Mt. Morris seems to have more patriotism per square foot than any other village in upstate. You’ll see American flags all up and down Main Street, flags at Veterans Park and at Patriots Park, in the cemetery, and in front of Francis Bellamy’s house. Bellamy is the patriot who scripted the Pledge of Allegiance. Of the village’s nearly 3,000 residents, most of them have American flags someplace in their homes and on their property.
For a village of its size, the place saw the birth of more than its share of notable characters. Not only Francis Bellamy, but John Wesley Powell (the first white man to raft the white water of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon), Mary Seymour Howell (a suffragette who help gain women the right to vote), Admiral Joseph Strauss (commander of the Asiatic fleet and inventor of submarine weapons), and Roscoe C. Barnes (who hit the first recorded home run in professional baseball and the first batting champion of the National League).
The highway department is responsible for tending the village’s three patriotic parks — Bellamy Park, Patriots Park, and Veterans Memorial Park. Veterans Park was started by a private citizen, while the refurbishing of Patriots Park is being funded primarily by Greg O’Connell — the village’s recent booster-developer and entrepreneur. Veterans Park borders the Genesee Valley Greenway, a well-used, recreational pathway that stretches more than 100 pleasant miles without traffic on a former railroad bed.
Chris Young, superintendent of highways, water and sewer of the village of Mt. Morris characterizes his village as being a little different in that it has a large number of senior residents.
“You can buy a lot of house for not a lot of money here,” he said.
Under his direction, the village is engaged in a total re-signing effort because of a new state mandate for sign reflectivity.
“We’ve got signs from the 1970s you can’t even read,” he said. “So we start with ‘Stop’ signs, then street signs, and warning signs. We’ll be halfway through in another two weeks. Then next year, we’ll complete the village.”
Chris is a completely likable person who appears much younger than his 36 years, although a touch of grey is sprinkled under his baseball cap. He has been superintendent of the village DPW a couple of years and on the crew for nearly 14. His is an appointed position. He said the mild winter allowed him to sleep in a little — this coming from a guy whose alarm clock is set for 3 a.m.
The state DOT did a major rebuild on all main arteries in the village about four to five years ago.
“The DOT project was a stressful event, but it took a lot of pressure off of us,” Chris said.
The major re-work on busy roads also set the tone for the re-development and optimism in the village, which had become run-down and largely vacant. The village had to put up $600,000 to $700,000 for “betterments” in water and sewer upgrades.
Mt. Morris is now a destination where people could pursue their enthusiasm for period antiques in charming settings, have a latte while listening to live music, and visit some fascinating shops that range from featuring bulk whole foods, to handiworks like hand-carved wooden mushrooms and bears. Homemade food choices offer many flavors, including lots of different kinds of lasagna, signature Reubens, and cannolis to go. The formerly sad old upstate town is blossoming into a vibrant historic district.
Chris, a Mt. Morris native, said watching the transformation in the village, which in many ways followed massively improved highways, has been wonderful. Besides installing a new road base, the DOT put in new curbing, new sidewalks, sewer laterals, improved water service, and storm basins in the village.
Human Remains Briefly Detour
During the DOT dig they unearthed human remains, which caused the project to be briefly yellow-taped and treated as a crime scene.
“They were digging on Chapel Street between Clinton and Stanley,” Chris said. “All of a sudden Patsy (the former superintendent) gets a call. They found a body. You’re coming with me.’ When we get there I see that there’s a water main. There’s the sewer pipe and then in this little trench where it hadn’t been disturbed, there’s the skull and a body. It almost looked like someone had placed it there.”
Local gossip said it was a mafia hit, but the ensuing investigation indicated that an old churchyard cemetery, which had been moved years before, had left some people behind, including the woman found in the highway road crew’s project. Parts of her coffin hardware offered another clue. Once they inspected dirt from the digging operation on Chapel Street, a few more pieces of human remains were identified. Cemeteries in the 1800s did not promise eternal care.
Chris explained the more work-related parts of the DOT’s major effort here.
