Highway Superintendent Charles Meade and the Town of Newark Valley

Laurie Mercer

STORY

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By Laurie Mercer

PROFILE CORRESPONDENT

“We found that mailbox way down in the middle of the road,” said Chuck Meade, superintendent of the town of Newark Valley, in Tioga County, as he described the town’s second of two monumental floods experienced in 2011. The mailbox, like much of the town, is back where it belongs in front of its residence near a creek. The true cost of the flooding lingers on.

Chuck joined the six-person department in 1985. When asked for the name of the town’s engineering firm he replied, “Me, myself and I.”

He is such an easygoing guy that even when he describes a blinding blizzard in 1993 that caused the entire crew to overnight in the bus garage, he tends to refer to the weather as “Old Man Winter,” instead of some expletive deleted.

Weather is a recurring subject with Chuck, who clearly loves his work. He best remembers 2011’s double-whammy punch of two, naturally caused, state-of-emergency-sized floods hitting his town. Newark Valley, a largely rural community where everybody pretty much knows everybody else, is nestled deep in a pastoral valley. Hills are etched with lots of fast-moving streams heading to the nearby Susquehanna River. Add two days of solid rain and you get flooding.

Just six months after the first event, hundreds of thousands of dollars of newly created road repairs clogged the ditches and streams throughout the town. New pavement and repair pipes were swept away. Chuck, a lifelong Newark Valley resident and superintendent since 1985 who is almost always a cheery guy recalled, “It was heartbreaking to watch all that work being washed away. I came to work at 1 a.m. I went around to Tappan Road because they had #38 closed. I wanted to see how things were. That’s when I called in my guys and said, you better get here while you can.”

Mark Keith, foreman; Jeffery (Pete) Belden, heavy equipment operator; George Wahl, heavy equipment operator; Doug Bowen, mechanic; Chris Pozzi, motor equipment operator; and Gary Browne, motor equipment operator, all kicked into high gear, although driving to the highway garage proved to be a daunting task for some of them. “They went through a lot of water to get here,” Chuck said.

In mid-December, the two man-made mountains of gravel that were dug from ditches and waterways to re-establish a healthy flow of water now dwarf the highway barn itself. Once the town’s financial consequences from the floods finally fall into place following reimbursements from FEMA for both events, the gravel will be reprocessed on site to become “4-inch minus,” and used for highway work again. Several culverts and lots of guardrails still need to be replaced.

“The Department of Environmental Conservation let us get into the streams with the dozer and excavator so that the water would have someplace to go,” Chuck said. The gravel was trucked to the highway garage where they have lots of open space.

The damaging floodwaters that made news as far away as Albany first hit Newark Valley on April 28, 2011. The water began to rise during the second flood on Sept. 7, 2011.

“The first flood, which caused a state of emergency, hit the first day of school, so we stayed real close with the school district,” Chuck said. “The students did leave early.”

Buses did not try to get to the high school but used the middle school as a transportation hub. Newark Valley is home to the Newark Valley Central School District with an elementary, middle, and senior high school. The school buildings are centered in an area near the highway barn and not far from the whitecaps that were being whipped up over the road at the crossroads closer to the creek. While small waves starting cresting over the four corners in the center of the village, Chuck said a lot of parents worked their way into town using back roads and got their kids from the middle school so that a smaller number of students needed to be bused to their homes.

Chuck’s truck cab has radio contact with the school, which is located just a stone’s throw from the highway barn, the Sheriff’s department and the fire company where he is a long-time member. In an area of weak cellular signal, radios work best for his team of six. They are all backed by Terry Patrick, a school bus driver for special needs kids, serious mandolin player, and a part-time secretary for the highway crew. Terry and Chuck share what is probably the smallest office in New York State — measuring about two telephone booths in width (10 x 7 feet).

Fortunately Terry and Chuck are good friends and both are out of the office a lot. Terry’s skill set with computers is a real boost to productivity, especially when handling the paperwork with FEMA. Chuck’s cyber sophistication includes doing a little e-mail and checking the weather — that’s it. In fact, it is safe to assume that he puts as much stock in the Farmer’s Almanac, which apparently predicted one of the town’s floods correctly, although it did not specify which weather-related disaster to expect. It doesn’t really matter what the weather is, Chuck will be on the job, even when he is on vacation.

