Superintendent of Highways Dylan Dewert and the Town of Corning

Laurie Mercer

They used to call Corning “Crystal City,” because of the Corning Glass Works, which employed much of the town. Dylan Dewert, superintendent, town of Corning is certainly one of them.

“My dad was a glass engineer, he fixed all of the machines in his department,” said Dylan, who learned from his father at an early age how to use machinery.

He said his dad quit school in the eighth grade and went to work in the factory at age 16. “My mother worked in another part of the plant,” he added.

Dylan still recalls the excitement of watching artisans creating artistic, one-of-a-kind hand-carved creations that were made by Corning’s Steuben Glass division. His admiration for fine craftsmanship remains. He said he remembers watching his neighbor, transfixed, as the man carefully chipped and ground away at a piece of glass — yielding the image of a trout rising in a trout stream with bubbles. “It was worth thousands of dollars,” Dylan said.

Now Steuben glass has been sold off and Corning Inc. manufacturers far less in Corning. The corporate headquarters remain as does the widely popular Museum of Glass, which draws a global audience to the valley town once called “Crystal City.”

The town of Corning highway department is responsible for 55.5 lane miles, plus winter maintenance on nearly six miles of Steuben County’s winding, heavily tree-lined routes. Of the town’s $1.1 million budget, CHIPS is responsible for $98,300. There is a full-time crew of six, including: Jeff Good (deputy), Ken Thomas, Ed Crawford, Rob Tyler, Jim Jone, Jeff Card, and part-timer Kyle Yochum.

As the third largest population center in Steuben County, Corning has a little over 6,000 residents, and unlike other area destinations, the town enjoys a vibrant tourist culture year-round. The numbers of luxury spa-like accommodations are many, including small inns and bed and breakfasts. Ethnic restaurants offer more adventuresome places to eat and relax. In addition to the Corning Museum of Glass, where thousands of priceless glass objects that have somehow survived from the earliest of ancient times are on view, visitors can watch artists blowing glass into today’s collectibles.

The Remington Museum of Western Art, in a nicely re-cast, circa 1800 brick building, is also worth a detour, as are the iconic attractions like watching car races of epic proportion at nearby Watkins Glen. High-speed races were once run through Watkins Glen’s city streets until a catastrophe involving spectators’ lives lost forced organizers to move the venue to a regulation race track, and a famous one at that.

A Long and Winding Road

While many of us were mowing our lawns on (fill in date), Dylan was dealing with a real live tornado. “I’d never seen one before,” he said. “One of my friends witnessed a perfect funnel cloud in Horseheads, and he called me. Then it was all over Facebook. I now believe it started in Addison and Irwin, out that way. It started and headed this way towards Elmira on a northeasterly path. On the radar you could see that it was one fast-moving storm.”

He said the colors — threatening shades of yellow, orange, and red — on the radar screen indicate weather that is pretty severe.

“When it came this way it was bouncing along, sheering a lot of tree tops.” Just one week later large numbers of fallen trees continued to drape the landscape. And instead of the typical resident demands about their toppled mailboxes, the issue of where a tree has landed is very much on Dylan’s mind. Reports of landscapers moving dead trees onto town property to be disposed of by Dylan’s crew have become an issue of concern because of the serious money that is involved in clearing vegetation.

Even previous to the storm, the town’s own chipping center, which welcomes branches from residents, had to be fenced in by a security fence with some razor wire because of the out-of-control dumping that was taking place here by outsiders whenever the highway garage was closed. It’s not pretty, but a ten-foot-high metal fence put an end to the misuse. “It was all wide open,” Dylan explained of the town’s brush drop off point. “We’d leave on Thursday in the summertime (they work four ten hour days in summer) and the brush pile would be all cleaned up. When we came back, the place was spilling over. We even found tree surgeons dumping stuff. The word was out on our deal here. People were coming from Elmira to dump brush.”

He knew the never-ending drop off brush dump had to stop. He said the cost of erecting the fence, while not cheap, has probably paid for itself in two years of savings.

Certainly the passing tornado made the brush site an ideal location to help create order out of the chaos that was affecting many people’s property. While touring the remaining damage, Dylan said he knew from watching the radar they were in for a storm. He quickly called in his crew members who were out ditching. All of them got out the chain saws and made sure they were gassed up, “Ready for use.”

