Superintendent of Highways Bob Hite and the Town of Osceola

Laurie Mercer

While most people’s idea of a “typical winter” does not include 350 inches of snow, even when it makes national news, heavy snowfall is not what keeps Bob Hite, highway superintendent of Osceola, awake at night. Instead, it’s the heavy trucks that use seasonal roads out of season and the frequent washouts along the numerous waterways.

Snow, after all, just needs to be plowed constantly, while truck drivers abusing the seasonal limits on posted signs need to be firmly spoken to. You can bet that in this town famous for being the epicenter of wilderness and extreme weather — the Tug Hill plateau — word gets around. In this big watershed area, creeks and streams can cause road washouts in a matter of minutes.

“Nobody realizes how fast water comes up,” said Bob. “I did my rounds one morning and drove over a bridge. About an hour later, one road I passed was underwater. That’s what breaks down the roads around here. It’s not the snow; it’s often due to water.

“This particular road has washed out twice recently. Kevin [Searls, a crewmember] and I had been riding around because it was raining so hard. When we passed by an hour and a half later, there was a foot and a half of water running over the road.”

It takes Bob’s crew only about a day to dig out the damaged area with the backhoe, lay in old discarded tires to add fill, and top it off with gravel. In this instance they replaced old metal pipes with three 48-inch plastic pipes. Job satisfaction, according to Searls, comes from visiting Jackson Road yet again to check out a flooded area and finding that the crew’s previous repairs were still in place. Ditching and mowing also are part of their job description.

Osceola, in Lewis County, has 55 lane miles of winding roads. The town is little more than a four-corner area with one gas pump — posting “snowmobile prices,” Bob said, even in summer. He left his retirement from a long and varied career path that took him into military service and to many parts of the United States. Bob figures his last election, November 2010, was won with a total of about 43 votes out of around 283 eligible voters in town. For a “local” he is a worldly guy. He has no backup secretary and answers the phone with a direct opening, “Highway barn.”

Bob, who grew up in nearby Camden, was initially appointed to the position by the town board.

“I wanted to come back to this area when I retired, so I did,” Bob said.

For his second term, he was voted in running as an independent. Did he campaign?

“No, I put my form in and that was it. If I had to campaign I wouldn’t have done it. I’m not here for prestige, and I’m not here for the money. I just want to be able to say that when I leave here in two years, I left the town roads in better shape than when I got here. I also want to be sure that the men have the equipment they need to do the job. Those are my two goals.”

Roads here are mostly treated crushed stone and oil. Sometimes you’ll find an old patch of asphalt where a previous crew used up whatever was left on a job elsewhere in town. Driving here without four-wheel drive or front-wheel drive would be a joke. There are no working farms left and only a few small businesses, but the town roads are modestly expanding in mileage. A new large campground is under development on the old Niciu farm, which was once a major agricultural establishment. In about a year’s time those new roads under construction for the campers will become part of the town road roster.

On the way they are being built Bob said, “We are trying to plan ahead for the day when the school buses might be up there. Eventually you would have to tear out trees to make the roads wider, if you don’t make them wide enough right now.” Thus, they are adding “nine rod roads.”

Osceola, like every other town, is tightly controlled by budgets. The highway department’s budget of $250,000, with $51,900 coming from CHIPS, is easily the largest expense in the town. The land is rural, full of deer, bear, turkey and stocked streams, but it is the snowmobile riders who are central to a steady stream of tourists and the money they leave behind.

The town also hosts a large cross country ski center. Hundreds of miles of snowmobile and four-wheeler trails are maintained by various recreational clubs. Snow thick enough to ride is available from October to April. Places like the iconic Cedar Pines (restaurant, bar, cabins and campers) could not exist without what Bob calls, “snow machines.” While he doesn’t ride them, he does love to hunt and fish.

Really early mornings (he gets up around 3 a.m. in winter and 4 a.m. the rest of the year) with the mist rising along the streams is his favorite part of the job. At that hour turkey and deer are his companions. He calls this daily meditation “making his rounds.” But after a week of rural bliss and highway work he said he always travels someplace else for the weekend. Recreational activities include dancing and golf. Both activities he said he pursued once he retired.

“Every Sunday I get in the car and I go out in the real world — Syracuse, Utica, whatever.”

