washed out several culverts, collapsing the roads above them.

“We had to close a few roads temporarily, but everything is back in good shape today.”

The Crew

Gary’s full-time crew consists of three important members: John St. Andrews, deputy, and two other employees that have a variety of skills. They don’t have a specific job title and don’t really need one.

“John St. Andrews is the man in charge if I’m not here,” Gary said. “Doug Burgess and Amed Perrotta do anything that needs to be done. They are great.”

Gary’s part-time crew includes Walter Joshanski, former highway superintendent, and Jody Schneider, clerk.

While some managers yell and scream and throw things at the wall, Gary stays cool and collected when handling problems. He does not believe in standing over employees with a whip.

“My basic management philosophy is to ask people, don’t tell them what you want done, and I treat employees the way that I would want to be treated. I make it a point to work with the crew on all significant projects. I feel it is important to be there and that it’s the only way you can be responsible for what is going on.”

Walter Joshanski describes Gary as very similar to his father, and that’s exactly why Walter wanted him as highway superintendent.

“Gary reminds me an awful lot of his dad,” said Walter. “He is very easy to work for and with. He takes input from the town’s employees. He is very patient, and makes well thought out decisions.”

About the Town of Cato

The town of Cato is located on the eastern edge of Cayuga County. It is mainly residential and agricultural and most residents commute to Syracuse or Auburn to work.

Agriculture has been an important Cato industry since the town’s inception in the early 1800s. In years gone by, the major crop was tobacco, but today most farms produce dairy products, beef, alpacas or cash crops, especially soy and corn. Cato is considered one of the best places to farm in the Cayuga County.

Formation of Cato’s Boundaries

The history of Cato is intertwined with the history of the United States. It’s roots lie in land grants promised to soldiers who served in the Revolutionary War. This began in 1775, when the U.S. Congress, then called the Continental Congress, issued a law that anyone who served in the Revolutionary War for three years would be awarded $10 and 100 acres of land. Even in 1775, $10 was not an impressive paycheck, especially with a currency that was not backed by gold or silver, but 100 acres of land was a promising reward for many soldiers. The State of New York made this offer even more attractive by increasing it from 100 acres to 600 acres.

Of course, these offerings ignored earlier laws that assigned the land to the Cayuga and Onondaga Native Americans. The state of New York did not yet have rights to the land it was appropriating. Despite this oversight, the state set aside approximately 1.8 million acres to form “The Military Tract of Central NY” in 1782.

The Revolutionary War ended Sept. 3, 1783, when the United States signed the Treaty of Paris with King George III of Great Britain. Weary soldiers returned home carrying nothing but a slip of paper promising them 600 acres of land and a few worthless continental dollars, whose value had dropped to approximately one-fortieth their original value due to rampant inflation.

But New York State had not yet surveyed and divided the land, so soldiers were forced to wait several years before receiving their reward. In 1784, the New York State Legislature began the arduous task of surveying the land and dividing it into 600-acre lots, which would be awarded to war veterans.

One of these lots was named “Cato,” probably after Marcus Portius Cato, a Roman statesman who lived from 234 to 149 BC. The other lots were named after other classical figures. They included Lysander, Hannibal, Brutus, Camillus, Cicero, Manlius, Aurelius, Marcellus, Pompey, Romulus, Scipio, Sempronius, Tully, Fabius, Ovid, Milton, Locke, Homer, Solon, Hector, Ulysses, Dryden, Virgil and Cincinnatus.

While the land survey was taking place, the government began negotiations with Native American tribes. Between 1785 and 1795, the state made a series of purchases that provided it approximately 1.8 million acres, and in 1790, the government began to assign land to veterans. A rapid fire of claims made the first year hectic, but by 1792, the claims had slowed down considerably, although they continued to trickle in into the early 1800s.

The first settler in Cato was Samson Lawrence, who arrived in 1800. Other early settlers included Andrew Stockwell, Platt Titus and Samuel Woodford. Samuel was awarded his land on lot 33 due to his service in the Revolutionary War.

On March 30, 1802, Cato’s first town meeting was to be held at the house of Israel Wolverton, who lived in a part of Cato that would later become the the town of Conquest.

The town of Sterling split from the town of Cato in 1812 and the towns of Conquest, Ira and Victory broke off in 1821. To compensate for the large areas of swamp lands in Cato, the southeast corner of Ira was re-annexed to Cato in 1824. Since that time, the Cato town borders have remained the same.

Life in Cato

Several rural schoolhouses were available for Cato’s early settlers, including Brick Church School House, which is used today as a museum.

In the early days of the town, settlers had to tame Cato’s dense forests and drain its extensive marshes, which were filled with decaying vegetation. Malaria was rampant and many early settlers abandoned their homes to restore their health. This slowed the settlement of the town.

But after the War of 1812, migration became more common, because European settlers had won many battles against Native Americans, so that Native American opposition to settlement had died down.

More importantly, in 1815, William Ingham opened a popular store in Meridian. A steady influx of settlers began to enter Cato, because of its fertile soil and because of the newly founded store

Cato residents fought in all of the major U.S. wars. In the Civil War, company H or the 111th regiment was made up of Cato area boys who fought at Gettysburg. A monument was erected at Gettysburg in their honor and it can still be seen today.

Trains first entered Cato’s borders in 1872. Originally owned by Southern Central Railroad the line was later purchased by the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company.

On Feb. 14, 1884, the Seneca River Bridge, north of Weedsport failed. Its first span collapsed and the engine and box cars of a train tumbled into the Seneca River. The engineer, fireman and brakeman fell into the river and were drowned, but seven passengers and two other crew members riding in the passenger car escaped injury. The railroad bridge abutments can still be seen today just east of the Route 34 river bridge. This taught residents important lessons about bridge safety.

In 1872, Ira D. Brown, a member of assembly, secured an appropriation of $5,000 to bore salt in Cato. He bore 600 ft. into a spot on the south edge of town and obtained brine. The brine was very strong, but contained many impurities. The appropriation was exhausted and no further mining took place.

In 1931, Frank Rich opened Cato Golf Club. Today, the nine hole regulation course is operated by Frank Rich III and is one of the oldest family run golf clubs in the northeast.

The first highway department building in Cato was erected in 1947 and served as the town garage. The building had a significant expansion which added a new garage complex in 1983. In 2001, additional garage bays were added and the former garage was remodeled to serve as the town offices

The Lay of the Land

Cato has many hills and waterways and the beautiful landscape often attracts hunters, fishermen, snowmobilers, seamen and hikers.

The town is known for its lakes, ponds and streams. Cross Lake, which forms the eastern boundary, is approximately 4 miles long, and is intersected by the Seneca River, which forms the town’s southern boundary.

Otter Lake comprises 0.43 square miles and is located to the south of Meridian. It is approximately 8 ft. deep and is sometimes the site of fishing trips or school picnics. The DEC keeps it stocked with Walleye Frye fish.

Parker Pond, formerly known as Forest Lake, is situated just south of Cato Village. It was used for ice harvesting before refrigeration came into use. Today the pond provides duck hunting, fishing, kayaking and canoeing. P

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