People in town are still picking up the pieces from both floods, and some of them, including Chuck’s mother-in-law who had water up to the second floor of her nearby Owego home, may never be able to return. He said it’s hard to try and advise her about the realities of rebuilding her home, which was ruined. Currently, she lives with family in nearby Candor. Floods tear at the very fabric of every building they encounter. Both floods were unprecedented in the history of Newark Valley. Chuck said two small town post offices that flooded in towns nearby will not be replaced. Insurance in upstate rarely covers floods.

The town of Newark Valley, which has a rich history and a vibrant local community, has 131.46 lane miles with 22 miles of gravel. Chuck described the roads’ conditions as “good to fair.” At least 78 miles have been improved significantly with stone and oil treatments since Chuck joined the highway department.

“We are trying to get away from gravel for sure. We do the most traveled roads first after the county comes out to do a traffic count. We also have to stay on top of our paved roads at the same time. We pave at least a mile or two a year and do a lot of blacktop for patching. But this year, because of the cost of the flooding, we just did a lot of cold patch. I know we are going to be chasing surface problems all winter long.”

“Given our limitations within the budget, there’s nothing else we can do at this point in time. We’ve got so much to re-do with guardrails and shoulders. Some ditches need to be filled in and some need to be taken out,” he said, still shaking his head while viewing the damage a few months later.

Chuck is elected to a four-year term and puts in at least twice as many hours as he is hired to fulfill, according to Terry. Chuck said his family is used to his work ethic.

“Sue, my wife (of 35 years) is very reasonable. She understands,” he said. Asked if he has a hobby, he jokes it is “work.” He has been a volunteer fireman in town since 1970. Possibly he just can’t stand to be out of touch. Terry said he has taken only one vacation out of town since she joined the department five years ago. In a twist of fate, his departure for a planned trip to Disneyworld accompanied by Sue and one grandchild took place on the second day of the second flood. A devoted family man, Chuck has two daughters and two grandsons. Somehow he managed to direct the crew during daily phone calls and updates, but Disneyworld probably never had a more anxious visitor.

“That Thursday before I left I was so discouraged. I went riding around trying to take some pictures, and I found that everything we did in April was gone. It was just unbelievable. We kept having these downpours. It would back off a little bit and then hammer down again for two days.”

“For the second flood, we had four inches of water over the roadway, and what looked like four-foot waves by the blinker light coming back to the creek. We had around 13 to 14 inches of rain all within a day and a half.”

He said the entire local area including Candor, Spencer, Owego, and Barton were affected.

“As luck would have it,” he said, “I chose that week to go to Disney.”

“We had all the roads open by the time I left for the airport, but they were cow paths. The crew kept things going. It was good to get away, but I knew we would have problems that we didn’t have the funds to deal with.”

He is proud, but constrained, that the budget for highway work has not increased in the last two years.

“There is no money to paint stripes on the roads this year. In addition, there are some gravel, pipes, and paving work that are not going to get done.”

As for the reimbursement for both floods, which will reach about $300,000 for the first one in April and $800,000 to $900,000 for the second one in September, Chuck said, “We haven’t received anything yet. Not a penny.”

The town’s annual operating budget of $576,800 is for the highway department, with $120,000 coming from CHIPS. For materials alone from April to the end of August they had spent $67,000. Added onto that figure are materials for the September flood, which he put at $175,000.

“During the past two years,” he said, with pride, “we have managed to live with the same budget, no increases.”

He said he is currently avoiding more overtime for the crew by offering comp time instead. “The boys are getting comp time where they can use the time rather than getting paid. So that has helped us out a lot.”

He credits his town board with being reasonable to work with, including two highway representatives on the board who will drive around with him to better understand road repairs and needed improvements. The town budgets approximately $45,000 a year for equipment. The most recent purchase was a new Caterpillar loader that cost $80,000 with a trade in.

The floods have intensified the paperwork.