“They (the DOT) did a full box out, which meant removal of the base. The original bricks from the roads are now being cleaned and used elsewhere, including Patriots Park.”
He estimated the road the DOT dug up was probably from the 1930s and ran just past the Mills Mansion. Many corners in the village now have what Chris called a “bump out” — meaning the sidewalks are built farther into the traffic lane — slightly beyond parked cars — to increase visibility and safety for pedestrians. Unhappily for the village crew, bump outs require more maintenance because you don’t have a straight line to plow, sweep, or mow. He said getting into the corners without disturbing the bricks is part of what they have learned to do well.
They also leaf blow all the village sidewalks and sweep the main streets every Friday so that the village has its new historic best foot forward for visitors, who are often on their way to nearby Letchworth State Park. Shops range from Jane’s Pantry, where wholesome foods can be bought in bulk, Stefannelli’s Deli, where Reuben’s and fresh homemade cookies rule, many antique stores, and Rainy Days Café in a once derelict bar that looked like something from a B-movie set.
Where once there was nothing but emptiness, visitors can choose among several interesting (non-chain) restaurants, a colonial era B&B, miles of pedestrian and bike trails on the Greenway, nearby hot air balloon rides over Letchworth Park, camping, or rubber rafting trips through the glacial-made gorge. Letchworth unabashedly refers to itself on signage as, “the Grand Canyon of the East.”
Not all restoration paths lead to success. Chris said using brick for many sidewalks to enhance the historic appearance in the village has proven to be a mistake because of settling issues, which also require extra maintenance.
“I’ve had to re-do our handicapped ramps, all 68 of them, because our climate causes the bricks to settle,” he said.
On the plus side, the crew maintains the decorative lighting, which also helps frame the historic picture here. One shortened decorative light pole that was hit and damaged by a car now shines on Patriots Park.
The new store owners renting from Greg O’Connell on Main Street are mandated to leave their storefronts lit up at night, so even when most people are probably sleeping, anybody driving by will be impressed by the upbeat spirit of local pride in the place. Comfortable apartments — fully rented at reasonable rates — help support the even more modest rents he collects from the lovely old tin-ceilinged stores on both sides of Main Street. The dwellings have skylights, maple floors, new kitchens and bathrooms, and many exposed brick walls. Some shop owners live above their stores. Looking good is part of selling well, especially when a village is selling “image.” Even the large flower planters on Main Street were constructed by school kids with money for materials supplied by the grateful town board.
The village is clearly on a roll toward a more sustainable future and better times while setting an example for other upstate communities struggling to become more vital and alive.
A Patriotic Fountain
Of Chris’s annual operating budget of $185,737 for streets, water, and sewer, nearly $48,000 comes from CHIPS. The village highway crew has 23.76 lane miles to care for as well as the water and sewer system operations and maintenance. Chris has been aggressive about removing out-of-service fire hydrants and replacing them. The village has 160 hydrants total.
“The old ones break down if they don’t get exercised. We’ve had some from the 1920s and 1930s. We’ve changed 16 this year alone. I’ve gone through them all, and I can say we do not have one out-of-service fire hydrant in the village now.”
Old fire hydrants, which didn’t have shut-off valves — can also mean a whole neighborhood has to be turned off for repairs on one old hydrant. More water issues come up in Patriots Park, where developer Greg O’Connell has taken the lead on refurbishing a small pocket that registers a lot of local impact as you enter the village at the top of a steep hill. The focus is a vintage working fountain, topped with an eagle, which has been here for more than 100 years.
While the high-impact park is crawling with earthmovers in early spring, the village crew is helping create the excavation for the vault. They are also setting in the risers.
“I love this stuff. Taking something and using your creativity. Greg is paying for most of this work himself,” Chris said. “The last superintendent and the mayor had a vision of putting this fountain back in the village at Patriots Park.”
The landmark on top of a hill where Route 36 tees north and south, is an advantageous location to make a statement about the place. Chris said his crew will go above and beyond to maintain an attractive business district.