Osceola—Home of the Turtle Races

You can find million-dollar homes in Osceola with their own maintenance workers trimming up the manicured outdoors with enormous dug ponds, curving driveways and freshly planted stone walls. Those tony places are often owned by out-of-town folks from New Jersey, Manhattan and Pennsylvania. Land here is a bargain for many camp owners with 50 acres and a run-down house going for $57,000 at auction this spring, or a brand new $225,000 log cabin on five acres. More numerous are the tiny, old time camps that appear to be disappearing into the underbrush. One architectural feature common around these parts is a second story entrance above the main doorway. In the event of heroic drifts, people can still get in and out of their homes.

The nearby village of Hooker in Lewis County actually holds the state record for annual snowfall — nearly 39 feet in one winter.

Many properties are not visible from the roads at all; people here value privacy. With an abundance of natural springs and dense woods, wildlife abounds. Early in the year the march of the snapping turtles across the roads creates a common driving obstacle.

Turtles, in fact, provide the highlight for the town’s one big, annual festival — the Turtle Festival. Due to Department of Environmental Conservation restrictions, snappers are no longer among the entries in what is usually a ten-race card watched closely by hundreds of enthusiastic spectators.

Calling this the North Country is more than a direction on a map, it is also a state of mind here. It’s not unlike the Wild West in its pioneering attitudes toward life in general and the town in particular. There is a tremendous awareness of nature, which is why a lot of people live here. It’s not unusual for roads, or parts of a road, to go by several different names, depending on which ones you grew up with, which is probably not on a street sign or a map. Often the name reflects some roadside observation. For example, Solar Hill references a house that once had a solar unit on the roof.

“I’m a loner. I’ve been a loner all my life,” said Bob. “I don’t drink, smoke or pal around with anybody.”

He said he is “independent” in his thinking. It’s the politics of being highway superintendent that he likes least about his job. “I totally believe that what is good for one person is good for everybody.”

Out of Retirement and Into the Fire

Bob said he often wonders why he left his comfortable retirement to take this job. It might be that he likes being challenged more than he admits. It could be he found retirement a little more boring than he thought he would. He grew up in the neighboring town of Camden. His working life took him to El Paso, Texas, and Arkansas as well at other places. A hard worker, on one job he went from the shop floor to warehouse manager in two years.

His background in highway work was limited to 1970 when he worked for the town of Camden doing plowing and “lots of everything else.” He said he enjoyed being a troubleshooting consultant and plant manager in the past. He moved to Osceola 12 years ago because he loves the place where he grew up, and some of his kids live nearby. Once he assumed the position he now occupies, he said, “I quickly found out there was a lot of favoritism in this town, and I put a stop to it. Some people in town think they run the whole show.”

He reluctantly offered one example of favoritism as being the practice of dropping the plow on private driveways as a favor during the routine plow run. His no-nonsense theory on working, which he said he used to raise his three children, involves employing the principles of one-two-three. “One I ask, two I tell you and three your butt is mine. You have to have stabilization to get anything done so it’s one, two, three for me.

“I got myself into a situation,” he said with some consternation. “Why did I go and do this? The first year was something of a fiasco. Townspeople are not easy; nobody knew who I was.” He worked at it.

There is only one “four corners” in the town of Osceola, with a store/restaurant/gas pump that provides the village hub. Bob began eating more regularly at the store so that people would get used to seeing him and perhaps feel free to talk about the highway situation. He said he does not go asking for opinions because he doesn’t need to.

“Most of our equipment is outdated,” he said. “Trucks were broke down. Things were a mess. We’ve got three snowplows. They range from two years old to 15 years old.”

Last year brought a great deal of pride for people in the highway barn with the purchase of a brand new International snowplow costing $175,000. The town managed to pay it off in 12 months. His least favorite part of the job is budgets and budgetary discussions with the town board.

“Before this job I never had to worry about budgets. This is the first time for me. Anyplace where I worked before, you went into management and told them what you needed to get your job done. So I’ve had to learn how to be budget driven.”

Even his highway barn-based $112 electric coffee pot has been a bone of contention. He said, “I try to leave it to the board to do their job.”

He said he has computerized his expenses and having that electronic record has made it much easier to work with his budget, moving figures around within the highway budget, as necessary.

Among his favorite budget-busting principles is shared services with neighboring Redfield, Florence and West Leyden, all located within a 20-mile radius.

“We swap dump trucks when we are hauling salt and sand. When we are coating, we can have at least six to seven trucks on site and, with their help, in one day we can do the whole job.”