“We have a clipboard, and every day we have stacks of paperwork. That’s what we have been doing lately. We have the date, the road we worked on, whether it’s for FEMA or maintenance, materials, vehicles, equipment, and manpower used. The report even includes the equipment number, the size of the engine, and what we did on the road, everything.”

Living in a Valley

It’s no surprise in Newark Valley, which lies deep in the valley of the east branch of Owego Creek, that the names of eight well used country roads in town end in the word “hill.” Some roads are really steep. There are Allison Hill Courtright Hill, Dalton Hill, Dodson Hill, Howard Hill, King Hill, Prentice Hill, and Pump Hill. Many tributaries drain down and eventually flow into the Susquehanna River, which is about 10 miles away.

“Cellular is pretty dead up here,” Chuck said. “I lost my cell phone in the flood. The town board didn’t want to replace it. So I said I’m fine with that, it is easier for me to get things done. We answer the phone, take messages, and go from there. It works out fine.”

For the first flood Chuck said they relied on concrete blocks to help stem the tide until spring when heavier repairs could be accomplished. He said the blocks washed out in the second flood along with some pavement.

“It caused a straight cut, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said of the damage. “I’ve never seen the force of water that had that much power.”

Fortunately for everybody in town the water was not polluted.

“Here it seemed to be just rainwater, but in Owego you could smell fuel and oil in the water.”

Owego also lost all electrical service. He observed that people often panic during an emergency and try to run to the store to buy milk.

For the first flood his crew used pipes, gravel, and concrete blocks to help repair the damage and replace pavement where it washed out. Following the second flood, the highway crew even re-used an old boiler that had been sitting in the yard as an extra conduit to help relieve the flow under one bridge, just to get the road back open.

He said the town’s five structural bridges held up well in the storms. “Just the sluice pipes were ruined.”

One of the first major repairs was to rebuild a 144-foot wall.

“We had to replace quite a few sections of a wall that we had subcontracted out to get built about 18 years ago. The wall was intact, but everything underneath it was washed out completely.”

To repair the bottom of the wall they had to move the creek away from the structure by using an excavator.

“We shored it up using 2x2x8-foot concrete blocks as a form.”

First they visually inspect the site for signs of weeping, which they direct to the ditches. The soil is largely clay, so they use fabric topped with 8 inches of 4-inch minus gravel on top and then another 4 to 5 inches of item #4 for the top.

“Usually, I let that sit for a year. We might put some crusher run on top before we do two courses of stone and oil.”

How did the crew like the heavy lifting in the creek beds? Chuck said, “They enjoyed doing new things for sure.”

From Plows and Cows to the Highway Barn

Chuck grew up on a small dairy farm with about 25 cows where he learned how to run heavy equipment as a kid. When his folks retired, the farm was sold, but his house is nearby. He was born in town and never left. Graduating from high school in 1973, he went to work for the Tioga County Legislature doing tax rolls, accounting, and paying the bills.

“They had an opening in the Tioga County Sheriff’s department so I transferred to that. I started out as a guard. Then I became a jailer. Then a dispatcher. From there I joined the Tioga County highway department as a heavy equipment operator.”

Like many other highway people, Chuck was relieved to be working outdoors once again. When the crew doesn’t have epic floods or colossal snowstorms to deal with, the more routine assignments are often triggered by a resident who notices something and reports it — such as a ditch that has caved in around a small bridge. There are only a few new houses and only one development with cul de sacs. During Chuck’s lifetime, many small dairy farms have disappeared and the number of hobby horse owners has increased. On the roads that means less gravel and more stop signs. For the most part, town roads are rural. Keeping the dust down with salt brine is as routine as plowing the approximately 10 to 20 feet of snow they get during most years. They treat the roads with a mixture of straight salt and sand.

Just a Touch of Salt

In Newark Valley they use salt brine that was previously pumped into the bowels of the earth to harvest natural gas. In Newark Valley, the brine is low-cost dust control, arriving by train.

“They put propane and butane into the salt caverns and the water that comes out is salt water,” Chuck said. “In the winter, they force the water back into the caverns and get the gases out.” Salt brine is free for the town.

