Highway Superintendent Thomas (Willie) Reifsteck and the Town of Middlesex

Laurie Mercer

While residents number only about 1,000 people, the town of Middlesex residents enjoy a special advantage: luxury homes along several miles of lakeshore on the east side of Canandaigua Lake — possibly the most beautiful of the Finger Lakes — help support the town’s tax base. There is a sense of timelessness here in the land where Seneca Indians believe they were first born on Bare Hill. Middlesex is surrounded by the town’s winding and hilly roads overlooking the lake. The area is commonly called Vine Valley, because of the grape crop. From the end of August until mid-November the area is very busy with grape harvesting.

Middlesex has 45 lane miles, including a few seasonal roads, with a budget of $1.03 million; $83,000 comes from CHIPS. The highway department also plows and sands 20 miles of state road and 14 miles for Yates County, as well.

The only quality undetermined about Thomas (Willie) Reifsteck, highway superintendent, is what to call him, so his business cards give both first names. He said only his mother and his wife call him Thomas. In town, residents call him Willie. To the crew, where changing nicknames is a favorite pastime, he currently is T.W. He is a big guy who looks like he could still handle a football.

“This is a beautiful area. I am very comfortable here,” he said. “We have a good tax base because of the lake. A lot more people come just for vacations.”

There are lots of hunting cabins hidden in the woods and two popular private campgrounds. Also in Middlesex is High Tor, a state-owned hunting park open to the public. The newest farm residents are Mennonites. It is so quiet here that you begin to notice the sound of crows. Deer, wild turkey, and even bear are commonplace.

When Superintendent’s Profile visited Middlesex, the workers (four full-time men plus Willie) were asking for cones for the road along Bare Hill where they were ditching. The site of the beginning of the Seneca Nation, Bare Hill is modestly recognized by a historical marker. The road is plowed and sanded in winter. Bare Hill, which lost its vegetation in an Indian legend, is now covered with shrubs, but the residents do have a fire lighting ceremony around the lake — known as the Ring of Fire — and the first volley of flame is traditionally issued from Bare Hill.

“The road was changed from gravel to asphalt in 1990, and I’ve been patching it together for the past 20 years. I finally got the money and time to fix it,” he said.

They will grind the top off the road using a company based in Rochester. They also rented a trencher to put a center drain down the whole, mile-long road.

“Today,” he said, “we are boxing out some areas that are questionable because they don’t have good fill.”

He said problem areas, which can be 10 feet wide and 200 feet long, need to be dug out with an excavator to get rid of the poor material. He then will fill it back in with stone and gravel, and eventually it will be blacktopped again.

Decisions about blacktop — cold mixing or hot mixing — were still being made.

Cold or Hot Mix

for Paving?

As with most of his work, Willie puts a lot of thought into the project ahead of time.

“Cold mixing is a little bit easier because my closest hot mix plant is 23 miles away,” he said. “To keep the hot mix coming to the paver I have to have about 20 trucks. So you’ve got to ask for help from all of your neighbors.

“With a cold mix job you can stockpile the aggregate right in town, and you only need about eight to 10 trucks. The temperature is actually about 160 degrees in cold mix. Hot mix is more like 360 degrees.”

So why the debate?

“With hot mix you can drive on it almost immediately after you roll it. People, especially around the lake, don’t like a detour. With cold mix you can’t drive on it right away, and you have to come back and seal it. With hot mix it might be good just the way it is for seven to eight years.”

Tom or Willie — Just Don’t Ask Him Why

Tom, more commonly known around town as Willie (and don’t ask him why, he said he hasn’t a clue), has been town superintendent for 21 years; he has 39 total years with the highway department, which is housed in a dated structure. The highway building — built in 1952 and poorly added onto in 1977 — is in need of replacement. A new salt barn was constructed in 2005.

As he pointed out, pole buildings last only for so long, but budgets are tight. Willie is proud that his department brings in about $120,000 to town coffers annually because the crew mows and plows several miles of roads for both Yates County and the state, as well.

During his tenure, the ratio of gravel to blacktop has completely reversed itself.

“When I started in 1974 we had 12 miles of blacktop and 33 miles of gravel. Now it’s 35 miles of blacktop and 10 miles of gravel, including one of the steepest roads in Yates County, the notorious (for locals) Wolfanger Road, which has an elevation of 1,500 feet, and it’s only a mile and a half long. One section of the road has a 24 percent grade. Plus the drop off on one side is deep enough to put a hurting on a heavy highway vehicle.”

