Highway Superintendent Don Divens and the Town of Hornby

Laurie Mercer

If you have never heard of Steuben County’s town of Hornby, you are not alone. The tiny town without a store or gas station is gently tucked away into wooded hills. Hornby is not really on the way to anywhere. The largest farm in town (2,000 acres) is now a private hunting preserve. The landowner lives out of state. Formerly productive farmland is allowed to become overgrown with brush and invasive multi-flora roses.

Still Hornby, a town of about 40 square miles, is only about six miles from Corning, so it’s an ideal bedroom community for the rurally inclined. Without town water and sewer and not much flat open land, housing developments here seem unlikely. The one or two new homes built each year are one of a kind and generally in the $350,000 range.

The highway crew also is the largest employer in Hornby, which causes Town Highway Superintendent Don Divens, a man who once attended the town’s one-room schoolhouse, to say, “The highway crew lives in a glass house here. Everybody notices what we are doing.” Don has been on the job for 35 years.

Hornby has neither grown greatly nor shrunk seriously since the early 1800s. It has no stop signs, streetlights, or businesses along Main Street. The only store in town just left because it couldn’t expand along the creek. Hornby doesn’t really have a traditional Main Street. But both town churches are well attended, and folks stop by the highway garage to chat.

The town hasn’t had a tax increase in the past five years,” said Don.

“As the largest employer in town, I’m pretty proud of that.”

One example of belt tightening occurred in 2007, when the crew helped build the new Town Hall with Don working as construction superintendent. He estimated that having highway crew people involved probably saved the town about $15,000. He added, “Fortunately, we had a good contractor. Everybody kind of worked together. It turned out very well.”

Hornby has nearly 63 lane miles plus 20 miles they plow for Steuben County. Gravel roads outnumber paved roads by about two to one. The budget of $1,006,313 includes a CHIPS allocation of $120,000. The crew of five — Wayne Bills (deputy), Ron Divens (assistant deputy), Dan Kirk, Lloyd Lanning, and Fred Bills are often assisted by a man who works under a grant from Social Services doing part-time labor mowing the cemeteries and parks. Typical of a town strong on long-standing traditions, this part-timer, who rides a bike to work, has been with the department for 24 years.

“When I came, the guys were making $3 per hour,” Don said of the early days in the highway department. “Now they have uniforms, personal and sick days, overtime, and good benefits. Today, these are good jobs.”

Don said when he first arrived there was no management in place, but that the existing crew was “very receptive to having somebody in as superintendent who would go the extra mile for them.”

Don noticed changes to the rural town in terms of the town’s roads. Many folks who used to work modest-sized family farms are often still living here after selling off the land. Hornby has transferred its focus from farming to becoming a country-based, bedroom community for people who work in Corning. The only real business in town is a campground. The roads, too, have evolved.

“There were no paved roads in town when I started,” Don said. “It was all gravel. We now have about 42 miles of gravel and 20 lane miles that are pavement.”

He said his goal is to pave one mile and recondition another mile each year.

When he started here as a laborer he admitted the equipment was junk. “When I started [1978], there were two trucks older than I was. Old Oshkoshes. It would take you two days to get all of the roads plowed.”

He said the Town Board was always a pleasure to work with. After Don became superintendent, they bought some used equipment and started organizing plow routes. Hornby was an early adopter of the idea of 10-hour days.

The equipment list kept improving. He remembered the town’s first diesel truck in 1981 and the first new 10-wheeler in 1994. The equipment has “let us accomplish many projects we would struggle to complete before.”

“My kids were very young when I first started, and the phone would ring at home all the time. Now, literally, I get no calls at home anymore.”

He said a major upgrade in equipment has helped a lot, plus, “people have learned how we operate in winter and summer. We get requests, but only maybe one irate person a year. Maybe the issue is something we didn’t happen to see, but it’s very rare to hear a complaint. About the only complaint now is from people who just moved here asking when their road will be paved.”

If they were to take a look at the town’s budget, the use of gravel or oil and stone on less-well-trafficked gravel roads would be easily explained.

Equipment wise — thanks to shared services — Don said Hornby is in good shape. He said four brand new pieces of equipment are in the garage, adding, “We just took delivery on a new excavator.”

Gas Wells Hit Town, Tax Base Improves

Don said people in the town of 1,700 also have been blessed with natural gas wells, which in recent times of deep well drilling has helped support the tax base in a weak economy and where new home construction is limited. Historically the town had shallow producing gas wells, but none were still in production before the current boom. The wells now pumping are called “deep wells” at 10,000 feet. Some are located in the area where the shallow wells once stood.

Don explained the town’s good fortune, “In 2000, we had some gas wells hit, and that produced a lot of tax money for the town. The Town Board knew that in the case of gas wells you might be getting $100,000 in revenue one year and in 10 years it might only be $50,000. So, they decided to make a prudent investment. Some of the money was used to upgrade the highway equipment and to build a new Town Hall.”

Don said just the improved equipment has seriously cut down on the money previously spent on repairs and replacement parts. And the expanded highway garage brings all of the equipment indoors, which adds to its longevity and makes even routine tasks easier to accomplish.

“Now the crew can work on their trucks indoors,” Don said of a system where each truck is assigned to a specific operator. “Little things like mud flaps and windshield wipers. I find they have more time to putter when they can work comfortably indoors. It sure beats parking the trucks out in cold storage when you come in at 3 o’clock in the morning to climb into a warm truck.”

The 40 x 80-ft. addition to the highway shop was constructed by the crew with the exception of pouring the cement floor. The older existing garage is 60 x 60 ft. Using the highway crew kept the cost for the addition at $40,000. The 60 x 100-ft. salt storage shed also was done using the crew for $56,000.

