Superintendent of Highways Wesley Moore and the Town of Durham

By Laurie Mercer

Apples falling not too far from the tree, like father like son, chips off the old block and other homilies express an enduring bond and like-mindedness that exists between certain men and their sons. Certainly in Durham, Wesley Moore, superintendent of highways, reminds a lot of folks of his dad, Ivan, who had 40 years in the same highway department in this town of 2,600 people.

Now Wes has just retired after 37 years on the job overseeing the highways of this rural town, which lies in the shadow of the Catskill Mountains and has been luring tourists to the areas since the early days. The first settlers came in the late 1700s.

For the first time in nearly 80 years, there is no longer a Moore running the highway department. Wes’s daughter chose to get a master’s degree in ocean engineering and works for the Navy as a private contractor, living in Florida with her husband.

“She’s not afraid to live anyplace. She’s very outgoing,” he said with obvious pride. “My brother and I are complete homebodies.”

Wes’s entire life has been spent in the easy-going town of Durham.

“We’re in the middle of nowhere,” Wes said as he begins to talk about Durham.

Durham is in Greene County. The north town line is the border of Albany County, and the west town line is part of the border with Schoharie County.

He described himself as “quiet,” but if the subject is Durham, whatever he doesn’t know first hand he will find out about over coffee in the morning at the diner. One hundred and sixty lane miles of road, with 16 miles of gravel, are all in great shape, but not one road has striping on it of any kind. That provides some idea of the size of the population and the amount of traffic its gets. The town also plows 12 miles of roads for the county.

Of the $1.1 million budget, $140,000 comes from CHIPS.

The population of the mostly close-knit community is about 2,500. The highway department maintains two public parks with baseball diamonds, tennis courts and basketball among the attractions. Wes said one of his final projects, pointed to with pride, is the department’s 10-year long plan to replace the entire existing culvert pipe in Durham. Nearly every resident in town knows most of everybody else. Wes constantly looks up from what he is doing to acknowledge yet another driver waving at him. Now that people know he has retired, many more come by to honor his contribution to the town’s mostly rolling roads.

“Thank you again for being there for my wife,” said a resident whose wife had suffered four separate strokes this winter. “We couldn’t have gotten out without you. You did a good job on the roads.”

Wes, seated on a bench outside the combination town hall, police station and highway office building, almost seemed embarrassed by the praise. Just as he said that fire and rescue vehicles are uppermost on his department’s mind every day, the local police chief walked by and said, “Did he tell you he’s going to be missed by the police department? He’s done everything in the world for us.”

Wes said his department always keeps an eye on residents, including due dates for women about to give birth and seniors. Keeping roads open, even in catastrophic weather conditions (mostly snow and water) for possible emergency conditions is what has fueled his enthusiasm for being a second-generation, road warrior for Durham.

“All of us were born and raised here, so we keep an eye on everything,” he said of his seven-person department. It’s easy to believe him, even after all these years, when he said he is happiest on (and probably off) the job when he is plowing at night.

For example, at the end of February 2010, Wes’s crew faced 7 feet of snow in the mountains and 4.5 feet in the valley below. His crew ended up helping the town of Windham along 12 miles of road where 8 feet of snow fell in a short amount of time. Wes was on a snowplow and stuck in a ditch himself when the call came in for help in the neighboring town.

The highway office, built almost entirely by the highway department and added onto at various times from 1986 through 2008, also houses local law enforcement and the town offices, so it’s an epicenter of town activity and chatter, as well as highway maintenance.

The circa 1988 wood stove that warms the highway garage is a classic Durham Highway Department DIY— it was originally a roller that was used frequently in maintaining Durham’s roads. Wes also built the wood splitter using scrap metal and old lawn mower motors. He’s working on a second splitter at home. He characterized his masterwork in tinkering as producing working machines that are lean on aesthetics, or “eye candy” as it’s known in the trade.