“Traffic comes from everywhere,” he said. “We are basically the center of the county. To get from Point A to Point B you almost have to come through Mt. Morris. A lot of trucks come this way to avoid some of the tolls.”
As the name implies, the village of Mt. Morris developed at the top of a steep hill. At the very top is the location of an old hospital for people who had a once virulent disease — tuberculosis. The original hospital facade has many enclosed porches that were once used as outdoor space where patients were encouraged to take in the fresh air as part of their treatment. Today a brand new nursing facility and many county buildings share the pleasant park-like setting. From the very top of Mt. Morris at this point, the view of the largely unspoiled Genesee Valley is spectacular.
Chris said his crew helps with the mowing around the approaches to the large nursing facility and county offices because if they didn’t, “It wouldn’t get mowed, and it should be.”
Using local contractors and fabricators is part of what he really enjoys about being superintendent.
“See the rod where the eagle is sitting?” asked Chris, while admiring the fountain. “We got that part constructed from an outfit in Warsaw. Then a big crane from Ken’s Tree Service came out and put it in place.”
Like everything else in this village, the fountain has a back story focused on local people and local talents all its own. Just down Main Street a few yards from the emerging Patriots Park, a visitor may notice the Mills Mansion, a distinctive red brick colonial, circa mid-1800s. The mansion is now a museum that features candlelit dinners during the Christmas holidays. The mansion was built by a local boy who made good. The eagle-topped fountain now being readied for Patriots Park once graced the mansion’s grounds by the well-traveled rural highway.
“The fountain is similar to the one in Geneseo, except their fountain has a bear on top,” said Chris. “Ours used to be at Main and Lake Streets in front of the mansion. But when the state came in and bought our highway, the fountain had to be moved. So it went to the cemetery in town and was set up as a working fountain, but it was forgotten about. Somebody stole the eagle, which has since been replaced with a faithful copy of the original.”
A foundry in Jamestown actually poured the wooden mold of the re-cast eagle in one piece. The material is brass and it is made from scrapped and melted down water meters, which sometimes freeze and break.
“Anything we can recycle today, we do it,” said Chris. “That includes reclaiming asphalt by using millings for repairs someplace else. Patriots Park with its special fountain will re-use the old bricks that once paved Main Street after brick replaced dirt roads.
Chris said a New York City designer originated the plan for the revised park. Expect a major unveiling for the old fountain and the village’s newest park in the near future.
“It’s going to be beautiful,” he said, with more than an ounce of pride in providing his department’s skills to help accomplish the community-spirited goal.
On his crew are: Gary Valentinto (laborer/MEO mechanic), Frank Disalvo (laborer/MEO), and Mark Regaluso (laborer/MEO). Thad Gilbride and Chad Young are part-timers who are on call as needed. The department also hires people from the work experience program sponsored by the Livingston County Department of Social Services, which is headquartered in the village, on “the hill.” Job experience, such as supporting the village crew, helps support the Department of Social Services’ goal to help clients find jobs and replace their pubic assistance grants.
“It’s kind of like Mayberry here,” said Chris. “We are all good at something. We do an excellent job. We run efficiently but lean.”
Chris said that while the former superintendent was more of a guy who sat at his desk, Chris is the kind of superintendent who prefers to be out in the field where the action is.
He loves mowing and maintaining the playgrounds with its grandstands, the local tennis and basketball courts. But, he said, sometimes the work makes him sad. Vandalism, especially in the public bathrooms, can destroy “all the hard work you put into it.”
“We have a great crew. Morale is high. We do everything we possibly can in house — plumbing, electrical, signage, welding, and fabrication. For some roadwork I have to reach out because we don’t have all the equipment we need sometimes. We do have our own paver; it’s getting better on the equipment side.”
“We’re currently in good shape with equipment,” he said. “At the board meeting last night they agreed to get rid of our 23-year-old street sweeper and 20-year-old loader while they are still worth some money.” Instead they bought an upgrade, a used sweeper through Cyncon that originally came from the town of Chili. The loader will be brand new, purchased through state bids. Because space is limited in the village, smaller equipment is used. “We can’t plow with a 10-wheeler,” he said.
