If you had come looking for the town of Avon’s highway barn several years ago, you’d be directed to a cramped old structure that was so narrow workers had to remove the wings on the plows to park indoors. Before they could deal with the snow, they had to mount them all over again.
“You always had to be careful how you mounted the equipment,” said Bob Ayers, the town’s newly retired superintendent of highways. The building itself was destroyed in a controlled burn orchestrated by the fire department.
Bob has had 35 years with the town highway department, 18 of them as supervisor. Until his retirement in June 2011, he led a crew of five. He’s a hands-on kind of guy.
“I like being out there with the crew,” he said simply.
The new barn on Agar Road, occupied in 1997, allowed Bob, then the deputy, to create a good working environment with sufficient room to store every piece of equipment.
“He’s a perfectionist,” said Tom Crye, Bob’s deputy for 15 years, the current superintendent, and good friend. “When we do a job, he wants it done to his specifications. Like a lot of former farmers, they think a lot about how they want things done. It’s not just ‘go do it.’ We are good at adapting.”
Just one example of his standards might be his personal pick-up truck, buffed to a high sheen and detailed inside and out. It appears to be new, but is several years old.
Bob is soft spoken. He’s the kind of person who doesn’t talk much about himself. He lets the spotless highway barn and well-maintained town roads speak for themselves. Avon is a tidy place in the Genesee Valley graced with several waterfalls, some readily within view. The roads roll by impressive old trees, ravines and working fields. The town’s most vibrant time in history came in the 1800s when Avon was known worldwide as being home to sulphur springs that were visited for “cures” of various kinds.
Keeping all highway equipment indoors — even the plow wings — reflects Bob’s belief that any equipment left outdoors in this climate will deteriorate faster and need more repairs. Over the years, he hired the entire crew, which he characterizes as jacks of all trades and former farmers.
“We have real good standards here,” he said. “After all, it’s the taxpayers’ money.”
The downside of the job, for him, is paperwork and phone calls.
“I’d rather be outside with the crew working, so I do the paperwork later at night.”
The town has 43 lane miles of its own and does another 12 miles for Livingston County and 16 for the state. The budget of $800,000 includes $78,000 from CHIPS. When Bob was first hired, they had no 10-wheelers or double-axle trucks in the barn. This year the snow-worthy 2011 Kenworth with a set of wings came in at $164,000. With Bob the equipment has been continually upgraded, but he said he never pushes the Town Board too hard or they might want to cut back on services. The trucks, always painted town of Avon red, are Kenworths, Fords and Sterlings and range in age from 1997 to the new Kenworth.
He said Avon gets about 100 inches of snow a year. The worst storm he remembers was in March 1993 when the crew labored in battle with the elements from noon on a Saturday until Monday at 10 a.m., without breaks for sleep.
“We just took in food for us and fuel for the plows,” he said. The snow was so thick he used a loader to get some roads open.
Most plow routes (five of them taking two hours each) begin at 4 a.m. The town uses straight salt on its roads, about 2,000 tons of it each year.
The town’s only dirt road is the half-mile long Ox Bow Lane (which honors a pre-glacial piece of curved waterway called an Ox Box) where fox hunters on horseback with hounds are probably a more common sight than cars. In this instance, dirt is much preferred over asphalt for riding. The Genesee Valley Hunt (GVH), headquartered in nearby Geneseo where they parade down Main Street on opening day of the season, was founded in 1876, and is the oldest fox hunt in the country that continues to ride to hounds. Always horse country, and it still is, Avon has lots of connections to the GVH.
The Only Job He Has Ever Had
It’s not unusual in a town like Avon for the hometown people to stay home. Bob’s life is a good example. He grew up here, attended Avon schools, and has lived with his wife, Patty, in the hamlet of East Avon since 1976. His father-in-law, now passed, was the highway superintendent in Caledonia. Bob has a son and a daughter and two grandsons, ages 2 and 5, of whom he unabashedly said, “We love them to pieces.” In fact, his biggest fans of his collection of nine fully restored antique tractors are the youngsters who call him PaPa.
Bob joined the village highway department in 1973 just out of high school. He made the move to the town barn in 1976. He said the basic difference between the two highway operations is that the village crew had to deal with water and sewer issues as well as roads.