It’s also a pretty relaxed place to come to work. Wes occasionally shared a formal office space with his wife, who works for the town. He also had a highway garage based “office” that is positioned, back turned, just to the left of a long line of retired La-Z-Boy-type stuffed recliner chairs lined up by the wood stove. Wes has a real desk and desk chair, and there are several chairs that don’t recline for visitors.

Needless to say all the firewood came from roads work.

The town has well maintained roads, two bridges, seven stone-arch bridges registered as national historic sites, two ball parks and 17 cemeteries (two of them are “open”), among other assignments. Many of the cemeteries they weed and mow are small private family plots. Burial stones dating back to the late 1700s, when the town got going, are not unusual.

Wes likes it when residents say they can tell when they come to the town line in winter because the condition of Durham roads is superior to any others. Unlike other roads where the goal in winter is to have bare pavement using heavy amounts of highway salt, Wes prefers plowing techniques perfected by nearly 40 years of practice.

“They say they can drive through our roads better. The state salts the roads every two hours, and it can get to be heavy, packy snow. It can suck you off the roads. Sometimes, depending on conditions, we let 6 to 8 inches accumulate and then go back and clean it up.

“Our town is very unique. We hit the roads pretty hard in the winter time.”

Wes carved the town into four different zones — ranging from 1,500 feet elevation and lots of snow to the hamlet of Durham itself. Conditions can simultaneously span heavy snow, wind-blown drifts, ice and simply wet.

“We maintain about 6.5 miles for Greene County. One road is up in the mountains and it’s all up and down. One of our trucks stays up there practically full time during storms. We run through the night to be sure fire and rescue can get through.”

Occasionally they don’t get through by driving at all.

“I’ve walked my way to work at 3 a.m. with my dad more than one time,” Wes said.

“We’ve upgraded the roads quite a bit over the last 30 years. We don’t have any seasonal roads anymore. Almost all of our back roads are two lanes wide. In response to some requests to do away with some of our dirt roads, we try and resurface-treat them for about quarter to a half-mile every year. A lot of them are dead ends. We don’t pave them. Residents will request we do something about them. There’re a lot of people who don’t want to live on a dirt road.”

Typical upgrades would be the 4,200 feet of oil and stone done on one road this year.

Pure farm boy, Wes said he likes working on dirt roads. For maintenance every spring he goes out and works with a grader to re-shape the dirt surface because of damage caused by snowplows over the winter.

“Plows cut them up pretty good. So we roll them back down and put calcium in front of the homes for dust control. You need to add material here and there. Sometimes we’ll take one section and re-build it to make it safer for the motoring public.”

Even the sound of hot tar popping in the warm summer sun is music to Wes’s ears. He particularly likes the ability of oil and stone roads to kind of smooth themselves out in the summertime, while chilling down during the evening hours.

Recently, several members of Wesley’s crew were out cutting back trees in response to a complaint about low hanging branches hitting the school buses.

“We are very proactive on taking care of dead trees,” said Wes. “As you drive around and check on roads it’s easy to carry a can of paint with you so you can mark them for harvesting later.

“Then you send the crew out. We bring all the firewood right back here with some to burn the highway garage. We stay right on top of the problem of trees.”

He finds some resistance to taking down older trees and mediated and finally backed away from his original plan to remove several older trees near the side of the road when the property owner explained to him that the trees, slated for removal, had a historic connection to his family property.

Ultimately, Wes said, it took several hours of discussion. His crew cleaned up the situation, but they did not take down the valued trees.

“Every other year we go around with a stump grinder and make sure there is nothing sticking up.”

As for new machinery, Wes cited the new Caterpillar 938 payloader that came last fall as being a terrific addition to the capabilities his crew represents.

“We always do our own specs when we buy machinery because we know what it has to do.

“Since 1970 this is only our fourth payloader,” he said.

As for a highway department that is best known for its camouflaged equipment, the issue of color on the town’s equipment can only be described as “rainbow.” Once again, practicality, not aesthetics, drives the choices made in Durham.