His focus is on improving safety training for everybody on the crew.
“We all need to be bigger and better on safety training. Same as the fire crew. With education comes improvement.”
Chris does double duty as fire chief. Because of his HAZMAT training, Chris said he is always curious about what materials the trucks are carrying through the busy town, so he checks their placards on the trucks and gets his book out to see what kind of hazardous materials are passing through.
This is his first year as fire chief. He has been assistant for four years with a total of 13 years in the department. He credits his grandfather, a fireman in the village in the early 1950s and 1960s, as being an influence.
“On fire calls (called good intent calls),” he said they average about 275 a year. “We are one department, but the membership comes from three separate companies. That’s the way history wrote it.”
“I want to do my best,” Chris said. “I want to treat people all the same. My wife says I tend to be too dedicated. That’s the tough thing with this job, you get pulled from your family constantly.”
Other “pulls,” including many cell phone calls, come from his position as fire chief for the village. Plus he likes to attend all board meetings to stay abreast of what’s going on. Sparked by a village-wide urban renewal, there has been a lot going on after years of decline and neglect.
Bright Promise After Years of Neglect
In Chris’s lifetime Mt. Morris — with its welcoming business facades along a wide Main Street, accented with historic properties and bordered by public parks — had gone downhill. Downtown village life went from being central to most residents’ lives here, to an empty hulk of storefronts and cheap apartments, while Wal-Mart and other large retailers drew traffic out of town. Change wasn’t good.
“I can remember the village in the 1980s just before the malls and stuff came,” said Chris. “We did most of our shopping in the village. My mother would take us school shopping on Main Street. I remember all the storefronts were full. At Joanne’s Clothing Store we used to hide in the clothes.” Visits to Charlie’s Ice Cream Kingdom followed shopping.
“Slowly,” he said, “We watched the village decline.”
“Large” and “rumpled” are the two words that accompany nearly every article written about Mt. Morris’s re-birth when the writer describes Greg O’Connell. Greg, a former New York City police officer, is almost single-handedly responsible for much of the change, but success, he said, is based on the community. At 6-foot-4, 270 pounds, and 69 years of age, he appears to be on a personal quest, besides being a good businessperson. The goal is a chance for a modest upstate village to become sustainable, in today’s economic terms. Greg was recently profiled very favorably in the New York Times Magazine. He does business from the cluttered front seat of a pick up truck backed by a constantly buzzing cell phone.
“If you’re fair,” he said, “You don’t have to look at the bottom line every two seconds. That will take care of itself.”
Beginning the year after he retired from the NYPD, he began buying up run-down buildings in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in an area characterized by low lifes and crime. He would renovate a building and move on to the next one, usually buying them at nominal prices.
“You’ve got to buy right,” he said. “You’ve got to be 15 to 20 years ahead of the trends.” Red Hook made him a millionaire several times over.
He is a developer who does not “flip” properties. He still owns and manages the original properties he bought in Brooklyn. Next Greg turned his attention to Mt. Morris, a town near Geneseo where he attended college in 1964. He has pretty much used the same business model. One by one, he bought up much of Main Street at foreclosure prices, as well as some neighboring farms (one with a half-mile race track) and an eccentric structure that’s been empty for years. He is always on the hunt for land. Greg spent about a million dollars acquiring properties on both sides of the four-block-long Main Street and expects to spend about another million on restoration.
Beginning around 2007, the story of how local people began to notice that foreclosed-upon properties were being bought up along Main Street by some mystery man from New York City is really enjoyable to listen to in hindsight.
“Nobody knew what was going on,” said Chris.” I never met the guy, but I heard that he bought one place, and then another place, and then all of a sudden he started showing up in Mt. Morris with his crew. Then everybody really started talking.”
Part of Greg’s vision joined nicely with the village’s ambitions. Suddenly bastardized old storefronts were brought back to their 1800s appeal and decorative details. Stripped to their original storefronts with exposed pressed tin ceilings and lots of early display cases, sometimes swapped out from other properties, the shops began to take on lives of their own. Authentic touches were carefully restored, while bad remodeling remains were dumpster-bound for good. Apartments that once housed a marginal population were renovated with new bathrooms, skylights, and kitchens — for reasonable rents.
