Superintendent of Highways Gary Blackburn and the Town of Ridgeway

Laurie Mercer

Ask just about any highway superintendent what they like best about their job and what they like least, and the answer to both usually is, “the people.” After 24 years in the highway barn in Ridgeway, Superintendent Gary Blackburn believes that the best — his career highlight — is yet to come.

He is positively looking forward to the four-month period when he gets to shadow the person who takes over his job once he officially retires at year’s end. Blackburn is retiring from tending the town’s total lane miles, which include 96 miles for the town, 36 miles for the city of Medina, and 22 miles for the state. Just 1.5 miles is dirt. During his tenure he has converted most of the dirt roads to oil and stone.

He also tends the only road in New York State that runs under the Erie Canal. He says it drips water constantly and can ice up in a hurry.

The Highway Department also provides public water to 90 percent of Ridgeway’s residents.

“I’ve lived in Ridgeway my whole life. In fact, I’ve rarely gone more than two miles from where I was born. I moved one road over from the original family farmhouse, and that was that!”

He’s a big guy with an easy-going disposition, some decidedly patriotic suspenders, and a desk with neat piles of work on top. You are more likely to find him out on the roads. Part of the town includes the northern part of the picturesque village of Medina along the Erie Canal, totaling a population of about 7,500 people.

One recent road project was fairly typical. Gary’s been working toward having all town roads widened to at least 20 feet.

“This section of the road has always been a problem with the mail boxes being too close to the road. You couldn’t pass vehicles there with a plow.” In widening this road he also needed to add to the shoulder and move the ditch back wherever he could.

Next door to the highway barn, his office, formerly the break room, was moved into a larger area because of the town’s growing commitment to providing water as well as tending to the highways. Both important jobs fall under the highway department’s responsibility.

Gary’s often-present toothpick replaces an old smoking habit he gave up many years ago. He plays country music on the radio. Following his departure from the job, he’s planning to pursue some of his other interests, including spending more time with his wife Patty, three dogs, some cats, a pack of demanding llamas, one alpaca, and Zelda the Mule. “She’s very protective,” he says cheerfully of the mule.

He says he won’t miss the, “winter alarm clocks!” By which he means residents calling him at home at odd hours with a complaint.

“The good part of me retiring following the town’s voting for a new superintendent is that the board has decided to keep me on for four months,” he says.

It may take more like four years to learn what Gary knows as second nature, but the new person will also need time to achieve a C and a D license for maintaining Ridgeway’s ambitious public water system.

“I’m afraid there’ll be a lot of knowledge of our town that is going out the door when I go. Because it’s all up in my head,” he says, smiling. For example, Ridgeway’s last remaining, little more than a mile-long dirt road gets its own special treatment that he’s developed over the years.

“I like to take my grader out. Get it nice and fresh. Put some binding material on it. We work it in and then we do it again. You get a feeling for it,” he says.

He says his most unusual day on the job came from a request from local law enforcement to bring his backhoe and scrape away a concrete foundation that was hiding a hydroponic pot-growing operation in what should have been a basement.

Approximately 65 miles of water line — and still growing — is even more time consuming that the 96 highways that are plowed and mowed by his three-man, full-time crew in addition to Gary. There also is one part-time worker and an office person one day a week.

Ridgeway’s highway budget, including water, was $208,000 in 2009. The CHIPS contribution was about $92,000.

Group Sharing and Giving Back

Every once in a while Gary gets to borrow a specialized piece of equipment like a mini-excavator with rubber tires and wishes his town could afford to buy more, but they can’t.

“I kind of believe we need to do more joint purchasing,” he says. “Our group has been working together on a handshake forever. None of us are big enough to do it alone. I may help one town more one year but in the end it all balances out. Our goal is to do the least expensive thing for the people.”

No wonder a newspaper once called him “an artist with a bulldozer,” when he created a new park at Glenwood Lake, highlighted by a boat launch and picnic pavilion. He says he worked weekends on the project, mostly on his own donated time, to avoid interruptions from the task.

Gary is a former farm boy who found his niche in a town that has always been his center and his home.

“We had a one-room kindergarten class when I first went to school in Medina.” Roots here run deep. He says that classmates who move away often return to Ridgeway once they retire. His father farmed, his mother taught home economics. Both had an influence. He says, “I can still iron my own shirts and sew a button on. It’s good for us. We don’t always line up with the best mate.”

“When I was growing up, there were big family farms all over the place. There were eight dairy farms alone on the road where I live. Now there’s only one (his family’s original farm), and they’ve gone organic. They are doing better on the price of milk with that approach.”