“We’ve got one of every color,” Wes said with a smile. His artistic side doesn’t end there. Wes helped get the town’s unofficial logo designed by a local person. The mountains, silo, lake and pine trees on several highway vehicles have become so popular that other departments in Durham have adopted it.

Durham has no water and sewer districts, and in lieu of zoning, simply follows what’s on the books. Wes said of the relaxed atmosphere in town, “That’s why we are out in the sticks.”

Father and Son

After retiring as superintendent, Ivan worked for his son as a mechanic in the department until the day he died.

“He took the day off to do some work at home, and he had a massive heart attack,” Wes said.

Ivan was 78 years old. Wes conceded that his father’s workaholic habits might be part of why he reached the difficult decision to retire much sooner than his dad.

“I’m 55, and I don’t want to keel over like he did,” he said.

And to keep himself energized he has returned to a family-based passion for motorcycles. Again it is a form of transport also enjoyed by his dad. The current Yamaha (“I had to tinker with it when I bought it. It had some problems.”) will be parked by the highway department less often now that he has retired. He is building his second trike (three-wheeled motorcycle) because he sold the one he built, which he and his wife enjoyed so much. He claimed, humorously, that the third wheel fits his advancing age.

As he entertains the idea of a nice, calm retirement from a job that is often one crisis bridged to another, he does think of his dad’s post-retirement contributions to the department. Following retirement, Ivan was not particularly well paid, but his son said his dad liked to keep busy.

“He loved to be working on equipment. I’m like that, too. He had done it all his life. He was always tinkering with things.

“My dad started here in 1954 and retired at the end of 1987.”

Wes is leaving just three years short of his father’s 33-year benchmark.

“When I was a little kid in the summertime my father always took me along. By the time I was 12 or 13 he had me doing things. He put me on the roller. We used to have a crusher and a gravel bank we maintained. When I got to be a little older, maybe 15, I ran the crusher lots of times.

“In wintertime when school wasn’t in session, I was out on the snowplow. I was the wingman.”

Wing-kid? Did he make any money?

“No, I just liked doing it. I’ll never forget those nights.”

Night plowing remains one of his fondest memories. Just one week into retirement he is already doing town-related work for about an hour per day watering the wave petunias growing in planters for a town beautification program. This task may cause some light-hearted ribbing from his crew. How could a heavy equipment guy get stuck with a watering can? And yet, Wes seems to be very comfortable with the work. He joined the highway department right after high school.

“Growing up and being a highway guy, that’s all I ever really knew in addition to working on farm equipment. I don’t know how many tractor motors I’ve rebuilt.”

Wes said Ivan was known around these parts for his mechanical ability, including welding.

“People were always coming to our house to get things fixed. Anything to do with farm equipment was in our yard. There were plenty of cars out back.

“If you’d run into problems, he’d help. But mostly he gave us the tools and said, ‘You figure it out.’ That’s how my brother and I learned. My father used to take us to the junkyards as kids. For $10 or $15 we’d buy something to work on.”

In time the siblings built mini-bikes, go-carts, field cars and things like that. A “field car” is not legal and probably driven by an underage kid along dusty farm roads. In the country, field cars and farm equipment are what you learn to drive on.

When Ivan retired, the town board came to Wes’s home one evening and asked Wes to take the position of highway superintendent. Within 24 hours of his father’s retirement, Wes became the “go-to” guy.

“It was a two-year term back then,” he said. “I’ve run unopposed for all of my 22 years since that time.”

He said at first he was reluctant to take the job because he noticed that his dad was “getting old for his age.”

“He’d be up at 3 a.m. every morning to take care of the cows. He’d be back at 5 a.m. for breakfast and then go to work for the town, come home and do it all over again.”

The old photos of Ivan in front of the gravel pile look a lot like Wes in the same location today. During the next election, in two years, for the first time there won’t be a Moore running for highway superintendent. Wes officially left the job on June 23, 2010. At his formal retirement party, true to his understated nature, he took his occasion at “speechifying” to thank the town for giving him a satisfying and rewarding career path.