Storefronts can be as reasonable as $100 a month. Greg’s contract with the proprietors stipulates that store owners leave some storefront lights on at night and that they change their window displays quarterly. Chris and his crew, for their part, responded to the positive energy in many ways including policing the sidewalks and roads.
“It’s great being part of what’s happening here,” Chris said. “I just heard in the board meeting last night that two more businesses are coming in. You see a lot of new faces in town now.”
Chris’s wife, Jennifer, works for a doctor’s office as a Certified Nurse Assistant and secretary. The couple has two boys — Colin, 10, and Chase, 5. Their ideal family vacation is to go with friends and their families to Myrtle Beach at a campground called Pirate Land.
He said that in addition to hunting, working on his home is his hobby. Chris was born in Mt. Morris and lives in a house with a few acres that is in view of the highway barn and the family’s original 600-acre homestead and dairy operation, called the George Farm. The family gave up farming about 15 years ago.
Does he miss farming? “Yes I do,” he said. “I miss working with my grandfather. We still have him at age 84. My uncle, who has passed, was the main owner, and he wasn’t one to upgrade, so I was milking with a dumping station. With a herd of 80 in a stanchion barn, I had arms like Popeye because it took me two hours to get through.”
Like many Mt. Morris residents living in this historic village situated high on a hill looking over the flatlands, Chris is a “local.” Village residents are but a few miles from one of the most expansive public parks in the east — Letchworth State Park with more than 1,000 heavily wood acres, three magnificent waterfalls, and plenty of recreational activities. Nearby is Mt. Morris Dam — the largest concrete dam east of the Mississippi. The village’s water line from Silver Lake actually runs right through the dam. Chris said you can see it when you take the tour.
Letchworth has miles of off-road biking/hiking, campgrounds, recreation, hot air balloon rides, cabins, fine dining, and rooms at William Pryor Letchworth’s own house — the Glen Iris Inn. The park draws hundreds of thousands of tourists through Mt. Morris every year.
His Early Years
Chris explained his origins in the village. “My family came from North Java in the 1930s. My grandfather put the family farm together by buying up foreclosed properties.”
Chris left Mt. Morris once — briefly — and it made a lasting impression on him when his mother moved him to a large suburb near Rochester. Coming from a class of 35 to one of 400 was not an experience he would choose for his own kids, or anybody else’s probably. He says simply, “My heart was here.” He is the kind of person who thrives in a small town where people have learned how to take care of one another.
Once he graduated from high school he went to work for Terry Tree Service and Underground Technologies, which is owned by the same company.
“I put in my application at the village highway department, and Patsy (the former superintendent) didn’t want to hire me at the time. I thought he’d chase me out of his office. Then another employee left to go work at the salt mine. I filled out an application again, and this time I was hired. I was 23 years old when I started.”
Did he ever expect to become superintendent when he started out as a laborer in the old cinderblock highway barn? “No, I was just coming to work and doing my job. Living a fast life (as fast as Mt. Morris can permit). Then I started getting involved and taking more initiative. When the foreman left, they never replaced him. Basically I did it for years with no title or more pay. When the superintendent went out for surgery I pushed to be appointed foreman, and the board agreed to do so. The former superintendent retired so it was easy for me to transition to the job of superintendent of streets, water, and sewers,” an appointed position.
The village of Mt. Morris’s modern highway barn is at 14 Connors Avenue. A comparison of the new highway barn and old one is a good metaphor for the amazing evolution that the village has experienced in the past few years. While central to the village, the old cinderblock location was small and cramped. It was easy to steal materials from the yard. Chris said the town got lucky when a former liquor distributor’s almost brand new building, erected in 1991, became available at a reasonable cost. The 12,000 square-foot facility allows all equipment to be stored inside with plenty of room.