He remembers one of his first assignments on the town crew was to help create a park from several acres of overgrown ground by the swiftly moving Conesus Outlet. Bob said the stone in the bridge at the park is hand cut from nearby fields. When the foundation of the bridge needed repairs, the new poured concrete foundations were made by the highway crew. With the creek and stone bridge and help from Eagle Scouts who made it a nice place to picnic, the small, 1.3-acre park on Paper Mill Road is much enjoyed. The village also has a handful of these historically significant pocket-size parks that give the town its distinctive character. Unfortunately kids have taken to leaving their “tags” with spray paint. The highway crewmembers said that when they grew up kids painted their names on an old metal bridge by Kraft Foods on Spring Street, which was a lot less offensive. One said, “If you were caught, old judge Farr would make you repaint the bridge.”
The balance between the old and new is one thing that attracts people to Avon. A recent dispute over the new village office is an example. Voters had to make a choice on how to build a new Town Hall. Choices were between restoration and new design build opportunities. The Old Opera Block on Main Street, a brick circa 1880s building, where parking is very limited and handicapped access would cost a bundle was one choice. The alternative was constructing a modern building on the site that houses the highway barn, a few miles away. This is Avon; the voters said learn to work with history. The upgraded Town offices are now located in the Old Opera Block.
A New Kind of
Because the town zoning dictates one must have 3 acres to build a new home, most new homes are found in modest-size developments. Most of the land is open pasture or under constant cultivation. This is fertile farmland and central to some impressive dairy operations with herds of 1,000 or more. More startling is the town being home to the world’s largest earthworm enterprise.
In a rare moment of symbiotic justice, Worm Power becomes even better, not-smelly manure. For whatever reason, worm castings are among the most potent fertilizers on earth. The Coyne Farm, a large dairy operation, supplies cow manure to the large new operation called Worm Power, located in brand new barns just across Jenks Road from the Coyne barns. Vermicomposting, as it is called, produces something that the History Channel show Modern Marvels described as “Fertilizers of the Future.”
There is worldwide interest in developing a process control system for Worm Power that would work all over the world — and all this underground energy is originating from the town of Avon on the Genesee River. First, the river, then the railroad, was instrumental to the town’s success. Among the more interesting products still made here is all of the Cool Whip consumed in the world and those salty little plastic trays of kid bait called Lunchables — both from Kraft Foods, which has been in Avon for a very long time. They built the plant in the 1930s to capture the fresh pea harvest; however, peas are no longer a cash crop in the area. Besides the school system, Kraft is probably the town’s largest employer.
Newcomer and pasta manufacturer Barilla, from Italy, chose to build a new facility that receives product from the rail line that still chugs through town. Thanks to advantageous tax abatements, the company built a largely robotic plant that makes pasta on prime river bottom land for at least 10 years tax free. It’s good to see the growth in rail transport through Avon. In the old days trains routinely brought tourists out by the hundreds, but the train station itself was long ago turned into a restaurant. It could be said that the current occupant — a popular bar and grill called Duffy’s — is as well attended as any excursion of Victorian picnickers.
Years ago, a favorite thing for Rochesterians to do in this town was to arrive by stagecoach or train and then head for Avon Downs with a picnic. The Downs is a strangely sulfurous experience — even now. It’s hard to imagine that anybody ever thought sulphur water would cure anything, but that belief began with the Native Americans. The sulphur springs, which can still be drunk from, are close to homes that sell for just under $200,000. Rochester is just 20 minutes away via 390.
At one point, when Wadsworth Avenue was still called “Cure Street,” at least 13 large Victorian-in-spirit hotels catered to the tourists drawn for the “cure,” promised by ingesting sulphur water. The same popularity of the foul-smelling liquid created a similar resort in Saratoga Springs. Of the great hotels, today only the white-pillared Avon Inn, which once boasted its own spring in the backyard, remains, still staging weddings and hosting guests.
That balance of old and new also can be found on Littleville Road, which runs over a dam site. There on Cemetery Road, on a curve, are what’s left of what once was a bridge over the Conesus Outlet and the original roadbed of Route 39, which now runs about a quarter-mile away. The large hand-cut rocks speak to a different time in road engineering, but the routes taken today are nearly the same ones that those large hand-cut rocks provided a long time ago.