Willie knows all about that. A few years ago, his driver escaped from his truck before going over the bank when the vehicle was wedged onto a tree half the way down into the ravine. Before the tow truck could help, the tree broke loose and the truck did a face plant, causing serious damage.

“We’ve worked Wolfanger up twice already this spring,” said Willie, as the summer heat begins to take hold. “You’ve got to be real careful about the amount of salt you put on gravel roads. Too much salt and they get soft and rutted up. Then the gravel gets dry and loose. Because of the steepness it gets choppy. But there are residents on that road who wouldn’t have it any other way.”

You can witness the gentle nature of the landscape and the Middlesex residents in the number of flower gardens, many planted along town roads. And the Friendship House offers clothes and food for people in need. When the town grew concerned about legal issues with the Middlesex Music Festival being held on town grounds, a nearby neighbor offered his farm as an alternative. Willie said the $6.50 roast beef dinners held in the town Hall each week cause overflow parking to spread into the lot — improved by his crew — located behind the building.

The Vine Valley public swimming area — where long ago several Canandaigua paddleboat steamers once plied passengers and freight (especially grapes) — has been enjoyed for generations. The town even bought the old Robeson’s General Store on the shore rather than have it sit empty. While there are lovely farms with breathtaking views of Vine Valley framed by bee operations, orchards, gardens, and wildflowers throughout their lawns, it is the highly desirable six or seven miles stretch along Canandaigua Lake that is helping support the town’s tax base. Higher taxes just seem to follow water wherever it goes — oceanfront, lakeside, creeks, bogs, and waterfalls. Canandaigua Lake has attracted summer people and visitors since the Indians left.

“We are fortunate,” said Willie, citing just one lakefront house — a modest but well crafted rebuild of an older farm house right on the water — that pays $36,000 annually in taxes.

Ironically, he said, those wealthy landowners, who live along several miles of pristine lakefront and pay the highest property taxes — physically speaking, live on the most difficult road in town, and there isn’t much the highway department can do about it. This may be country, but parking nightmares occur on this dead end strip when the Ring of Fire brings everybody out for parties and more house guests. The scramble for parking along narrow shoulders of the narrow roads is true of every community that hosts fireworks and torch lightings around a lake.

“East Lake Road is never going to be perfect,” said Willie. “It got shoved in there a long time ago between the bank and the water. It starts out at 18 feet wide, and the farther back in you go the narrower it gets. There is a 30-foot drop off into the water, so there is no room to do anything there. The road dead ends after about three miles of blacktop.”

“Anything you do over there takes twice as much time and probably twice as much money to fix it up,” he said of East Lake Road.

A Private Citizen Helps Fund a Major Highway Project

This incident is all about learning from your mistakes. Willie said that along East Lake Road there was a section that was being continually eroded by water coming under the asphalt. And the bank kept “shaling” onto the road. He said that for years they placed cones on the weak spots as a warning to motorists.

“We actually put up a concrete wall at one point, and, while I was at my kid’s graduation, I got the call that the wall had toppled onto the beach. Fortunately nobody was there, but it taught us we had to do better because our fix hadn’t worked. It could have hurt someone.”

He said he remembered seeing a company offering a structural solution at a county highway conference, and he brought them on board.

“The section we wanted fixed is only about 75 feet long, but it meant over $100,000 for the town, which is a pretty good chunk of my budget. I said bite the bullet and get it done.”

The technique used is called a “Soil Nail Launcher.”

Willie explained, “They come in with a track excavator. Then at about a 45-degree angle, they drill a bunch of holes and put galvanized pipe into them. The pipe is about 2.5 inches wide and about 14 to 16 feet long. They pump concrete into the pipes to hold them in place. Then they hang wire mesh on the ends that are sticking out a little bit. Finally, they spray shot concrete on the mesh. And that’s it, unless you want it to look like a real rock wall, which is what happened next.

“In this particular case the nearby owner on the road above the wall and a small beach below it had a real nice house. The town said we are going to do basic repairs, and if you want something more than that you are going to have to pay for it yourself. He did.”

For a cost of about $20,000, the homeowner got the wall “colored to his preference.” The concrete was made to look like rock.