Significant changes include an increase in Amish and Mennonite families moving to Ridgeway in the past 10 years.

“I’ve got Amish on the west side of town and Mennonites on the east. Route 63 is almost my border for them. I think they are a great bunch of people. The Mennonites use steel wheels, and they are pretty rough on the roads. The Amish use rubber tires.”

He says both groups of newcomers pay taxes and “don’t complain about it,” as they buy up small farms and put them back into production. With rich fertile soil and a good climate for fruits and vegetables just a few miles from Lake Ontario, Ridgeway, in Orleans County, must have more vegetable stands per acre than any other part of the state.

There are a few prosperous small businesses, including a tool and die shop with 50 employees, and no housing developments. Things are largely quiet here. Gary puts it simply, “We are kind of blessed.” Rough times are also present. He says, “We had a Fisher-Price plant in Medina, and when they left, 700 people lost their jobs, so it had a big effect.”

Horses and Horsepower

Gary says any culture clash with horse-drawn vehicles on today’s highway have mainly been along Route 104, which is plowed by the state.

“We had a meeting with the Amish and Mennonites last year because they are out in all kinds of weather in horse-drawn buggies. With a slow moving horse, and the crew trying to plow, there’s no good way to get past them. So we asked if they would pull over when it was safe and let the plows go by.”

“While plowing in our town, our crew is kind of used to them; we try to gauge when they are going to be out there. But there are emergencies in all families, and there are times when at 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning you are going to see them. Operators have to be prepared for that.”

“We are still what I call a farming community,” he says. “If we have half a dozen new houses built, that’s a big year for us,” he adds. “We probably also lose that number with people using wood stoves who don’t know what they are doing.”

For snow operations, Gary favors a mixture of sand and salt. “I like the mixture,” he says. “I generally mix it up in a pile of 25 percent sand to 75 percent salt. If we go much heavier than that it seems like it gets lumpy when the weather gets colder. I have one bin of straight salt (from American Rock Salt), one is mixed, and one is grit.

“At one time we did use ash from a coal generating plant. It was black and you could see it. It helped draw the sun, and I liked that, but it tracked a lot and got on cars. It got to be a hassle getting it and screening it. The price was alright, but I stayed with the grit.”

He says there is a place for additives, but in his town it’s “pretty much a luxury.”

As for responses to budget crunches and raising prices he says, “There’s a way to make it safe, and you have to try and live with the rest of it. You may have to sand just curves and intersections.”

How Gary Got Hired

“When I took over we had 13 trucks. A lot of the equipment was getting older. We had two 10-wheelers. One truck was supposed to be a cement truck; it was a beast. We had our own oiler and did our own surface treating. Each spring we’d walk every mile of road and spread oil and do hot patching.”

Today he says, “I still don’t have many miles of hot asphalt roads. Most everything I have is a cold mix road. We have had to widen everything to at least 20 feet since I’ve been here. Farm tractors and vehicles used to be a lot smaller.”

Gary carefully negotiates a one-lane road over the Erie Canal as a way to illustrate these changing times. He says his mother, aged 92, still insists that you can use the little bridge as a two-lane road, which was true when she was a lot younger and vehicles were more compact.

Because he has always lived here, Gary also is a living repository of information, knowing where barns and buildings are hidden in the underbrush, and where to find abandoned foundation sites, and great places to put your water craft in at Glenwood Lake. Glenwood Lake is one of two local, privately held but publicly-accessible small lakes in town. The other is Lake Alice.

The Town of Ridgeway was moved to buy some adjoining property at Glenwood once the launch was opened in order to broaden the green belt along the 10-acre lake, formed years ago by a hydroelectric company damming Old Orchard Creek.

As a result of helping to put in the public dock and build the picnic pavilion with his crew, Gary was honored by the New York State Travel and Vacation Association with its Special Projects Award.

“I got a picture in my head of what it would look like and I just went from there,” Gary says.

A natural slight slope toward the water became the docking point once thick vegetation and trees were removed. Now people fishing and kayakers are seen often while summer bar-b-quers cook on the outdoor grills near the picnic pavilion.

Old School Hard Worker

“I’m really old school in terms of highway work. I have my traditional ways of doing things. I’ve been doing it this way since I started,” Gary says.

“I graduated from high school and went back on the farm for awhile, but I never really liked milking cows that much. In fact, I can’t say that I was ever fond of milk, except on my cereal.”