The equipment is right-sized for the village operations it serves. For tried and true there is a 1947 International Farmall Tractor still on the roster as well as a 2010 International dump truck.
The building has office space, a conference room, men’s and women’s bathrooms, and a kitchen. The warehouse portion of the building has four overhead doors with two loading docks, with small-equipment access as well as a large main entrance. The repair shop is enormous and has everything carefully stored away. One hundred tons of salt is stored outside.
Water and Sewers as Well as Streets
Chris described his nearly 24 lane miles of roads. “Some good, some are very poor. Past practices did not use good base stabilization. Good building would not be building on top of clay.”
Chris compared a good road foundation to the foundation on a house.
“Years ago, before fabric was in use, they didn’t have the materials to help build a good road. The village also used a lot of stone and oil in the past, which is not good for village traffic because of the inevitable loose stones and dust. All roads we work on now are going with asphalt. I like to put fabric down and then a good 18 inches of base.”
Chris said that book of knowledge about public works and the superintendent of highways position would pretty much cover the same things. One critical skill is being organized in your work.
“I’m certified to work the water treatment plant, and I have my distribution license for the system. I worked hard for that on my own. So if I’m needed, I can run the water treatment plant.” He can also run the sewers if it’s necessary. The village has not had a single water advisory in his 13 years on the crew.
Chris said that while working on the system they routinely find old water pipe from the Mills Water Works Company — a private enterprise that provided the water to the village many years ago. Eventually, it became a village responsibility to turn on the taps.
“This is a gravity-fed system. We only have two pumps for the village. Years ago they didn’t have the system looped, but we have tied it together now. The water comes from Silver Lake 12 miles away. Then it goes into a five-million-gallon reservoir at the water treatment plant that also services Leicester, Cuylerville, and the town and village of Mt. Morris.”
Chris said that the tour of the Mt. Morris dam actually shows the water line.
“The water from Silver Lake,” he said, “ends up running through the village of Perry, through the cemetery, through Letchworth State Park, and, since 1952, through the Mt. Morris Dam.”
Chris and the crew clean out the five-million-gallon, concrete-based reservoir annually. He said is takes about a week to empty the reservoir and then a month or so to get it back up to a good level. The entire operation causes more stress on the pumps.
“It’s very risky when we do it.” He is thinking of using divers so they won’t have to drain the reservoir and add strain on the pumps by doing so. What do they find in the bottom of the reservoir? He said, “Zebra mussels, shells, sediment, and algae.”
Two people run the water treatment plant, while another crew is at the sewage treatment. Chris can run both systems.
Water is plentiful. “We can draw a million and a half gallons a day from Silver Lake. Right now we are only drawing 400,000. The village plant uses two filters and has two more for backup and redundancy.”
Sewers also require maintenance by the crew. “When I started 13 years ago, it was nothing for me to be out several times a month on trouble areas, but in time we took care of them. Now sewers are mostly maintenance, with cleaning and flushing and taking care of grease issues with local businesses.”
Bad Times in a
The early spring rains last year helped create a FEMA-qualified disaster for Chris in a culvert washout. The final tab is $170,000 for the one time event.
“It’s in a field, and our transmission main goes through there. We were very close to losing it.”
He said the work schedule for repairs was about three months long. First, they installed a temporary bypass to divert the water. A new concrete culvert was placed into the newly excavated site where the washout occurred. The water main then had to be installed and the bypass removed.
The access of water lines has even had the village in court because a village water main crossed a county highway bridge. A judge ruled they had to share expenses of an upgrade, with 60 percent from the county and 40 percent from the village. Other strains include the budget in spring, when budgets are being implemented.
“Everybody is concerned for their part of the 1.7-million budget for the entire town. They have not raised taxes in four to five years. They have actually decreased them. While we are building a new fire house this year, we are also trying not to raise taxes.”
Town Board meetings (most of which he doesn’t need to attend but does anyway), he said, can become stressful, running “three to four hours into the night.”
But no computer program will ever give him the same access to learning about how things get done, and completing the task satisfactorily is what Chris Young is all about.