Nearby is the famous Five Arch Bridge over a rushing creek, which provided high-speed rail transit and helped put the town of Avon on the early maps. Built in 1857 by the Genesee Valley Railroad to span the Conesus Outlet, the 200-foot long, 12-foot-wide limestone bridge was once part of the Rochester-Avon-Geneseo-Mt. Morris line. The line was electrified in 1907, and this section was abandoned in 1941. This bridge section has been restored and maintained by volunteers.
The Driving Park at the Downs is where people once came to race horses and cheer them on. The well-manicured park is still very active with sports and an annual horse show. Avon is probably one of the few towns in America where one can rent a stall for a horse at a reasonable rate and train the animal on a half-mile track in fine condition. That track has been in use since the 1800s. During the annual horse show here, participants lead stallions, mares and foals in a continuing saga of looking for the blood lines that would best support what the valley is still world famous for — foxhunting. That sport demands a certain kind of horse. Here in the valley the farmers were encouraged to breed farm mares in the off-season for farm work to high-end stallions standing at Look Over Farm in Avon. The Jockey Club at that time ran Look Over. The “crop” of foals often became field hunters; a preferred equine type for the valley’s challenging terrain and lots of sport for local families who ride to hounds.
Several Cemeteries — One Still Active.
One cemetery still has plots to sell while the other five are under the care of the highway department where Bob Ayers has them mowed and weed whacked once a week in season.
“There are laws on the books about cemetery maintenance,” he said of regulations with liberal mowing regulations. “But why let the old burial places get out of hand? Then it’s just more work when you do come in to do them.”
Avon has a long pioneer history; the gravestones tell the story of a bustling pioneer village that prospered along the banks of the Genesee River.
Before roads were passable, waterways were essential to commerce. Thanks to the river and later the Genesee Valley Canal, the Genesee Valley was once a major source of hard winter wheat, which was ground into flour in Rochester mills and shipped via Lake Ontario and the Erie Canal to other parts of the world. Avon actually had a simple, water-driven tub mill before Indian Allen built the first grist mill in Rochester, which, established along several major waterfalls, became known as “Flour City.”
Hedge Rows, Center Lines, Shared Services
Hedgerows are another area where continuing maintenance has paid off.
“My predecessor started a program of removing hedgerows in the town,” said Bob. “We find that removing them helps with water flow and makes snow removal easier. We are continuing with that program, especially if we get a request from a homeowner.”
Bob said most of the town’s roads are “poured asphalt and kept up with surface treatment.”
People in town must have immediately noticed when he took over the superintendent’s position because he instantly began a modest program of adding stripes to some roads.
“Not the edges, just the center line,” he said. Striping, after all adds to upkeep. He said they do about 12 miles of paint on the town’s roads. “I added stripes to some roads, especially on curves because I knew safety could be reinforced with some stripes. There is added danger on some of the hills.”
Treating road edges also was the subject of a nice new piece of shared equipment that deserved its own press release and photography. In August 2008, the highway supervisors from Caledonia, Lima, Livonia, York, Leicester and Geneseo came to have their picture taken with a new shoulder machine that all the towns will share. The cost for the machine was $278,000, which was augmented by a grant from the state.
“For our town, the new one replaced our old one, which we had to hook to a loader to use,” he said.
Other cost savings he can easily point to figuratively is the relatively new, recycled pole barn that they moved from a farmer’s property for $6,000. They built the salt shed for themselves in 1999. He also likes the program called the Government Surplus Program for things like newer, recycled shop tools and special machinery like an older, working 1194 Johnson Vanguard street sweeper.
Bob also introduced a program, on a regular basis, that’s been popular with town residents where the highway crew receives organic debris at the barn to grind it up. Larger, hard to get rid of things like coaches and old hot water heaters are accepted four times a year.
“We allow them to bring in anything but paint,” he said.
Tires cost them $1 each to abandon. As society creates more waste, some of it toxic, safe refuse and recycling practices are taking up more time for many superintendents. Town residents, meanwhile, expect help from somebody when it’s time to take out the trash.
Bob at age 58 is leaving the superintendent’s position, which he enjoys, a little earlier than he might have primarily because he is concerned with having health insurance for his family after he retired.