“They had two guys from California fly in. The guy working the Shotcrete was hanging down over the bank working from a lift. There was another guy right behind him, cutting grooves using trowels and brooms into the surface of the material before it set up. Next day, they came back with knapsack sprayers. They took some deck stain and sprayed it. Now it’s not just a wall, it looks like rock.”

East Lake Road also has some of the worse flooding in town.

“Last April 27, we were there for a solid month cleaning it out. The flood began on a Wednesday night. My wife and I were out celebrating our anniversary. My phone started ringing. Some driveways were washed out with two feet of water on top.”

Willie said he got to the flooded areas by 8 p.m. and by midnight they had the situation under control. How did he do it? With an excavator operator who has worked on the crew for a long time.

“He knows where the pipes are pretty good. Usually it’s a tree limb or something that plugs them up. Hopefully, you can pop them open without damaging the pipe, but some of the pipes needed to be replaced.”

He said they have replaced lots of pipe on the road during the past four to five years. He called the new plastic pipes they use to replace the old metal ones as the “greatest thing” because they don’t rust out.

“We’ve had some plastic pipe in use for about 30 years,” he said.

The only danger he added, is that they not be exposed to sun or weather or else they will dry out and chip away.

“Last spring we had a plastic pipe float. Water got underneath it and pushed it to the surface.”

The south hill area is among the highest areas in Yates County, and with heavy thaw and heavy rain he said there are three or four roads where the flooding is a constant maintenance issue.

“Every spring you know where to go and what you need to do,” he said.

Past President and Big Believer in the NYS Town Superintendents of Highway

Willie is not the kind of guy you would call a joiner, but he has been the secretary/treasurer of the Yates County Town Highway Superintendents Association from 1996 to the present. In 2002, he was selected to serve on the Executive Committee of the NYS Town Superintendents of Highway Association and was appointed president of the group in 2010.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” he joked.

He now serves the group as past president.

“We had a difference of opinion with the guy running it. The board voted to remove him. We hired a group in Albany to run the day-to-day business plus a lobbyist. We recently voted to just have the lobbyist run our business as well.”

Of the approximately 913 towns in the state, the association has more than 1,000 members. Of Advocacy Days in Albany this past March, he said one highlight was when a state senator showed up wearing one of the group’s distinctive screaming yellow shirts. “The highway superintendents went nuts,” he said.

“We understand that the state is in tough financials, but we’ve been able to maintain our CHIPS funding while other places have gotten cut, so that’s a good thing. We need a raise, and we are trying to get something done about it. There is strength in numbers.”

Willie said that all 17 members of the board are scattered all over the state.

“When I was president I met so many people. Lots of phone calls and e-mails.”

He said he and his wife had a lot of fun with his achievements. He called her the Queen and presented her with a tiara when he was named president.

He said politics is part of his DNA. His grandfather was a town justice, and his mother was town clerk for 24 years and Ontario County treasurer for eight more.

He remarried about five years ago and calls his wife, Laura, the best thing that ever happened to him. His children include son, Tate (28); daughters, Cassie (27) and Tessah (22); and granddaughter Lexah (1 ½). Laura works in the sleep center at Thompson Hospital as a technician. She expects to get her certification soon as an EEG technician, as well.

As for sports he said he spends time hunting for golf balls, but he shot a 91 at Reservoir Creek recently, and he was pretty happy with that. He also described himself as a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan, “in spite of themselves.”

“Hopefully this will be a better year for them,” he said.

He also has a part-time mowing business, including tending to a private cemetery, which is the oldest burial place in town. Working four 10-hour days in summer gives him a chance to mow. He can mow four to five acres in an hour with one of his two Ferris mowers. He said the new one is twice as fast as its predecessor.

The Early Days — Joining the Crew

Everybody has a different path that takes them into working in the highway barn. He was born in Stanley, which is about three miles from nearby Gorham. Willie’s connection to highway work came through his high school sweetheart, whom he eventually married. His ex-wife’s father was the Middlesex highway superintendent at the time.

“I had worked for him on his farm from the age of 16,” he said. “He asked me to come work for him on the roads. I didn’t even have a CDL at the time. Nowadays, I can’t hire somebody without one, and they have to have one year of experience with the type of vehicle they are required to drive.”

He is one of those people who remember specific dates very well. He said he joined the highway department on Sept. 3, 1974.

“I worked as an operator, a truck driver. In 1991, another guy ran against my father-in-law and beat him. He was in for two terms. Then I ran against him and beat him. Next time, I beat him again. I’ve only had one guy run against me since.”