“My tip to anybody else in this job would be to work hard at it and be dedicated. That’s the biggest thing. I dedicated myself 100 percent to the job, and it paid off in terms of earning the respect of the community I served,” he said.

The photographic collection created for his retirement party shows Wes at various stages of his life (with and without a mustache) — kid, young man with “Woody” his pet woodchuck, married man, family guy, and lots of fancy rigs pulling his camper.

For the get together lots of folks crowded the Shamrock House. Business owners, private individuals, friends and lots of people he has known all his life heard Wes say he thought he had run out of ideas.

“Everything has changed,” he explained. “When it comes to stuff like technology, it is passing me by. I am an old-fashioned, work by the seat of your pants kind of guy.

“To work on new equipment everything is computerized today. You need a laptop just to work on them. You can’t just go at them with wrenches anymore.”

Enter Alan Beechert, the New Superintendent

Wes said he started seriously contemplating retirement several years ago but kept that idea to himself. Alan Beechert, his replacement who will have to run for office himself in two years, was a natural choice for Wes to make.

“Alan has worked for me for seven years. He is a local individual, born and raised here. He’s done heavy equipment repair. He’s been a plumber. He is certified in air brake repair. He is certified to work on school buses.”

Wes said there was never any question that Alan was best suited to take the superintendent position.

“All of our people have good mechanical ability. Four of them are good and two of them are excellent. There are carpenters and electricians on board. The town has an excellent seven-person crew,” he said.

With Wes leaving, the crew is down one, and about a dozen people have already applied for the opening on the roster.

“It’s a rough economy and everybody is looking for work,” he said.

Wes pointed to various buildings on the grounds his guys have built for the town, including the new boiler they installed themselves. For example, the crew built new office space last fall and probably saved the town about $15,000 by doing so. Only the aluminum siding installation was contracted outside.

In addition to looking at skill sets, Wes said he hired people whom he believed would be a good fit.

“I wanted somebody that I knew would blend in. I didn’t want any internal conflicts. These guys are excellent to work with, and they’re a lot of fun to be around.”

Shifting Gears From Superintendent to Retiree

Wes enjoys joking with his wife, who still has to get up and go to work every morning, but he said, “I still get up at 5 a.m., but I’m glad to be out from under the job [for all of a week]. Being highway superintendent is quite a load on your shoulders. Everybody looks to you and relies on you to have things set up for the day-to-day activities. The budget part of it has been very easy. The difficult part is the work schedule,” he said.

“In 22 years as superintendent, I’ve never had a squabble with a town board member.

“I always tried to stay within my budget. When I did ask for something I had all my facts and figures together in writing for the board. Everything I’ve done and worked for, they have always granted me”, he said.

“We have no industry to speak of, so it’s the taxpayers who have to foot the bill.”

Durham, Always a Tourist Destination

“Tourism has always been big for this area,” said Wes. “Years ago we had a lot of boarding houses, but most of them are gone or have fallen down.”

The old resort bungalows and tourist homes have yielded to higher end properties and even swanky RV parks; Durham remains a place where people come to visit, often with families in tow. In response, some old timers in the local tourism industry here have managed to catch the wave and remain profitable. Durham’s proximity to Albany and New York City affords good traffic. Among the local attractions are a water park advertised on big billboards near Albany. Wes said that on a good hot sunny day the place is packed. There also are sophisticated campgrounds and several nice boutique hotels and B&Bs.

Durham also hosts a variety of festivals ranging from Irish festivals to the largest Bluegrass Festival in the northeast — the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival (greyfoxbluegrass.com). Wes said an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 people will come to town for the annual Irish Festival on Memorial Day.

“When I took over we had 74 miles of roads, and now we are up to 80 just from all the development.”

Wes cited the 9/11 attacks as the reason why Durham, always an attractive place for tourists, suddenly got more weekend homes and retirees joining the tax base. The boom has slowed because, as Wes succinctly put it, “The economy has crapped out.”

For example, a large privately run Irish cultural park area appears to have halted in mid-stream. There is one small thatched cottage on the hill, lots of flags, and the map of Ireland paved with bricks purchased by private individuals. On another hill a tall metal monument to the 9/11 attacks still awaits site work and commemoration.

One large local employer, the family-owned company Stiefels, was just bought out. Stiefels originally made soap and facial products, but now it is going to make toothpaste. About 250 people show up to work there every morning, making it the single-largest employer in town.

Farm Boy to Superintendent

“I grew up in Durham; I never left. I’ve always been here. I still have my parents’ farm, although my brother and I sold off some land, the two houses, and all of the barns. We just didn’t want to keep paying taxes on it.”

Wes and his brother built new homes on the remaining acreage, rolling wooded hills and working fields, which Wes finds central to his core as a human being.

“We used to grow hay and corn and had 48 head of milking cows. My father, brother and I got together and decided it wasn’t profitable to keep running the farm like that, so we sold the cows. Now,” he added, “we sell hay right out of the field instead. It was too much work. I sold the farm equipment, and I have a guy come in and work the fields. I never want to be parted from the land, ever.”

Has the town changed much since he was a kid?

“Oh yeah, big time. When I was growing up there were 12 working farms here. Now we have two dairy operations. The open meadows where the cows grazed are all wooded over.

“I’m wore out,” he said cheerfully when asked about his primary reason for retiring at a slightly younger age than his dad. But he isn’t referring to physical fatigue as much as the mental fatigue that sets in, especially in the current economy. He said he has run out of new ideas on how to do the best job and save the town money. He has to face the residents every day and be accountable for every action his department makes. Every expense they incur.

“If I buy a big ticket item [$100,000 or more], a lot of times I will bond it for two to three years to spread out the cost so it doesn’t affect my budget adversely.”

Military Surplus a Real Plus in Durham

Making practical machines out of scrap is Wes’s specialty. For example, he helped build a shoulder machine to use after paving. The unit was built from a 1965 fire truck and parts from a 2.5-ton military truck.

In 2004 Wes purchased a 1980 military tandem axle International Paystar 6x6 and used the chassis to build a heavy duty snowplow with parts from a junked 1979 Walters snowplow. A few years later he purchased a military heavy-duty Oshkosh 4x4 truck and a 1987 International snowplow for parts and made one heavy-duty snowplow with a V-plow, which Wes said saved the day many times. He added, “Nobody seems to have V-plows anymore.”

Non-residents passing through could drive around Durham’s roads and think the National Guard was in town and on high alert, especially in the winter. There is that much camouflage on many of the town’s heavy pieces of equipment due to a federal program that is delivered by the state called the Federal Surplus Program.

“All the highway superintendent has to do is fill out some forms,” he said.

These vehicles are available at low cost only to municipalities and non-profits, including the Boy Scouts of America and rescue squads, but they can be later sold to the public. Ultimately the goal is to recycle equipment and save the taxpayers money.

“I’d rather beat the heck out of a $2,000 vehicle than beat the heck out of a $150,000 truck,” he said.

Big Dog, Tough Dog and Mighty Dog are all former military trucks that have found useful lives supporting Durham’s roads.

“Tough Dog is a big old Oshkosh that we made into a snowplow. We bought the truck from the military and a junked snowplow from a private individual. Then we stripped the plow equipment off of it for the plow, wing box, etc., and mounted it on the old truck.”

He said the name came from a March mishap this year when he tipped the truck on its side.

“The sander fell out, but we strapped it on and quickly mounted it again. The next day I was driving it, helping the Town of Windham. It tipped over and was ready to go again, that’s why I call it Tough Dog.

“We always work on summer projects during the rainy days. I buy a military vehicle and I get some ideas. Some of my ideas get a little wild. Some of the time the guys tell me to keep them to myself.”

Two camouflage trucks on the yard also are examples of the savvy, money-saving program in action. There is a Chevrolet Blazer and a military pickup. The 1985 Blazer cost $500 and the 1986 pickup was $600. He said military vehicles are kept in good repair. He doesn’t do any cosmetic work on them at all, which is why it looks like the National Guard is in town on maneuvers.