“The town doesn’t offer health insurance once you retire,” he said. “I was in Tier One, which means things don’t get any better. I let the Town Board know in February that I did not intend to run for highway superintendent again.”
He said some of them were probably a bit surprised. After all, he had 35 years on the job, even in a town known for long-term professionals.
Following his official end of June retirement, complete with a nice plaque for his service, Bob joined Suitkote Corporation, a liquid asphalt distributor. Bob drives a truck from Rochester, Buffalo and Watkins Glen and can get on a roller when he is needed. He calls it a great company. “They are great to their employees,” he said. “I know I’ll be laid off for winter but with 900 hours, they offer health coverage.”
And why is he running for public office? As a Republican, he is running for Town Board, a group he has been negotiating with for years. “When I got to this phase in my retirement, I decided I had time for this. It is something I wanted to do.”
Another group he devotes his energy to is the superintendent’s association. Bob is past president and past secretary/treasurer. He attends meetings every other month even though he has left the highway barn. “We all speak the same language. We’ve got equipment issues, procedures, regulations, budgets, possible shortages and personnel issues to share and to benefit from other people’s experiences. I really enjoy the group.”
Steel Wheels Keep
Although he is working a new job, his “retirement phase” as he calls it has given Bob some extra time to do something he loves to do — the restoration and competition of antique pulling tractors. He has become one of those die-hards who travel to weedy fields in Pennsylvania and Ohio looking for a machine worthy of the time and money required to do an acceptable restoration and return it to working condition.
His daughter even had her photograph taken by one of his tractors dressed in her formal wedding gown. “She wanted to do it,” he said, still somewhat mystified. His daughter also creates elaborate photo albums of all of his tractors from discovery and purchase to often successful competitions. Bob is a relative newcomer to the sport and took second place in a national contest pulling 6,250 pounds with an antique tractor. Anything made before 1956 is considered antique by members of the Genesee Valley Pullers Club of which there are nearly 100 members.
Bob is like a deer in the headlights when it comes to having John Deere tractors, although he did buy and restore an Oliver for his wife who wasn’t comfortable with the stick shift on the Deere’s. Now she can compete in antique tractor pulls where they stage all-female, powder puff classes as well as mixed events where men and women compete head on.
“It’s something I always wanted to do,” he said. “It required more time and some extra money to do it right.”
His barn of nine beautifully restored antique pulling tractors is a source of pride. Retirement has brought him to a good place, even though he has another job.
It’s no surprise that this hometown man would have to look no further than his own past to find his inspiration for his all-consuming hobby. “It probably came from my grandfather,” he said. “He had a 2-cylinder that meant a lot to him back then; therefore, it meant a lot to me.” That particular John Deere A (1941), all restored and in working condition, is the centerpiece of his collection.
He said a tractor in rough shape might cost $1,000 and be worth about $3,500 when restored, but it’s not about the money. Just as in the years he spent working on the Avon town roads, for Bob Ayers it’s about being a perfectionist and finding quiet satisfaction in doing a good job for the town’s residents.
Meet the New Superintendent
Tom Crye was hired by Bob Ayers in 1995. He said he never thought about becoming superintendent at that time. He gave up farming and tending a small dairy herd at the same time. Does he miss cows? “Sure,” he said. “It’s in your blood. I live up the road in what was once a tenant house. We rent the land.”
It was Tom’s farming background that interested Bob when he hired him. Tom explains, “Taking care of the roads is a little bit like farming. You are always running equipment. You plant, tend to the crops, harvest and then start out all over again. It’s not unlike taking care of roads year in and year out.”
He said he knows every bump in the roads and every pipe and cross over. Local road problems occur along the edges of the roads where heavy farm equipment breaks down the edge of the roads faster, but “there isn’t anything you can do about that.”
“Everybody here respected Bob a lot because he wouldn’t ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do himself,” said Tom. “He is a real ‘what you see is what you get’ kind of guy.”
When asked about how Bob treated the town’s equipment, Tom laughed and said, “Bob washed the red truck himself at least once a week. If he had a meeting to go to he always washed the truck first.”
Tom said it hasn’t been hard becoming superintendent largely because his fellow superintendents in neighboring towns are very helpful, and Bob wrote everything down. Tom calls it the “Bible.” “Bob kept a record of everything,” Tom said. “I’m pretty much following through with it.”