Like many superintendents, he doesn’t like campaigning for the job very much, but his background in many high school sports gives him a very competitive spirit when it comes to winning. Only about 300 to 400 people vote in local elections in Middlesex, so if the person isn’t doing the job well, especially in winter, he said they will be out the door. He said his town is unusual in that they work on both county and state roads.

Middlesex is not in any major snow belt. The primary challenge in winter is ice. Many roads resemble a Colorado jeep trail. Plowing takes about 2.5 hours each trip.

In 2005, they built a new salt barn that holds 4,000 tons.

“I’ve used a little bit of treated salt,” he said. “We usually mix sand and salt in a one to one mix. Last year, on my state roads, I started going to straight salt because that’s the state’s preference. There is less clean up that way without the sand.”

Worst Day of His Life

Almost everybody in the business has a storm that will not be erased from his or her memory by time. For Willie it was the blizzard of March 13, 1993.

“I lived about four miles away at the time. It snowed all day and the winds started picking up, so we shut the department down. I ditched my truck trying to get home. I walked home. All night I was thinking, how the hell am I going to get things going in the morning? I got up at 2 a.m. and was literally crawling on my hands and knees to get to work. I got to the highway garage at 5 a.m. A couple of my guys came in, and we got the loader out. Most of it was opened up by Sunday night. But it was the following Tuesday or Wednesday before the county had the road to Canandaigua open. I hope I never see another storm like that one.”

He said being part of a Yates County snow watch — a 24-hour service — has made it easier to sleep at night. He said the operator will call him when necessary, which means, “You don’t have to be on your toes 24 hours a day.” During snowstorms the crew comes in around 3 a.m. and is plowing by 4 a.m.

Does he like to see the snow fly? “Yeah, watching it come off the plow is fun, but by Christmas you are sick of it.”

“We used to plow steep hills with a grader,” he continued. “It was slow, but it made it over the steep hills. We’ve got the right piece of equipment now. We’ve got a Ford 550 all-wheel-drive, a little dump truck with four-wheel drive. It also has an all- season dump body. We have sand distributed in front of the wheels for a little bit of traction. All of my trucks have that feature on them.”

Buying Equipment in Tough Times

Willie has a good working relationship with the town board. He has worked with the same supervisor for the 21 years he has been highway superintendent.

“I usually take the board on a highway tour every spring so I can tell them what I am planning to do,” he said. “They really enjoy it.”

In an ideal world, equipment would be purchased new every ten years, he said, but these are not ideal fiscal times. He shares a Bomag 172 roller with the town of Potter, but wishes he had one of his own.

“We try to buy new. The last piece, a Cat 938 loader, was purchased two years ago.”

In mid-July a brand new $196,000 Mack 10-wheeler just arrived that will be painted chrome green like much of the equipment in Middlesex.

“We’ve got a little bit of everything: Tenco, Sterling, Mack, Champion, John Deere, Massey Ferguson, and Fords. Since Sterling is out of business we’ve gone to Mack because it’s a little bit easier to stock parts.”

He said the crew is really good at fixing things like brakes, wheels, and hydraulics and they keep good track of routine maintenance. However with today’s modern equipment, he said, “It’s hard to keep up with these newer technologies. The first thing the service person does is pull out a laptop computer.”

He said that when they plow, the dirt roads are especially hard on equipment. “Half the gravel goes flying off into the ditch, and then you have to clean the ditches. It’s crazy.”

Looking Farther Down the Road

As he comes up on his 39th year of service to the town’s highways this year, it would be unusual for Willie not to be thinking about life after work, and yet it doesn’t seem to be on his mind. There are people who enjoy what they are doing, and he is one of them. He is confident in the quality of the work his crew does on town, county, and state roads.

“When I first started here my aunt came along and had a big fit because I had quit a good job in Gorham to come here. She said she thought I had made a big mistake. Thirty-nine years later I guess I could say she was wrong. I just tell people that I can retire anytime from today until 2019.”

A Land of Eagles

and Angels

It would be hard to describe the history of Middlesex without mentioning the Native Americans who called their own village in this area Nundawao, near the south end of Canandaigua Lake. The Senecas believe that their birthplace is on Bare Hill, which is bordered by town roads that are plowed, mowed, and ditched by the highway crew. The hill is no longer bare, but heavily covered with small trees and bushes.