“This year we only used about 2,500 gallons of brine due to the fact that it just kept raining. We do the entire surface, not just in front of houses, because we get a lot of fast traffic causing dust.”

The department uses a quarterly newsletter and the town’s Web site to keep in touch with its residents. Chuck oversees five cemeteries, but most of the work done there is contracted out.

The town loves its rich local history, and the train station that once bustled with passengers and goods is now a museum and community center featuring a big annual Christmas pageant. In summer they have live music and horse-drawn carriage rides.

The Town of Newark Valley’s Highway Garage

The tightly packed, six-bay garage, circa mid-1960s, has a tidy outbuilding for employee breaks, but no surprise, they never use it. In the garage, the crew has its own collection of reclining chairs for breaks. On Chuck’s wish list would be enlarging the facility. Outdoors they have several acres of open land that was donated by a resident. There is a working train track between the garage and the storage yard. The 100-ton pure salt storage is open air. During the wall rebuild, a solid old metal boiler once hiding in the weeds here was used to move the stream along a badly washed out road.

The red town trucks waiting for winter tend to have nicknames painted on them. There’s “Mortgage Lifter,” which seemed to need more repairs than usual, and “Kickin Butt.” The garage also is known for its hometown talents, including a certified welder who helped to create a one-of-a-kind frozen pipe fixer that works under steam power.

Steam is, in fact, recycled in the highway garage for heat, while used oil supplies the same cost-saving function. Rags used for repairs are actually cut up T-shirts supplied very reasonably by a company out of Ithaca. T-shirts eliminate the need for a commercial laundry to clean and replace rags.

Chuck lists every small town around Newark Valley as working on a handshake to get any job done. He also shares services with the village. It’s that willingness to lend a hand that got him interested in becoming highway superintendent so many years ago.

“It’s true,” he said, “Time goes by so damn fast when you are having fun.” P

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Pulling On Your Bluegrass Roots

Terry Patrick, the part-time secretary who helps keep the crew at the Newark Valley highway garage on track, also is one of a family of nine in which making music was probably the easiest thing to do to create family harmony. Today, she helps run a weekend long bluegrass festival on the family farm. Lots of people camp while others come and go during the two-day event.

Visit www.busybirdbluegrass.com for details on this summer’s special guests appearing at this fine old time musical hootenanny. And look for Terry playing the mandolin. One of her fans in the bus garage said admiringly, “She should be in Nashville or someplace.”

The Busy Bird Bluegrass Festival, which goes on rain or shine, is named after Terry’s mother nickname, Busy Bird. The tunes go on for days. Even the food concession features home cooking. Tickets are $25 to $30. Kids under 16 are free. The program is handicapped accessible. Campers are welcome.

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Town Named After New Jersey

As in many upstate towns, outsiders — especially those from New York City and New Jersey — who come in and buy up old farms never intending to live there themselves, can make the local people nervous. Over the years, parts of Newark Valley have been tested by seismic equipment meant to locate natural gas.

Thus it is somewhat ironic that Newark Valley was named for Newark, New Jersey. The name-givers added “valley” so as not to confuse people with another town named Newark in Wayne County. In upstate’s town of Newark Valley there are just over 1,000 people. About the same number live in the village of Newark Valley.

The first white settlers in numbers came when General Sullivan marched through in the summer of 1779. Expedition leaders were “astonished” to find that the Iroquois had the “finest corn” they had ever seen, with ears measuring 22 inches in length. In addition to fertile soil, the hardwood forest caught their attention. Heavy growths of pine, oak, beech, and maple were marketed from early times. In one instance, a pine is recorded as having reached 175 feet in height and five feet in diameter. In addition, large trees like these helped reduce undergrowth, making it easier to travel.

As one pioneer noted, “With so little undergrowth very little preparation was needed to enable a team and sled or cart to pass from one end to the other, with a moderate load.” Deer were plentiful and streams were full of fish.