He also brought back an old piece of equipment that essentially was scrapped, invested a few thousand dollars in repairs and enjoys seeing it back in action. “They had an old 1998 truck out back with 79,000 miles on it.” For a few thousand dollars, a new frame made it serviceable once again.

In another scenario, the computer program Bob installed to help track expenses helped determine that just one piece of heavy equipment was getting wildly different readings on its consumption of precious fuel.

“One day it got 2.7 miles to the gallon, the next day it was 1.2. We get reimbursed by the county for doing some of their roads so it’s important to keep track of it. We repaired it, and got a handle on the expenses.”

A Self-Directed Crew Who Like to See a Job Well Done

“I could die right now on this floor,” Bob said, indicating the unassuming superintendent’s office in the serviceable highway barn. “And those three gentlemen I have working for me would come in and pick up the slack and nobody in town would know the difference. They are that good.

“Kevin Searls, Randy Reynolds and Mike Wilk [deputy] are all very versatile. That’s the beautiful part of it. I’ve probably had hundreds of people working for me over the years, and I have never had three people like this working for me before.”

Even in emergencies, the crew is tight with each other.

“One of the boys slid off the road into a big ditch during an ice storm. I had to go pull him out, but I had stalled the truck, which had a bad starter on it. It had to literally sit for two to three hours to cool down before you could start it up again.”

Kevin was looking for some assignments as a mechanic, so he looked under the hood and found a loose wire. Bob said, “It’s been running ever since.”

He adds a note of awe for their productivity on and off the job. “Mike has a small business of his own doing excavation work, and Randy’s done well for himself working in the woods. Kevin is a truck driver, mechanic and snow plower for his town and elsewhere.”

Snowplowing in Osceola is a one-man operation to save money. They typically use about 3,500 cubic yards of sand and 240 tons of salt, mixed in the loader. The mix is usually 20 percent salt to sand. “They do not like to use a lot of salt up here. We do have a lot of local sand,” Bob said.

What’s Next?

Even though Bob retired once before he took the highway job, one gets the feeling that he will never really completely retire at all. He likes traveling. One son would like to use him part-time to support the son’s business. Then there is the golf and dancing — two things he put off learning until he could retire the first time.

He will always be getting up early and witnessing the joys of nature. That’s a big part of why he lives in Osceola and a big part of why he took the job. There are those early mornings when he is doing his rounds, and the knowledge that he is going to leave the job better than when he found it.

Where Exactly Is Tug Hill?

Encompassing 150,000 acres, much of it controlled by New York State, the Tug Hill plateau is located roughly in the triangle formed by Watertown, Rome and Syracuse. The Tug Hill region is west of the Adirondack Mountains and is separated from the Adirondacks by the Black River Valley. Its outstanding characteristic is its undeveloped nature with second-growth timber and natural watershed. Because of the landscape and its proximity to Lake Ontario it provides perfect conditions for extreme snowfalls. More than 300 inches per year are typical in Osceola.

The Tug Hill plateau is like Mecca for snowmobile enthusiasts from the flats of the Salmon River to the highlands that border it.

Wasn’t Osceola From Florida?

The town of Osceola’s highway trucks have a logo that looks like an Indian-inspired wind charmer, but the actual Indian chief named Osceola who became a Seminole lived in Florida and never came here. Like many Native Americans, he was known by several names during his lifetime. Born in 1802 near the border of Alabama and Georgia, he was a member of the Creek tribe. His father was a white man. Displaced from Alabama in the 1700s, the tribe over time moved to Florida and became known as Seminole.

Treaties formed with the Indians were routinely ignored in the mid 1800s, and African-Americans who lived among the Indians would be captured and sold as slaves. This is exactly what happened to one of Osceola’s two wives and at least one of his children. Around 1833 Osceola became famous for his anti-removal stance and he began to attack white settlers in Florida

Florida’s swamps provided a safe haven for Osceola and his warriors. For seven years they staged major victories. Finally the U.S. War Department sent General Jesup to end it in 1836 with 8,000 troops. And yet, in 1837 Osceola and 200 warriors converged on Fort Dade and pulled off the escape of 700 Indian prisoners held there.

Oct. 21, 1837, Osceola was tricked by General Jesup into a peace council. Under the universal sign of truce, a white flag, Osceola was captured and imprisoned near St. Augustine, Florida, and then Charleston, South Carolina. The famed Seminole warrior died from malaria and exhaustion in a prison cell on Jan. 30, 1838.

Eager to make money from his deceased patient, the doctor in attendance embalmed the Indian chief’s head and made a death mask, which, with the chief’s personal belongings, ended up in the Smithsonian Institution’s anthropology collection. His head is thought to have been destroyed in a fire in 1865 at the Medical College of New York.

The story of how a town in Tug Hill got to be named after a famous Seminole warrior is much gentler. The history of Lewis County records that the name was applied long ago at the request of a young lady in New York in memory of the celebrated chief.

Before There Were Roads

Osceola was settled later than the surrounding areas, in part because the Native Americans left no clearings and also because the land proved to be poor for farming. Just as important, early roads were not in abundance. With the defeat of the Iroquois during the Revolution, which opened central New York to settlers in the 1780s, the “State Road” from Rome to Sackett’s Harbor missed the eventual town’s southwest corner by only a mile.

Back then traveling a mile was a prodigious experience. “Osceola, Jewel of Tug Hill,” a local history written by Lola Moore and Elizabeth Quinn, quotes extensively from early diaries. Naturally enough, travel was a big part of the text. Here’s one entry from September 7, 1805: “After breakfast set off from Fairservice’s toward Fish Creek, the first two miles passable for teams, but the rest of the distance to the creek not cut out at all, but it was easy ground and not heavily timbered, and the people promised to do it this fall without fail.”

Diary entries are full of notations such as “broke wagon,” and “Broke buggy x” meaning axle. Winter travel was often preferred because the surface was smoother. Here are some diary entries for December 22 to 29 in 1850: “To Taberg, snow fell 1 foot, Very stormy and tedious. Roads blocked. Left 8 bags of feed at Streeters, drove as far as Thompsons, Came home had to break roads all the way, very stormy in pm. Went to Taberg after shorts (his 8 bags of feed), snow fell 8 inches, another fine time for me to break roads. Snow now nearly 3 feet. To Brazil’s, got oats. Hard time breaking road. Plowing out roads, snow at night. All day breaking roads.”

Eventually there were stage routes between some towns. The Osceola Stage, pulled by teams of two horses, carried passengers and goods. For 10 cents the stagecoach driver did errands for people. Local people were charged 50 cents to ride the stage; out of towners were charged 75 cents. The horses had a 26-mile trip every other day. On the horse’s day off, local boys would often use them for farm work.

The trip from Osceola to Camden went from 7:30 a.m. to about 11:30 a.m. By 3:30 p.m. it was time for the return trip to Osceola with mail, passengers, and supplies.

By March 1851 one could travel from Camden to Syracuse by train, and the stagecoach route ceased to rumble. One transportation challenge continues to this day — there is no direct route between Osceola to the county seat in Lowville. In 1859, a law was passed authorizing construction of a road, which was accomplished. Shanties were built along the route to protect the workers on the road. History says the route was cleared over its length, but traffic was so slight it grew back to trees. By the end of the century little evidence of their industry remained.

Settlers were required to improve the Osceola road system, which meant little more than cutting the obstructing trees. Stumps eventually rotted out, leaving holes as rough as the stumps themselves.

Diary logs are full of people dying from trees falling on their heads, diseases, being kicked in the head by a horse (after drinking), dying in childbirth, and babies drowning in a bucket of water. Bear sightings were a daily occurrence. One family even raised a bear cub and said it drank milk from a bottle just like an infant.

The idea of the whole family going camping back into the woods, even then, was more common than it is with Osceola residents today. Commenting on nature — especially the weather — provides most of the diary observations.

Sawmills were the first big businesses to be built in Osceola. In 1841, a tremendous number of logs were being floated down the Salmon River for convenient transport. Tanneries came next. Just one of them, Cowles, Sliter & Co., had a capacity of about 30,000 sides of leather a year. With the advent of steam power some of the sawmills became diversified by producing broom handles, barrel staves, oars, piano rails, carriage sticks, wooden, toys and novelties. Items from the Osceola Novelty Works (1896-1906) are prized by local residents.

These finely turned craft objects are more than collectable, they are living history reflecting a time when Osceola was where you worked and where you lived. Once bustling with sawmills and tanneries, there was an active Main Street with a hotel filled with tourists.

The hotel is now a bar. Only the tourists and the memorabilia remain. P

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