Following farming he went to work as a mechanic at an Allis Chalmers dealership, which has served him well on the job at the highway garage.

“I knew the heavy equipment dealer wanted to retire, so I asked the superintendent of highways about a job here. We agreed that I would help in the winter.”

Huge storms, the blizzards of 1976 and 1977, helped turn the opportunity into a full-time job. “I really got my feet wet on this highway deal. I remember it well.”

“At the time the trucks were old. Small and single axles. With the wind and the snow you couldn’t see anything. Our superintendent managed to get his wife here (to the highway garage). She helped with the radio and the telephone. We set up cots for the seven of us. We went out on emergency calls with the old V-plow (now on display out front) on an old Walters truck. Gary says of the plow display, “It’s just for looks.” But in upstate New York you can never be too confident.

“The rest of the crew went out with loaders and trucks to clean up; a very slow process. The fields were bare. Snow was in all the roads. We had drifts 25 feet high in the roads. We hired outside help with a bulldozer and went at it like dirt. It was hard.”

“It was declared a disaster area, but not quick enough. We had a couple of real good crews that came in and helped. Of course, they did some damage in the process because they didn’t know where the fences were and stuff like that.”

“I took a good week of sleepless nights. The guy and I in the Walter never did get more than three hours of sleep at night. I was still a part-timer, but when an opening came along the superintendent liked what I had done.” In 1979 Gary started full time as a motor equipment operator.

Gary says times have changed a bit in terms of equipment maintenance. “At that time,” he says, “you broke a piece of equipment down in the spring. You pulled the plow equipment off and pulled the wing boxes off. We don’t do that anymore. It’s too time consuming, and single-axle trucks are a thing of the past.”

In 1986 he ran for superintendent for the first time and won by just 13 votes. He says, “It took them quite awhile to finally decide.” In the next five elections his margin of popularity has grown considerably. “A lot of times, it was between me and the village clerk as to who got the most votes.”

“It’s a very important job,” he says. “We are the most visible workers in the community.”

Five Cemeteries, One Active If You Have a Plot

Of the five cemeteries he cares for in town, one is still active for people who already have deeds. Gary says his crew mows the cemeteries more than the state requires because appearances are important to them.

“There are people in there, including veterans, who deserve that,” he says. One recent repair needed is to some stones that were literally bowled over by an errant driver. Other events include vandals breaking old slabs.

“When that happens we carefully lay them flat on the ground where they belong. They are hard to fix and we don’t have the money to repair them properly.”

As for mowing the roads, the town does it three times a year at a minimum.

“It probably takes us a good two weeks for the first mowing. In July and August, if the ditches are dry, we take the roads back farther, and in the fall we do it all over again.

Cool, Clear Water From the Niagara River

Plowing snow and mowing grass are comparatively uncomplicated when stacked up against supplying most of Ridgeway with high-quality water. For one thing, the superintendent in charge needs to be licensed by the State.

“I got my C license from Erie Community College 24 years ago,” Gary explains. “You have to do 15 contact credit hours every three years to keep it current.”

The new person who takes over Gary’s responsibilities will have to have both a C and a D license because of the new water tank in town.

“Water was always part of the highway work here. When I started we had seven miles of water. Now we’re at 65 miles and growing.”

Ridgeway’s water source is the Niagara River, and the provider is the Niagara County Water Authority. Surprisingly the water itself can be coming from many directions. He explains, “A large part of the water comes form the Town of Hartland. We have a meter there. On the south side it comes from the village of Medina. I have another connection from the town of Gaines. That meter pit is for both directions. I have a meter pit with the town of Albion, but that is shut off. We are connected to the Town of Shelby. In an emergency I can go in both directions.”

One such emergency occurred this year in the Town of Albion when a section of pipe blew a valve, and the town asked Gary to provide water in a hurry.

“I said I can give you potable water now but not enough pressure for fire protection.”

Like most water emergencies, this one lasted less than six hours. He says fires are the biggest reason for towns to need extra water from their neighbors.

Key to the success of Ridgeway’s water line expansion is a brand new $800,000 water tank and pump station that holds 300,000 gallons of water. Due to post 9/11 restrictions, you can’t photograph water maps or inside the meter pit building.

Gary says the new facility makes it possible for him to more accurately add chlorine and reduce the need for flushing. He says, “You have to maintain a 0.2 on chlorine for the health department. With this facility I can control things. Niagara County might be sending water in at 0.8. Distance and time are factors as well as how long it sits in the lines.”