The myth: A little Seneca boy found a snake and kept it as a pet. As it grew larger the snake demanded larger and larger animals to eat. Realizing that the snake might eat the people in the community, they built a fort, but before it was completed the snake came across the valley and circled the hill where they lived.

Some people thought they saw a dark cave and a way to escape, but it was the snake’s mouth and they were devoured. The boy had a vision about how to kill the snake, which he did with a special arrow enhanced with his sister’s hair. When the arrow hit its heart, the snake rolled down the hill and took all of the vegetation with it. As it rolled into the lake, it spewed forth all of the Seneca Indians it had eaten. They were still alive.

Each fall the story is refreshed when a signal bonfire is lit at the top of the hill. Then all of the fires around the lake are lit, resulting in a white man’s ceremony known as the Ring of Fire.

It was during a road widening in 1921 that they discovered a burial site of an Indian half sitting up with a pipe in his hand. Remains from several other burials also were unearthed including scaffold mortuary disposals where the dead were exposed to nature, bundle burials, and flexed burials. Many fire or feast pits also were found. It is believed that natives, even earlier then the Seneca, made use of Bare Hill.

At the time the Rochester Museum and Science Center’s director removed the bones and artifacts to the museum, an act that would be impossible today.

It was in 1570 when a league of five tribes was formed. The Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayagas, and Senecas joined to formed the League of Five Nations. In 1722 the Tuscaroras joined, making it the League of Six Nations. The purpose was to abolish fighting among themselves, which made them even more effective at dominating their enemies with bows and arrows, clubs, and spears.

In addition to hunting animals and fishing, the Iroquois were agricultural to their roots. Corn, beans, and squash were so important to them that they considered all three to be sacred food. The Indians believed that the three plants were “sisters who desired to remain together.” All three vegetables can be planted together harmoniously in one plot.

Historians in this area say that the natives were very fond of games and that lacrosse and baseball originated in the Iroquoian tribe. Wrestling and gambling also were favored. With the coming of the white people everything changed. Indians, with no use for treaties, were quickly parted from their homelands.

In 1779, during the American Revolution, General Sullivan’s army marched through central and western New York destroying the natives, their homes, and crops. Many of the soldiers, remembering the fertile land they raided, came back to make their homes in Middlesex.

Ontario County was created by an act of the New York State Legislature on Jan. 27, 1789. Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham purchased 2.6 million acres in 1787. Approximately 42,000 acres that included what is now Middlesex and the town of Potter were sold by Thomas Maxwell to Arnold Potter on July 15, 1789. First called Augusta, the town’s name was changed to Middlesex in 1808 because there already was a town named Augusta. Middlesex also was called Potterstown and later Suckerstown because of the fish in the West River, the only creek that runs through the town. Boundary changes went on for many years.

The size of Middlesex today is about 34 square miles, including three square miles of Canandaigua Lake, which has a maximum depth of 276 feet.

First planted in 1850, grapes quickly became a primary crop around 1865, and many were shipped on Canandaigua Lake’s first steamboat named the Lady of the Lake, built in 1827. Settlers, schools, churches, stores, hotels, wagon shops, blacksmiths, and cemeteries were quickly built. The first death was Lucy Walford in 1791. By 1835 the town had a population of 1,440 people, which is about the same number as it has today.

The town’s patriotism is evident in the numbers of men who went to every war this country has taken part in. Middlesex is also distinguished by its participation in the Underground Railroad. One such sponsor was an undertaker who hid slaves in the hearse on their way to freedom in Canada.

The first train to arrive in town in 1892 was called the Middlesex Valley Railroad, later known as the Lehigh Valley Railroad. They were still putting up six- and eight-party telephone lines in the early 1900s. In 1936, when electricity was available for the first time, most people had two lights and a long extension cord for the rest of the home.

The history of Middlesex is scorched with three devastating fires. The first in 1899 burned both sides of Main Street, destroying 16 buildings. In 1907 fire burned the east side of the street. Two years later a large fire burned the west side of Main Street. Middlesex did not have a fire department until 1942. In 1969 Middlesex was the first fire company in New York State to have women firefighters with the same training and responsibilities as the men.

The 1960s also saw the diminishing of the once thriving poultry business in town. At one time several hundred people were employed in the production of both chickens and eggs. Today, one working dairy farm remains. The newest farmers in town are the Mennonites. Willie said zoning discourages any organized housing developments, but luxury homes continue to be built around the lake.

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