Of course there is always the possibility of expecting the unexpected. For Tom and the crew it is the rapid deterioration of a box culvert on North Littleville Road that is not long enough to be called a bridge. Therefore no grant money for repairs is available, so they will take care of it themselves.
“We’ll close the road down once school is over. We’ll put up a detour and remove the old box culvert. In that heavy rain we got late April and early May, the wing walls fell down. For now, stone boxes provide our temporary solution. When we go back in, we’ll remove that and start from scratch. The old stone bridge on Papermill Road has concrete poured posts that the highway guys constructed, so they are familiar with the tasks. The day I visited it was a nice colorful maple that was leaning dangerously in the direction of the road that needed to come down. Within minutes, the tree hit the ground, and the dump truck with Dick was moving it aside to open up the road to traffic. While Tom and Joe cut the tree into large chunks, Dick got ready to take the lumber back to the barn where most of it will be chipped or picked up for firewood.”
On the new equipment horizon is a $5,000 John Deere pull-behind mower, expected in spring. One of the crew joked that mowing in town was never ending. He said, “We’ve got a nine-acre site here to mow, cemeteries, roadsides, and more. We even weed whack county roads around the guardrails. Sometimes I call Avon the Town of Grass. At least we have job security!”
In fact, when Tom hired a replacement for the crew upon Bob’s retirement, he got 26 resumes from a posting for mechanically inclined CDL Class A operators.
Even the Native Americans Came for the Springs
It’s easy to talk about highways in Avon because the town is placed at the crossing of two, once great upstate highways — Route 15 and Route 5 and 20. These roads followed the stagecoach routes, which followed the Indian paths, often the shortest route from point to point.
From the days of the earliest inhabitants, the Seneca Indians, the Avon area has been a source of food and drink and shelter. For the Seneca it was called Canawaugus, which means “Stinking Waters.” Canawaugus was a favored spot on the trail that led from the Hudson River through the wilds to the Niagara. The spring’s fame for healing properties was understood by the Iroquois. It is possible, as one old timer suggested, that bathing in the sulphur water (Indians didn’t drink it), relieved the many skin related irritations that any person back in those times would have been subject to. White settlers, impressed by the Indians’ apparent good health, misunderstood the reasons for it and chose to take to drinking the waters in search of a cure for various ailments instead.
Avon was the birthplace of several well-known Indian leaders, including Cornplanter and his half-brother Handsome Lake, who is called the Peace Prophet. Cornplanter’s father was a white trader. Cornplanter played an important role in the treaties the Seneca made with the white people.
His half brother, on the other hand, had a vision while sleeping off a debauch. From then on Handsome Lake spent his life preaching the way of temperance and the evils of the white man’s firewater to his people.
The first white settler predictably was a tavern keeper. You had to stay someplace on the road while traveling primitive paths in the woods. The little clearing in the forest that became Avon was first called Hartford, named after the town in the pioneer’s native Connecticut. Gilbert Berry chose a fine location for his tavern and built a rope tow to help travelers cross the Genesee at this point. In time Gilbert’s widow and her famed “five lovely daughters” continued the transportation and the tavern business. History records that the widow refused to sell strong spirit to the Indians. The rope tow was described as having a boat large enough to transport settlers and their wagons. It operated by a rope attached to trees on either side of the banks of the Genesee. The ends of the boat were connected by pulleys on the rope so that the craft would catch the current of the river. In 1804, the first bridge across the river was built on the same spot. Newly constructed is a nice small parking area where you can put in small boats and fish.
In frontier times Avon lured the well connected. Indeed the register at the Inn of Hosmer Stand has the written signatures of Louis Philippe, who was to become King of France; Joseph Bonaparte, Winfield Scott, and Joseph Brant. Stage coaches, and later trains, brought the tourists to the town’s fine hotels. Avon enjoyed a reputation equal to that of Saratoga Springs.
There’s an old mill by the waterfall that drops beautifully in the middle of the hamlet called Littleville, named for Norman Little, a pioneer. In 1797 James and William Wadsworth built the first permanent flour mill in the Genesee Valley on this waterfall. Fires in flour mills were common. After the building burned in 1864, it was rebuilt as a paper mill, on a road now called Papermill Road.