He points out that Ridgeway is largely rural; you can go for more than a mile and not see a house, so water is not heavily in demand. However, some local farmers draw water from the Erie Canal to support irrigation.

Gary estimates that about 90 percent of the town will have water by the time he leaves office. So were the rural residents happy to be paying more for water when it came their way?

“The first water district we did we had a lot of opposition. They didn’t want to spend the money (usually a 38-year loan process). One board member who opposed it said, ‘I have a cistern, and when it doesn’t rain I don’t have water.’ He was fine with that. Well he changed his mind. Personally, I had two wells and all the water I needed, but it didn’t have the quality of the public water I drink today.”

He says there have been no water advisories, but in a dry summer they might put restrictions on watering lawns and irrigation. “Sometimes something like a summer algae bloom will change the taste somewhat. People will mention that. As a result we may flush an area a little bit more to correct it.”

Ridgeway’s water is tested weekly at sample points for a chlorine residual test. Once a month samples from all 10 districts are taken to the Albion water plant for further evaluation.

“I’m proud that we’ve been able to get as much of the town covered as we have. I think commercially bottled water is a big rip off!”

What’s Next?

Gary, who has one son from a previous marriage, a daughter-in-law, and two active grandchildren (ages 10 and 13), is married to Patty who has two sons and grandchildren of her own, making them a “blended” family. It was highway work that brought them together.

“Patty wasn’t a farm girl, but she was from around here. She came back many years later to be with her aging parents.”

The previous highway superintendent’s wife, who has breakfast with Gary and other friends on a weekly basis, basically fixed them up.

The couple has been married and adopting animals for the past 15 years.

“In the last few years my wife got on a kick with llamas. We were up to 30 llamas at one point when we knew we had to cut back some. We also got into boar goats — that’s a meat goat originally from South Africa.”

In addition to the goats and a herd of about 12 llamas, the farm has 30 chickens, 20 turkeys, one guinea hen, Zelda the Mule, one alpaca, three dogs, and a couple of cast-away barn cats.

Of the cats he says, “People just dump them off. It irks me that they do that.”

To keep the population from exploding, he says all the pets, including barn cats, are fixed. If he has a favorite in the menagerie, its Pandora the llama, whom he bottle fed. “I call her my daughter,” he says. “Out in the field she’ll come up and put her head on my shoulder.”

Everybody Loves the Orleans County Fair

If Gary has one real hobby it is represented in the hundreds of hours he devotes to the week-long Orleans County Fair. Mark your calendars for the last week in July for ample reminders to experience the American way of life at its best with young children showing animals, gardeners taking home prizes, and quilts winning ribbons just like they always have.

“It’s a youth fair,” says Gary. “You have to be a 4-H member to get to show animals.”

With poultry, pigs, cows and horses showing off, they also have agricultural and home economics exhibits. Garden tractor pulls and different group suppers every night make Ridgeway the epicenter of good, clean family fun. Think of the Orleans County Fair as a kid-size state fair. Gary says there are only a few county youth fairs in the state.

“I like helping kids, and the fair is a big part of that for me. In this job you are working for the community, and you ought to give back to the community as well.”

He also has a Boy Scout cabin and campground on his property.

“This is a very closely knit community. I think we are a very caring area.”

For the best local food (no restaurants) he recommends church suppers, and there are six churches in town.

So what will he be doing when the winter winds start blowing snow all over the roads? “I won’t be just sitting in a chair,” he says. “That’s just not me.”

About the Town of Ridgeway

It’s a town actually named for a famous roadway — Ridge Road, an important route in the early 19th century. New York State Route 104, Ridge Road, intersects New York State Route 63, while New York State Route 31 passes through the southeast part of Ridgeway.

The Oak Orchard River flows through the town toward Lake Ontario just a few miles north.

There’s not a lot of commerce here, but the Town of Ridgeway’s road responsibilities include the north part of the village of Medina, right on the Erie Canal. Both historically and currently Medina is a bustling metropolis, with blocks of fine Medina sandstone store fronts, compared to the relative pastoral fields of fruit and vegetables in Ridgeway.

Horse-drawn vehicles and horse-drawn tractors are common, and the numbers of Amish and Mennonites moving to the area has grown in the past five years.