Around 1790, surveyors and explorers came, mostly from Massachusetts. The land here had been ceded by the state of New York to the commonwealth of Massachusetts. It took them just 37 days to travel between Stockbridge and Newark Valley. The area at that time was referred to as the Boston Purchase and also the Boston Ten Townships. The site of the first village was established in 1792. In subsequent years Newark Valley was known as Brown’s Settlement. History records many trips between the pioneer village and Stockbridge, as Brown’s settlement got ready for the women and children to follow.

Once the kids came, schools were established in pioneer homes and even in barns.

One of the settlers’ initial, New England-inspired activities was to tap maple trees and produce 150 pounds of sugar. These were heady times for the risk takers. One young pioneer of 24 began with a log cabin thatched with bark. In time, Elisha Wilson’s place was among the finest in the settlement, while Ezbon Slosson’s first house was nearly carried away by high water in 1795. Large families of nine and even 14 children (from two wives) were common at that time. Families often re-used the name of a baby who died in infancy.

Local women could go for a year or more before seeing any other women besides family members. When they did have visitors it was often the itinerant clergy who brought the word of God while traveling from town to town.

Saw mills built in the late 1700s sent lumber to market by rafting it down stream. Grist mills joined saw mills by the mid-1800s.

By 1820 the town had about 655 inhabitants. The formal creation of a real “town” took place early in 1823 when the legislature passed an act erecting a town by the name of Westville, consisting of 28,679 acres taken off the south end of Berkshire. The name was quickly changed to Newark, until 1862 when the present name, Newark Valley, was adopted.

What are now bucolic, sleepy hamlets were once bustling parts of the town. Stores, creameries, churches, post offices, and district schools had little hamlets of Ketchumville rivaling nearby Jenksville in importance.

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“Pathmasters for the Road District”

With trees of exceptional size, especially pine trees, any attempt to create roads forced people to remove large trees. Even more daunting were the root systems, especially of the far-reaching pine. One early adapter in Newark Valley, a blacksmith, managed to create an oxen-driven machine that pulled up trees and their roots. But what to do with heavy root structures? They don’t burn easily. In Newark Valley the solution sometimes was to place them side by side, roots all in the same direction, which created an imposing, non-destructible, 10- to 12-foot-high fence.

Creating roads required lots of time and money so that as early as 1798 a man named Abraham Brown was “pathmaster for the sixteenth road district” in the town of Union, which included the present towns of Berkshire and Newark Valley. One of his tasks was to maintain an accurate list of the inhabitants in the district who were liable to assessment for highway work — meaning liable to pay for the roads. His list from that time has 36 names.

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Local History Resources Via

the Web

The Newark Valley Historical Society (www.nvhistory.org) has an exemplary Web site devoted to the town’s local history, especially its farmhouses and barns, many of which are still in use. The earliest church cemetery is from the 1820s. The Newark Valley Historical Society also runs the Bement-Billings Farmstead. Open on weekends, it is a 95-acre site with living history demonstrations and festivals reflecting valley life, circa 1810.

The Web site has an extensive article about early barn raisings in the valley written by Ed Nizalowski, who is clearly enamored of the craft. He mentions the centuries-old custom of nailing a green bough to the frame by the master carpenter on a barn raising while paying homage to the forest.

Ed also has chronicled an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) sighting in Newark Valley that continues to be mentioned in literature devoted to the phenomena. The encounter, which one writer says is one of the best documented, most thoroughly studied, and one of the most credible encounters with intelligent life from another planet, has aliens landing in their space craft in a Newark Valley field. The event occurred in April 1964 when Gary Wilcox, a farmer with 300 acres on Davis Hollow Road, just over two miles northwest of the current highway barn, caught a glimpse of the future.

Gary and the aliens — two, four-foot high men with arms and legs like ours — conversed for about two hours. Then the spaceship “flew off over the valley in the direction of Ed Sokoloski’s barn.” People were skeptical, but anybody who knew Gary could not believe that he would make a story up. He was a highly credible witness.

After his police report was filed, the sheriff contacted the FBI, who contacted their superiors, who contacted the Air Force. One historian says the town, “created their own Twilight Zone,” between disbelief and belief in the encounter described. In Atlas of the Supernatural, and other books about UFOs witnessed since Biblical times, the story of the Newark Valley encounter continues to be told, and believed.

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