Hugh wooden hotels with wide verandas were filled with guests who liked to dance the night away in pavilions built for that purpose. Horses raced the half-mile track in Congress Park. Indeed tourism put Avon on the map. Just half a mile away in the village the wood and brick United States Hotel covered one whole block. When the structure burned on a February night in 1874, the event was so noteworthy that citizens dated many events as “before or after the big fire.”
As for the Avon Springs themselves, very little has changed. While the old hotels once found in the area including Congress Hall, Knickerbocker Hall and the Argyle House are long gone, you can still sip the horrible tasting water, which was once shipped as “Avon Water” all over the world. Unchanged are the sulphur springs that rose from the ground by the bathhouse built in 1821. The crude “showering box” tourists enjoyed then could be seen as the birthplace of today’s fancy spas.
On the north end of town, water was also making the town’s history. Near today’s Grey Metal manufacturing plant, Captain John Ganson and his sons John and James built the valley’s first flour mill — months before Indian Allen’s first mill in Rochester, a.k.a “Flour City.”
Ganson, like many other settlers, had originally come to the area as an officer with Sullivan’s invading army. On a brook flowing into Horseshoe Pond, they created a primitive “tub mill.” The stones were of native rock, the spindle was made from a wagon tire, the raceway was hewn plank, and the flour was sifted though hardwood splints.
In the hamlet of East Avon stands a large white statue of a horse (with a gas station behind it) that is another fine reminder of the town’s former days when it was known for its hospitality. The sturdy mount is all that remains of a roadhouse called The White Horse Tavern. Located at the corners of Routes 5 and 20 and Route 15, the White Horse Tavern was built in 1812 by John Pierson. It was an important stagecoach station for travelers on these two busy crossroads. The statue went up in 1930 by Miss Emma Rettig, the tavern owner at the time. Though the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1955, the white horse remains.
The Iron Man
If you look at the high steeple on the old brick firehouse in nearby Honeoye Falls you’ll see a windmill shaped like a fireman with a hat and playing his trumpet. The Iron Man, as he is known, was made in Canada and was brought to Rochester during a firemen’s convention in the late 1880s. There ensued an endless contest between fire halls as to who would keep the Iron Man, so he was given to Avon volunteers who secured him with iron bars to the top of their firehouse.
In October 1891 invaders from Honeoye Falls managed to capture the Iron Man and put him on top of their firehouse. In spite of many attempts to get him back, the Iron Man still blows his horn from the firehouse rooftop in Honeoye Falls.
NY State Routes 15 and 5 & 20
Rarely do upstate roads have a more engaging history than the two roads that intersect in East Avon. Route 15 is a north-south state highway. Its southern terminus is in Painted Post. The northern terminus is in downtown Rochester. Until the construction of I-390, which follows a similar path, Route 15 was once a busy highway.
Running east and West is Route 5 and 20, another historic route, the New York State Thruway of its day, without the tolls. The 135-mile-long corridor that traverses the state is still the preferred way to visit wineries, antique shops, Bed & Breakfasts, restaurants, and parks. P
All in a Day’s Work
The town of Marlborough’s highway department handles just about “everything in the town. Roads and all the signage in the towns. We have so many diverse duties to keep the town running,” Gael said.
This includes 59.48 mi. of paved of road.
“We took a couple bond issues in 2003 and again in 2006. They were way behind in roads when I came here. We did 18 miles of road that probably had not been paved in 30 to 35 years. We restructured them and repaved them. That was 7 million dollars worth of bonds.”
While the department is not responsible for any bridges, it is responsible for a few culverts, including a couple that are “pretty big,” Gael said.
“We rebuilt one. One of them got damaged in the 2005 floods and got a little more damage on it during Irene. We closed it for one day.”
If Gael had his way, he’d replace dozens of others.
“We have a lot of old concrete culverts in the town. Then they wanted to widen the roads so they stuck pieces of pipe in it. I probably have a dozen of those I would like to replace. I don’t think that will happen anytime soon. Those culverts were made out of Rosendale cement. They are pretty hard.”
Gael’s department is responsible for all kinds of brush cutting and has its own chipper. It also mows along roadsides and the landfill area.
“We leave that for the winter time, but last winter was not very cooperative, so we are a little bit behind on that, but we are hoping to catch up. We do brush cutting on the sides of roads and parks. They have part-time people for the park, but we do the heavy work like a tree down.
“If [trees are] in the road, then they are ours. We don’t bill anyone, even if it’s on someone’s property that fell in the road,” he added.
No Such Thing as a Snow Day
The town of Marlborough has nine snowplowing routes, which take an average of two and half to three hours to clear. Last year the highway department was called out approximately 25 times.
“In the wintertime, anything goes. 24 hours a day sometimes. I am on the roads myself if I hear snow is coming. We have a big commuter community that is driving into New York City, so to accommodate them, we are always looking out for early morning snowstorms. We can’t wait until there are 2 to 3 inches on the road,” Gael said.
The nine large trucks and two smaller dump trucks use a combination of sand (60 percent) and salt (40 percent) in the higher elevations; three routes just use salt.
“I bring in one part-timer in the winter, because of the snow and ice events. He actually has his own route. We have some steep areas that the trucks can’t get to fast enough on their own routes, so he jumps on those and gets those done,” Gael said.
Away From the Job
When he’s not working as superintendent, Gael enjoys spending time with his family at a cabin in the Catskills.
“I go camping with my family, my kids. They enjoy going hunting and fishing. My kids are 35 and 32. They are not kids anymore. My wife Janice and I have been married since 1974.”
Before becoming superintendent, Gael gained work experience at both the fire department and working with his brother Carl’s oil, propane and blacktop business.
When Carl decided to sell his business, CM Appler and Sons, Gael turned his sights to the superintendent’s position.
“Seventy percent of the job was management. You could acquire skills as you go along as long as you have basic common sense, the rest of the skills you can acquire over time,” Gael said. “I always been in some kind of management position: handled money, budgets and everything else.”
Gael also has been president of the Ulster County Association of Superintendents of Highways since 2004.
“We meet nine months out of the year and we have three dinners. We get together and discuss everyone’s problems. We bring someone in from the state like from the CHIPS department to give us an update on that. We interact and help solve each other’s problems.”
Two More Years
Gael has been superintendent since 1998 and will run — unopposed — when his current term expires in November.
Except for one election when he’d been in office approximately six years, Gael has consistently run unopposed. He attributes that to the good job the department’s staff does.
Gael’s staff includes nine roadmen, one mechanic and a secretary.
“I never had a secretary [before Cathy Wilklow joined the staff five years ago.] My deputy [George Letchus] used to do it, but he retired. No one else wanted to step up and do the job, so I convinced the town board that the highway department needed a secretary. I don’t know how I got along the first 10 years without her,” Gael said.
The town’s current deputy, John Alonge, has been Gael’s deputy for the past six or seven years.
“He was here three years before I got here,” Gael said. “I couldn’t run this organization without him. He and all my men are good guys. [The staff has the] ability to do what is asked of them; they have a can-do attitude.”
Gael also is a firm believer in the Cornell Local Roads Program (CLRP), which provides training, technical assistance and information to municipal officials and employees responsible for the maintenance, construction and management of local highways and bridges in New York State.
“I love it,” Gael said. “I like the theory of training your personnel, because you are spending tax money. I think it really offers some great services. We learn good techniques and how to spend the taxpayers’ money wisely. I think it really helps.”
All of Gael’s personnel attend the training program, including his secretary.
“She pays the bills. She has to understand what she is paying. It’s good when she takes phone calls that she knows what is going on.
“Ever since I came here, I started going to the courses to educate myself and learn about the business. I am a Road Master II. I have a few other guys that are Road Master II’s. Five people have achieved Road Master I and only need a course or two to hit Road Master II status.
“Some of the younger guys I knew when they were kids. They get the job done and they do it right. They don’t mind that I train them. They like to go to these courses. I really have an educated and positive staff.”
Facilities and Funding
The town of Marlborough’s garage, which was built in 1955, serves as the department’s headquarters.
“We have four double bays,” Gael explained. “We squeeze all of our equipment in those bays, including our plow trucks. Our offices are attached to this. There are no other offices or anything.
“The town hall is attached to our garage. The ambulance corp. kind of folded up a few years back and they donated that building to the town for a town hall. They are talking about doing some refurbishing here. We need new doors.”