The actual Town of Ridgeway was formed on June 8, 1812, and included what are now the Town of Barre, Charlton, Gaines, Shelby and Yates. The first settlers arrived just a few years earlier. The roads along Indian trails were all but impassable, and early historical records tell of more oxen power used rather than horses. Here’s an excerpt about early transportation from a pioneer’s point of view:

“At Otter Creek, in Gaines, the fire had consumed the logs thrown in to make a sort of dug-way up the bank, which necessitated an almost perpendicular ascent, to accomplish which, we took off the oxen, drove them up the old road, and then, with teams on the hill and chains extending to the pole of the wagon below, drew it up. At first the draft appeared too great for the team, the oxen fell and were drawn back and the horn of one ox broken off by catching under a root. The next difficulty was at a slash, two miles east of Oak Orchard Creek, where a Mr. Sibley had cut down timber along the track on both sides and has set it on fire, rendering the passage difficult and dangerous.”

The writer goes on to say that the opening was wide enough only for “Yankee Wagons,” and Pennsylvania wagons, with longer axles, were in danger of going off the bank.

Other than one small house in a clearing they saw no inhabitants. Stores, churches, schools, mills, a post office, and supplies were about 30 miles away. Crude log homes began to be put up with roofs made of staves, or shakes, and fastened on with poles. The floors were split basswood logs roughly hewn on one side, or simply dirt. Beds were made by boring into the walls of the house and inserting rods rather than a box spring. In 1816, having a set of splint bottomed chairs was considered an extravagance.

How the natives greeted all this domesticity is surprising. Ridgeway has lots of relics and ruins and marks of ancient fortifications. One such ancient fortification in Shelby Center is described in history books. In addition to artifacts, which are still found today, many years ago skeletons were found in a mass grave close to a nearby sand hill.

The tribe in place when the settlers came was the Senecas, a tribe of the Six Nations with no permanent settlement within Orleans County where they came to hunt and fish. They were friendly to the whites, and settlers never feared their hostility.

With more pioneers arriving, however, there was less game, and Indians stopped coming there.

Although traveled by natives since time immemorial, Ridge Road remained key to the development of the territory by white settlers. The first surveys of the area were made as early as 1798, following a route the Indians knew where a gravelly ridge extended from the Genesee River to the Niagara.

Cutting a new road was so necessary for progress that often the settlers would turn out and help cut the trees and build the sluiceways. The major land owner, the Holland Land Company was responsible for the lion’s share of road development, which they hoped would sell more land.

In 1805 the Holland Land Company started a salt manufacturing operation at the natural salt springs north of Medina. The company cut two roads, one leading south from the works to the “Old Buffalo Road”; the other south-easterly, to the Oak Orchard Road. These early highways were both called the Salt Works Road.

Later the opening of the Erie Canal helped supersede this salt works by making available Onondaga salt.

Seymour Murdock became the first permanent settler, arriving in the spring of 1810. He left his family of 12 at nearby Avon while he and his oldest son scouted the area for a place to settle. Historians say that his eldest daughter refused to follow them into the dense forest and remained in Avon.

As settlers arrived, improvements to the roadway were immediately begun by cutting out trees and making the crossings at streams easier. In April 1814, the legislature approved $5,000 and appointed commissioners to improve the roads between Rochester and Lewiston (at the border with Canada).

The resulting “Ridge Road,” as it was called, was laid out by Philetus Swift and Caleb Hopkins. Considered a “big” road at that time, it was six rods wide.

The county’s first north-south road that was passable was based on the belief that trade from this part of the country must travel by lake. Thus the Holland Land Company made log causeways through wet places and bridged the streams.

“Build it and they will come” continued to be the highway philosophy. For example, when Andrew A. Ellicott built a mill on the Oak Orchard Creek at Shelby Center in 1813, the Holland Company cut out a highway leading from the Oak Orchard Road to Shelby Center in hopes that it would increase land sales. Today it’s still a public highway, following almost the exact route that early mill customers employed on the first east-west route south of the ridge.

As early as 1813 the town had voted to raise $250 to build roads and bridges. Compare that to the $15 bounty they paid for wolves. Or the $1 fine (paid to the poor) if “Any man suffer a Canada thistle to go to seed on his land knowingly.”

Transportation was always a big issue. In 1823, Ridgeway held a special town meeting to raise money to build a ditch across the Ridge Road. The town also gave the commissioners of highways “sufficient authority to make such a compromise as they think proper with those who first opened the drain which caused the above ditch, and if they cannot get a satisfactory compromise that they may commence prosecution.”

By 1865 the population was over 5,000 and the town had taverns, hotels, blacksmiths, schools, churches and stores.

Then as now, the Ridge Road continued to define Ridgeway — a town named after a highway that began as an ancient Indian trail. P

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

Jump to Profile: