Come Dec. 31, 2011, the superintendent of the town of Williamson’s highway department will retire after 40 years. A tall, thoughtful man, Jerry Hubright may be among the most understated highway superintendents in the state.
Crewmembers took this reporter aside to let her know what a great job he does, knowing he wouldn’t toot his own air horn. “He’s more than a boss,” said one worker who hopes to fill the superintendent’s shoes. “He’s a friend.”
Jerry’s advice to the person who will inherit the position? “Take one day at a time and enjoy it even if things don’t always go right,” he said.
In the break room, each of the five-man crew plus Jerry has his own hosed-out easy chair, with more stuffing showing than upholstery. Each seat appears to be contoured by its owner’s anatomy. When he retires, Jerry’s chair — a circa 1960 model with wider arms to support his coffee cup — will probably be empty. Or, if the crew has its way, his busted-up chair will depart with him.
He says he gets up at 2:30 a.m. to “take a look around.” By 4 a.m. he is in the barn to take care of a “little plowing.” The regular winter hours are 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. “But if it snows, we’re here,” he said. His take on weather predictions comes not from watching The Weather Channel as much as a sixth sense gained from having lived in Williamson his entire life and his personal relationship with all of the roads for the past four decades. Route 104, which cuts right through the town, is maintained by the state and is a notoriously dangerous stretch of high-speed highway.
“Wind is a big factor here,” he said. “You can have two inches of snowfall and be chasing it around for two days.” He recently took one look at the early morning dawn sky and predicted (rightly) that sunshine would break before noon in nearby Livingston County to the southwest.
Jerry is not a computer-centric person. He eagerly credits Valerie Fowler, the town supervisor’s secretary for helping him when computer skills are needed to do his job. “She does a lot for the highway,” he said.
It takes a lot to get Jerry, who’s quiet, easygoing and totally competent, to say much of anything beyond the basic details about his long career path. He joined the Williamson Highway Department in 1971 on a work program, beginning with simple tasks like washing vehicles and riding wing on the snowplow. By 1984, he was ready to run for the superintendent’s position when his boss retired. Did he ever anticipate one day managing the highway operation? “Not really,” he said, in his typically understated manner. He has been superintendent for seven terms. On winning all those elections he said, “You just do your job and you do it right.”
Plenty of residents are quick to say what a fine job Jerry does with the roads that they probably take for granted. Complaints mostly are snow-plow crushed mail boxes. Compliments? He quipped, “What are those?” Residents often remark that they know they are in Williamson because of the condition of the roads in winter. The crew also mows town and some county roads in season. As major resurfacing is done, many roads are being widened from 18 feet to 22 feet, as the budget allows. The last dirt road was replaced in 1971.
The town of Williamson doesn’t have an officially designated village. In 1980, the New York State Route 21’s northern terminus was moved south from the road’s intersection with Lake Road in Pultneyville to its present location at the intersection with New York State Route 104 in Williamson, a little over a mile north of the town’s business district.
Route 104 is an important east-west highway in western New York, and Route 21 is a major north-south route that also allows access to the New York State Thruway. Route 21 even has its own Wikipedia page because it was once part of an old Indian trail and later a plank toll road. The route originally extended from the Pennsylvania state line north to Lake Ontario, terminating at the junction of Lake Road and Hamilton Street in Pultneyville from 1930 to 1980. The original route was eventually rerouted, truncated and realigned.
As for major changes in the way they do business in Williamson, situated right by the shore on Lake Ontario, Jerry points to the equipment, which has gotten bigger, more efficient, quieter and more comfortable. The size of the crew has remained the same. He says, “When I became superintendent I decided not to replace myself on the crew. We’ve gotten along pretty good. There’s times when we could use three more people, but most of the time we take care of it very well.”
Equipment New and Used
Jerry said they try to do most repairs themselves, but newer equipment is computer controlled and the systems needed for diagnostics would cost too much for the town to purchase. Repairs to newer equipment like the 2010 International Paystar 10-wheel dump truck that just replaced a 20-year-old model can’t be done with just a toolbox any longer. The dump truck being replaced will go live in the back area as a possible back up. About to arrive is a new Cat 952 loader, which cost about $170,000. “We could use a new grader, but we don’t use it that much so we’ll get by with what we’ve got.”
When he first came on the job he said, “The equipment wasn’t really all that bad. There was a lot of Oshkosh from back in the 1950s. The superintendent kept it all up pretty good.”
With 94 lane miles of roads to account for and 28 miles of winter maintenance to do for the county, the town of Williamson’s budget is $1.3 million, with $87,000 coming from CHIPS.
Goodbye to Family Farms, Hello Bedroom Community
The town of Williamson, with 6,500 residents, is an easy commute to both Xerox and Kodak. Jerry obviously found his niche in highway work, but not before he tried factory work of which he says, “I couldn’t stand it. I just didn’t like being inside.”
A native of Williamson, Jerry graduated from Williamson Central. His mother and father were both factory workers. Large commercial apple orchards remain a big part of the industry in this town, and Jerry tried both picking and driving a truck for an apple farmer. After 40 years on the job supporting the highway department he knows every bump in the road and many of the townspeople by name. He has run for office seven times, facing some competition. How does he do it? “You go door to door. Williamson has become more of a bedroom community for people coming out of Rochester, so there are many more people I’ve never met before.”
The Williamson highway garage, right on Route 104, was built in 1966 and had two more bays added in 1971. The location is somewhat landlocked and only has room for 450 tons of salt in the shed. Older equipment is parked outside. The garage is neat, well maintained and comfortable in the wintertime thanks to some recent energy-saving improvements in the overhead heating system.
While many Williamson residents work in huge, nearby Kodak and Xerox facilities, it is the apple that stands out throughout the countryside and gives the town its distinctive look. The town also is headquarters for Controlled Atmosphere, the largest apple storage facility in the state. Duffy Mott has a processing plant where apples become apple juice and applesauce. The area’s first winery makes wines from stone fruit as well as from the more traditional grapes.
Since 1960 Williamson has hosted a week-long Apple Blossom Festival at the height of the apple bloom.
Even as small dairy operations have shut down and more commuters have moved into town, apples remain a big part of productivity in the town. Orchards are a traditional part of the Lake Ontario shoreline, and the hundreds of acres of apples all appear to be aggressively pruned and planted in rows like wooden soldiers awaiting their orders.
The amount of open space devoted to orchards gives the town its pastoral, rustic appeal. A few new communities with cul de sacs have been built, which means Jerry’s crew uses pickups and smaller equipment to maintain those streets. Williamson’s main street, much of which was built in the late 1800s, is pretty narrow for the snowplow, but it’s also full of life and activity. In the absence of strip malls in town, the commercial area is still thriving.
While many roads are flat, Williamson has some significant hills in the southern part with nice views of the surrounding area. The heaviest snow tends to land east of Williamson towards Sodus, where Jerry says, “the lake turns.” They also plow out the Town Hall and four village parking lots. Informal exchanges of equipment with neighboring towns and villages help them control costs.
Budget constraints became extreme about three years ago when oil prices skyrocketed. Jerry philosophically points out those prices never come back down. He says asphalt went up, then salt went up, but the Town Board accepted the fact that prices rise and the highway department got an increase in spending as a result.
In winter snows they use straight salt mixed with sand as needed. He said, “We use straight salt. Our storage area is limited so we get a lot of loads over the season.” Jerry even remembers staying in line at the salt mine in Mt. Morris from 5 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., but he says that was unusual. “At 16 degrees or so we add a little more sand in the mix. It acts like an abrasive on hard packed snow.” He estimates that they mix about 18 tons of salt to 4 tons of sand with a loader.
New Culverts and Sink Holes
Even an enormous sinkhole that appeared in the center of a well traveled road early one morning two years ago left the Williamson crew undaunted. “That was different,” is all Jerry said as he shared photographs of the washout. “We got a report from a fireman driving to work that there was a big pothole in the road. By the time we got there, half of the width of the road had disappeared overnight. They speculate that water had caused the pipe to rot. Another major project captured by photography illustrated in this article was the new culvert installed on Brasser Road. Before the work there were two 30-inch side-by-side metal culverts that caused a problem with debris clogging the pipe creating flooding in the road.
The road had to be closed for about a month to make the repairs, and by the third week residents were getting edgy. It took time to get the necessary DEC permit because the job was near several major tributaries.
After digging the old metal culverts out they put in a base and installed a concrete box culvert. The old metal was sold for recycling and the money earned went back to the town.
Pultneyville — One Great Lakes Port
That Received Cannon Fire From the British
Williamson is historic in its own right, but the town’s hamlet of Pultneyville, framing the mouth of Salmon Creek on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, is spectacular. The historic district has been compared to an early 19th century ocean seaport. Once a significant Great Lakes trading port and the site of a War of 1812 skirmish, the hamlet is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Evidence of shots fired in 1812 can reportedly still be found in some local houses. Sailboats from the Pultneyville yacht club highlight the marina. The hamlet also is home to the second-oldest little theater in the United States.
Due to strict zoning the hamlet remains completely unspoiled with its Federal Second Empire, Greek Revival and Victorian architecture situated along a part of the Seaway Trail, a noteworthy New York State scenic route.
What Happens Next?
While Jerry cheerfully refers to himself as “pretty boring,” he plans to join his wife, Claudia, who retired two years ago from a long career in public education. They have children and grandchildren to visit, and Jerry likes to play golf although he says he isn’t skilled at it. The couple enjoys their two daughters, his two stepsons and six grandchildren.
As for worst days, he can’t think of one, and for best days, he says most of them were enjoyable. Like most people he likes to see jobs completed. After his wife, a charming outgoing person, retired, he said he began to think that this would be his last term. He said, “I had fun. I accomplished a lot. And I don’t know what else I can do.”
Has he been happy in his career path? He had a typically uncomplicated answer summed up in one word — “Yup.” P