“We took off as soon as it started raining.” He said that the sky had begun to get black around 3 o’clock in the afternoon.

“We were right in the middle of it. I think I witnessed the birth of a tornado,” he said without undo alarm. “I took one guy with me and we headed out. When we got around the corner there were six trees in the middle of the road. And things were going in a circular motion above the trees.” He said as they backed up, trees were falling behind them, but they managed to leave the area safely. Pictures? “There was no time for that.”

Just as quickly as it appeared the apparent tornado simply moved on, leaving lots of tree damage but thankfully no human causalities.

How Dylan Became Highway Superintendent

If there is one defining quality about Dylan the professional highway guy, it could be his fear of factory jobs. He went to school in Corning and attended automotive classes at Alfred Technical College for a year. Then he drifted briefly into Georgia. He said, “Being young and out of school I wanted to get away from home.” In nine months he was back home working for a muffler and brake company, even rising to manager. He said he still felt penned up inside, being indoors all day long. So he found that driving concrete hauling trucks out of Horseheads was better than being indoors.

The opening in the Highway Department presented itself in 2002 when the man who was his father-in-law at the time, introduced him to the superintendent, who hired him in 1989. Dylan describes his first boss in the garage as “cantankerous.” He said the former superintendent liked to micromanage everything.

Dylan’s style is more along the lines of being his own person. He said, “I have my way of doing things. If I see something that needs to be fixed I want to fix it. I need challenges. I get a lot of self satisfaction in accomplishing things.”

Dylan’s leadership allows him to embrace other ways of getting big things done on a limited budget. Shared services with other areas help out a lot. For example, the village covers some limited mileage with salt and plowing because it’s easier for them to do so, even though the roads are on the town’s inventory. The town in turn helps the village run more efficiently.

“Since I’ve been superintendent,” he said, “my budget has stayed pretty flat. I try to stay at 2 to 3 percent increase at the most.” He said downsizing employees helped, but he still had to cut the budget 10 percent this year.

“I’ve never run the department in the red,” he said. He suggests you can gain an advantage in purchasing when there is a good time to cut costs. As a tip to other superintendents he advises, “One thing I’ve tried to do with snow is to buy more materials when the cost is advantageous, often the year before I’ll probably need to use it.” Buying out of season saves his town money, and there’s lots of room for stockpiling. “Through the dead part of the year the gravel companies are going to cut you a deal. So you might want to buy in February when it’s $13 to $14 a ton.”

“One thing that is never going to change, and it is guaranteed, is that stuff is going to cost more tomorrow then it does today,” he adds.

“Some people in town question what they get for their town tax. They get a lot more than they realize because the town and village often work together making this a better place to live. We just don’t make a big hoopla about it.”

Have the roads changed much in town? He said, “I don’t like to do things haphazardly. If we have to strip the road down to the nuts and bolts, that’s what we do.” He recalls the town roads when he first became superintendent as a “calico patch.” He said, “We’d spend two or three days a week through the whole summer patching roads with a 1960 Cat grader. The patching plan, he said, was pretty much determined by responding to the angriest phone calls they took from residents.

“When I first became superintendent [2002], I looked at what my goal was, and it was that within 15 years I’d have the road infrastructure in excellent shape where it just needed maintenance, no big repairs or total re-dos.” He is actually a little bit ahead of his schedule.

Romancing the River

It’s called “building out of the river” here, which means the mighty Chemung River that runs right through town becomes a source of quality washed gravel and stone to be used as construction material elsewhere. With federal environmental protection acts protecting that kind of mining today, it is still possible to “build out of the river” and produce low-cost, partially recycled roads with the excavated fill.

Here how it happened: Dylan said, “Last year [2011] we had a company come in and get the bid to do some erosion work over on Route 86. They wanted to know if anybody would take 12,000 to 15,000 tons of river gravel. We’ve built some roads out of it, and man it is real good stuff. The town profited by having close to $25,000 in material given to them. We’ve already used half of it.”

Another unlikely recycling of materials unique to Corning includes a small mountain made from broken up ceramic cookware, with and without patterns that were rejected at the factory. The town highway barn’s ample grounds has become the source of yet another high-quality, although strange-looking, free-for-the-taking landfill.