“We just run them for about three years, and then I sell them. They go for $1,200 to $2,500 so we make money on them as well.”

The military might is mostly snowplows, dump trucks, forklifts, payloaders and small trucks and utility vehicles. Brand new among the more traditional highway equipment is the expected arrival of a kind of mechanical homage to Wes’s contribution to the roads in town.

“We just ordered a 2011 International 4-wheel-drive snowplow. Alan and I worked on the specs. We wanted a dump/sander body on it, but the cost of the equipment that went with it was almost $52,000, and we had limits on what we could spend. So we went for the new dump body. We have a newer stainless sander we can hook up.”

Even Wes was amazed by the way prices have gone up. He said the last similar vehicle they bought cost $147,000 in 2003. This new truck originally was priced at $215,000 but with some creative haggling they got the cost down to $162,000.

An even sweeter deal became apparent when Wes got to tell the town board that the new truck wasn’t going to cost the taxpayers any money.

“Two years ago we got a lump sum of $148,000 from FEMA because of an ice storm we had in 2008. I stuck it in the bank and let it collect interest. Plus we had a little surplus. So when we decided to buy the new snowplow, it was all paid for.”

They expect delivery in September.

Bridges of Durham, Greene County

Among the more unusual aspects of Durham’s highways are its beautifully crafted, stone arch bridges.

“We have two bridges open to traffic. Both are two-lane, wooden deck, with steel I-beams and galvanized rails on them,” he said. “One we re-built in 2006. The other one is smaller, 21 feet between abutments which was rebuilt in 1988.

“We have seven historically registered stone arch bridges in town. Some have signs about them, some don’t.”

To save one of the bridges, Wes said the town chose to bypass the structure and situate the new road so that the stone bridge is easily visible. To do so, he said, “We got permission from the property owner to move the road.”

“We had to move it about 38 feet from the center line. We put in 60 feet of a 5-foot diameter pipe. Then we built everything back up to grade.”

Wes pointed to the temporary bridge enhancement called a Bailey bridge, used in World War II.

“The Bailey bridge was donated by the county until we get more money to do something with the bridge.”

A Bailey bridge is a portable structure that goes together something like an Erector Set.

“We want to build a new bridge over it or next to it, and take the Bailey back up, but the estimate we have from engineers is $350,000 to $500,000. We can’t afford that.”

The alternative, he said, is to seek grant money, a path the town is pursuing.

“It’s been three years since the Bailey was put in there. The bridge is in something of a unique situation. The bridge is between two roads and is kind of a short cut.”

The structure is 14 feet high, 12 feet across and is 16 feet shoulder to shoulder. The stone foundation probably came from a local quarry.

“I’ve seen photographs where individuals were bringing in stone with horse and wagons to build that bridge.”

What’s Next?

If he hadn’t made a U-turn years ago, Wes might never have married his wife, Cindy, a woman who worked in banks, had several years as bookkeeper for both Cairo and Durham, and still works in the town office.

“She was a local and had moved to Coxsackie. I rode a motorcycle at the time [1974].”

As he motored by a party where people were playing volleyball, a friend called him over. The fellow introduced him to Cindy saying, “This girl wants to get married.” Following three years of courtship, she did. They have been married for 31 years.

In retirement Wes plans more of their long distance adventures with a group of RVer’s, who call themselves the “Dirt Baggers.” He belongs to the Antique Truck Association and the Antique Power Association.

“Steam shows? I love them,” he said. Five years ago they attended a big steam show in Canada. Last year they went to Bowling Green, Ohio, for the National Tractor Puller’s Association show, a three-day national event.

No slouches at camping with comforts, Wes and Cindy have a fifth-wheel camper pulled by a shiny Peterbilt truck.

Now that he is retired, does he have any regrets? “Just one,” he said, “I wish I had taken more photographs of the work getting done.” P

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