The salt shed, which was constructed in 1978, holds approximately 1,600 tons of mixed product and 300 tons of salt off to the side.
The department has an annual operating budget of $2.5 million and currently holds $789,000 in bond debt.
“We have to juggle around when we need equipment and stuff. The only thing we have coming up is our loader which is 18 years old. I am anticipating in a couple or three years needing one of them. That will probably go for $160,000 or $170,000.
“Right now [when we purchase trucks] we purchase the chassis off of the state bid. It all depends on the options they give you with the state bid. Now you have quite a few options, as long as you don’t go over 18 percent of the base cost of the chassis. So they give you enough options.”
If the OGS institutes a one-size-fits-all program, Gael said they would have to go through the bid process, which he said will cost more time and more money.
Keeping People Happy
Keeping the 8,300 residents in town happy isn’t always easy, according to Gael.
“Here we are at the banks of the Hudson. We have a lot of drainage issues. People don’t understand we are not totally responsible for water issues. They sometimes want you to do the impossible or spend a lot of money to solve a problem of a mud puddle in their driveway. If they come up out of New York City, where the city takes care of everything, they don’t understand it.
“We get plenty of phone calls, especially after the hurricane we had. I just refer them to the proper agency. That’s all I can do. Sometimes they get mad if we take too long to get to a job that needs to be done. I have to calmly explain to them that we have limited manpower and the guys do take vacations. It’s hard sometimes. They think you are a private company where you can hire extra men when you are busy, but we are not.”
But he’s not complaining.
“I like the whole job, because we are always accomplishing something. We are always doing something positive within the township, whether we are cleaning up the streets, or sweeping the streets or whatever. Everyday is different. I like that. We are always accomplishing something everyday; that is what I like about it.”
One of the most recent accomplishments is the installation of swales on the side of the road to combat drainage issues.
“We took a spreader that goes on the back of a truck, you know a belt spreader to fill in the shoulders,” Gael explained. “We took that and modified that on our Bobcat and made a shoot and a drag on the right hand side and make black top swales and make them uniform and we make them fast.”
About the Town
Located only 65 miles north of New York City, the town of Marlborough consists of the hamlets of Milton and Marlboro.
A trip around the town of Marlborough, the southeastern corner of Ulster County, covers old Indian trails, passing flats where corn and pumpkins were grown, meat and other produce were brought to the docks in Milton for shipment and grains to the numerous mills for grinding.
The fruit growing region was settled for the most part by English people from Long Island and Westchester counties. From the time of the earliest known settler, Dennis Relyea, who came to live on Capt. John Evans’ patent, 1694, at Old Man’s Kill, on what is now Marlboro Mills, and of Captain Bond who settled on the grant given him in 1710, an increasing number of settlers came to this section particularly from 1750 to 1830. In the period 1913 to 1923 a large number of Italian people, attracted by the terraced hills of grapes reminiscent of their native Italy and by favorable prices for fruit, bought property here.
The general farming of the early days has been replaced by the more specialized fruit growing. Apple seedlings had been planted on the Old Hall place as early as 1760.
The Marlborough Presbyterian Church, the first of the town’s 11 churches, dates from 1764. This was followed by the Milton Methodist and the Lattintown Baptist Churches. The Quaker meeting from an early date, the Catholic Churches Missions in 1865, the Episcopal churches and Amity Chapel have all had part in the community.
The two new school buildings, the Marlboro Central High School and the Milton Grade School, built as a result of centralization are modern in every way, offering opportunity to all the children of all the people. These schools and the Lattintown School are the descendants of the two early schools, the Lattintown and the Turnpike schools, built before 1795. Several other schools both public and private have paved the way for a modern school system.
Marlborough named after the Duke of Marlborough, was once part of the territory bought from the Indians by Gov. Dongan in 1684. This land was granted by patent (afterwards annulled) to Capt. John Evans, Sept. 12, 1694.
Marlborough, Plattekill, Newburgh and New Windsor formed the Highland precinct of Ulster County in 1743, but in 1772 the New Marlborough precinct was formed from the Marlborough and Plattekill portion and was first called “Town" in 1788.
In 1800 the boundaries of the Town of Marlborough were defined as at present.
(Town history courtesy of Ancestry.com) P