Many years from now archeologists may scratch their heads when they find excavations all over the region with broken pottery.

There’s a Lot of History Here

It may have been the heart attack Dylan had 12 years ago, which required open heart surgery, but his take on life is one of simply meeting his own sincerely felt expectations. When he forgets something, he is likely to say something corny like, “I better eat more blueberries.”

Exhibiting a nice easygoing demeanor he said, “I just want to make it through life comfortably.” He built his own log home at age 23. He still lives there today with Rhonda; a good woman whom he said “takes good care of me.” Rhonda works in food service for the school district.

His oldest boy from his first marriage is Dylan, age 23, and on the Geek Squad for Best Buy. Eleven year old Dalton shares his dad’s total enthusiasm for dirt modified racing with Dylan in the driver’s seat.

Dylan is passionate about being outdoors, especially deer hunting. He and his brother hold onto 42 acres of the original family farm as a sentiment to simpler times when they were young and growing up. He lets a neighbor graze his horses to keep the grass down.

“My dad always had dozers and tractors. I’ve been running heavy equipment with him ever since I was a kid. I always liked digging in the dirt. I always said I got my operator’s license from papa.”

He has 24 years with the department and will one day turn his attention full time to the part-time job he has today — an excavation business he launched five years ago. His is an elected position, and he said, “When you are elected to office it’s pretty close to being self employed. It kind of woke me up a little bit when one of my own guys ran against me in the last election. You never know. No matter for what reason, you could be just standing there out of a job.” Fortunately Dylan won with 82 percent of the vote.

In 2006 he served as president of the Steuben County Highway Superintendents Association.

Looking Back in Time

“We have remnants of an old canal in town,” Dylan said while describing just one simple road that goes over a now grassy, manmade dent in the earth. The newly re-built bridge is just one example of shared services that save the town lots of money because Steuben County helped with the construction. “Years ago you wouldn’t do that. You had to outsource your precast items. In just the past few years the county has offered their help to the towns. I know it saved Corning a ton of money working this way.”

The Chemung Feeder Canal it was called. There were locks over in Gibson. Corning was not yet Corning; the excitement was all about Gibson back then. In time he said Corning started to grow and Gibson stopped in its tracks and deflated in terms of local influence.

“It’s amazing how roads started,” he said. The first ones were often Indian paths. “All creatures tend to take the path of least resistance,” he continues, “which is why roads around here go around the steep hills and not over them.”

Modern, Earth- Disturbing, Man-Made Seismic Events

Dylan also speculates that some earth tamping equipment used on some roads to spot possible reserves of natural gas below also have caused some asphalt roads to sink in places where they have never sunk before. If there is a correlation, he agrees it would be hard to prove scientifically.

Even Newer Equipment

Mid-summer finds the town of Corning highway garage crew too busy following up on the recent tornado to find time to put some license plates on the new, green 2013 Peterbilt. Last year they purchased a brand new New Holland mower. Dylan said, “We are staying on top of our equipment, but the equipment is used a lot and gets old in a hurry.” All equipment, especially the trucks, is “kept as clean as I keep my own personal vehicles.”

Equipment including the GMC 500 makes quick work of the roads in town. “All trucks are now front unloaders for sand. The GMC 500 made in 2009 has a stainless steel slide-in sander for a six-wheeler. We had that mounted on the back. We use that for our salt route. We use straight salt in the valley, no sand.”

The crew tends to four bridges in town. They replaced one bridge last year that goes right over the old feeder canal that once brought prosperity to the town. They had been red-flagged on the structure. Dylan said the existing bridge, an old-style steel I-beam, was dismantled and sold for scrap, bringing a few thousand dollars back to the town.

They worked with Steuben County on putting a new box culvert in place. The box culvert is the largest size the county can construct — 6 by 18 ft. of concrete — to allow a free span in its assembly. The project took about a month and a half to complete.

The Highway Garage Is a Work in Progress

There is nothing fancy about the town of Corning’s highway barn, built in 1999, which Dylan said has never been big enough. “The supervisor at the time determined the final size, and we can never work around the snowplows easily.” The facility has 80 by 200 ft. of total space with some of it in use as cold storage. All equipment is stored indoors. Salt storage is sufficient for 1,400 tons.

Being his own boss is what attracted Dylan to the superintendent’s job. It is with a certain sense of satisfaction that he can see his 15-year plan for the town of Corning’s highways to be coming in ahead of the deadline and within budget.

More difficult than getting needed equipment has been hanging onto trained help. Dylan has recently lost three workers to another highway facility with slightly higher pay rates. He admits, “It’s hard on us right now. Plus we have another guy out with knee surgery.”

He has 24 years with the department, 11 of them as superintendent. He said, “Those 11 years went by so fast!” He anticipates two more terms coming up if all goes well in the elections. “Every four years,” he said, “I have to get real political. There is no unemployment waiting for you if you are an elected official.”

“Right now I’m on a high with the Town Board,” he said. “I’ve never felt a board that was so committed to what we do for the town. They trust us to do what’s right.”

You can see his free thinking mind at work when Dylan took a recent phone call from a resident. He said the man just put in a new house but the septic system wasn’t working properly. They were going to have to do it again and he wanted a temporary pipe put in on the corner of his property to help protect it when the big equipment comes in and out.

Though it was not on the job description, Dylan was more than willing to work with the resident to prevent any problems resulting from the work on town roads. He said, “We’ll put the pipe in and take it out when they are done, or leave it there.”

Is this a more complicated request than most? “The resident is an engineer so he is thinking about it,” he said.

Another call, this time from his crew working clean up from the tornado, shared that they had just accidentally cut into a Time Warner wire with a raised backhoe in front of a home. Once again, Dylan was philosophical when he replied on the two-way radio, “Just tie the loose wire [which may have been hanging too low to begin with] around the telephone pole. They don’t use cable in that house anyway.”

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**Sidebar**

The Early History of Crystal City

Just upstream from what is now the town of Corning, the Cohocton and Tioga Rivers merge to form the Chemung, which flows through downtown. The river was an important source of navigation (easier than a horse and wagon) and power. The river also helped bring the 1972 flood that put the city of Corning underwater. People still talk about that weather event when on Friday, June 23, at 4:00 a.m., the dam broke; 18 people were killed and millions in damages occurred.

During that event, Hurricane Agnes’s leftover fury dropped 15 in. or more of rain in the area within a short time. Located in a major valley, the city was deluged with runoff from the hills as well as the cresting river. Flooding is now controlled by a system of dams upstream.

Hard to believe, but Corning is part of a land deal from the King of England to Massachusetts, which was later released by that commonwealth to New York. The area in what became Steuben County was then sold to Phelps and Gorham — early mega developers of native lands. The real estate with good land and flowing fresh water was then resold to Robert Morris and Sir William Pultney. Today Steuben County encompasses an area of largely rural, 1,500 sq. mi.

Because the surface of the land is a continuation of the Alleghany Mountains, the rolling ridges are characteristic of many roads. In the beginning, before roads, when Indian paths showed the way, the Tioga, Canisteo, Coshocton and Chemung Rivers drained the region and helped create low cost transportation for early settlers, commerce, and fish.

Pretty soon the old Indian trails could not withstand the demands of traffic created by eager settlers to the area. The indigenous tribes had been routed by General Sullivan’s army, which landed in Lake Ontario, aided by Indian scouts from warring tribes. They forced nearly 3,000 Seneca from an area near Victor. That battle actually bleached this area of upstate from Native American to white. The military action was completely determined by an eagerness to monopolize the fur trade, in much the same way that wars are fought over oil today.

The first white trader in the area near Corning built a log cabin in 1786 in what is now Painted Post. One of the earliest roads, determined in 1792 by a Captain Williams, went from Northumberland on the Susquehanna to Williamsburg (now Mount Morris) on the Genesee River, which flows into Lake Ontario and from there, through locks into the Atlantic Ocean leading to Europe if necessary. It was a 150-mi. road critical to the growth of settlement and commerce around Corning, including building more roads.

Water mills were the first utilization of power other than manual. Early mills were often used to lumber the neighboring countryside to make way for the eventual footprint of a prosperous early-American community. Early settlers here had to be hunters, and traders, and farmers, but also manufacturers that made most of the things they needed with raw materials that were provided, often in abundance, by nature.

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