“The people in Hornby are pretty frugal, and we do our best to give them good service. In 2011, we didn’t have any new homes built. We typically see permits for about two new houses each year.”

One owner from out of state keeps what was once the largest farm in town — 2,000 acres — for use as a private hunting preserve. One dairy farm and two beef farmers continue to tend to the town’s agricultural roots.

Formerly fertile fields are reverting to nature. “Being an old farmer at heart I kind of hate to see it,” said Don. I remember when we farmed that field and now there are trees there that are several feet around.”

Even a Blade of Grass

Can Make a Difference

Like a lot of people who were once farmers, Don tends to take notice when things change, like the traffic pattern in his rural town.

“When they built the bypass to Corning it seemed to change the traffic pattern a little.”

As a result, his plans for repaving are based on density of the population and which roads are most heavily trafficked, and the bypass caused him to rethink his long-range goals a little bit.

While snowstorms just come and go, Don said there is an ongoing need for ditching.

“That’s why we bought our own new Hitachi excavator. We’ve got two of them now. Ditching is pretty much a full-time concern. Up until a few years ago we had all heavy steel pipes. Now when we replace them, we use plastic,” he said.

He thinks plastic seems to “flow better,” the material is cheaper and easier to work with.

“With heavy steel you had to have a special machine just to load the pipes, especially if you were doing a full length.” With plastic, two men and a pickup truck can deliver materials with a backhoe for installation.

Don said that the steel pipes were not failing as much as conditions are changing in the town’s watershed.

“A tree way up in the woods will fall, and it will change the way the water goes from this pipe to that pipe. Plus farmers put in more diversion ditches, which get the water to the pipe quicker. On a good field you might have three to four inches of dirt, and then it’s clay.

He added that many roads have valleys so, “you’ve just got to babysit them when there’s heavy rain.”

Don has seen pipes back up caused by a single blade of grass.

“The minute a storm comes up we automatically split the crew up and go up one road and down the other to keep the ditches working.”

Shared Services

With Campbell

With all big equipment costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, it may be surprising to visit Hornby, a small town by any measure, with its nice collection of fairly new excavators, tractors, trailer, rubber-tired rollers, chippers, and other productivity-enhancing tools. In addition to shared manpower on special projects with Tom Austin, superintendent in the nearby Town of Campbell Highway Department, equipment sharing has helped both small towns purchase the tools they need to do an even better job.

Don explained, “It all started in 2000 when then Senator Randy Kuhl was spearheading a cleanup of the Chemung River in Corning. We had just bought our own screening plant, so we set up our operation on site there. We helped clean the river assisted by neighboring towns.”

Thousands of tons of gravel were processed for state agencies and towns including DOTs, a prison camp, different organizations, and various towns.

“You can’t take much out of the creeks anymore. We have a couple of creeks that will produce some gravel, but the last couple years they haven’t. We buy all of our gravel.”

So the river cleaning was a budget booster.

“When I was done I was asked what the town of Hornby needed, and we received funding for our new shop addition. That was the beginning of shared services with Campbell.”

Don said he and the town of Campbell’s superintendent would both apply for funding and combine those funds for equipment that both towns needed and could share. Crews from each town work on construction projects together. Don also does some trucking for the town of Erwin.

“I found out how shared services works,” he said of the Chemung River cleanup. Campbell is just 12 miles away.

Buck Hollow Bridge Gets a Facelift

The economy has changed a lot of how things get done around here on the highways. Don said the majority of bridge work used to be done entirely by county crews. Due to a reduction in county work force for those projects, town crews are more heavily involved in bridge projects in Steuben County to the benefit of both agencies. Of Hornby’s Buck Hollow Bridge reconstruction, which was done by aiding the county engineers on the project, Don said, “I had people, sometimes two or three of them, on the site every day.”

The project took about two and a half months to complete, opening in mid-October. The cost to the town was about $20,000.

Buck Hollow had not worn out or been flagged, but it was on the county’s list of replacement projects. Private landowners allowed a temporary detour near the bridge, as well as a more permanent turnaround place above the span for highway vehicles and school buses to use.

Neighbors, in fact, have a strong connection to the bridge. The crew had homemade treats from time to time.

“Some people from Arizona who own the land adjacent to the bridge that we needed for a detour were the most cooperative. They have a summer residence here and really love it.”

The woman brought home-baked goodies for the crew. Even the county engineer said this was the friendliest place where they had built a bridge in a long, long time.

“It worked out real well,” said Don.

The same neighbor has created some nice, decorative stone work along the creek side. With his crew nearby moving earth around seeking to minimize the damage caused by the detour, Don was enthusiastic about the bridge project.

“We have no records of any kind on it. We kind of figured the bridge was built in the 1960s or early 1970s. It came apart pretty hard. It was very well enforced.”

Don called it a “P&M” bridge and one of four of them in town. He said that in Steuben County any bridge over 25 ft. in width is termed a “P&M” bridge.

“Now all of our P&M bridges are brand new. It will be a long time before we have to do anything about them again.”

He said the town is responsible for digging out the gravel before the county builds the structure, including a metal paneled deck. Then the town is responsible for putting the work surface on the bridge, backfilling it, and paying for the guardrail, which the county installs. Hornby is truly off the beaten path.

“Shape it up. Make it look good,” are about the only directions Don offers to the crew clearing up the detour.

“They do not need to be babysat,” he said.

There are some roads at 16 ft. that need widening, and he wants to continue paving. Something is always going on. He said that there is an unwritten rule in his department that everybody will be on call for winter. “Winter,” he said, “is a pretty important part of our job. When everybody here works out of town, if they miss a day of work it upsets them, so winter maintenance is very important in all kinds of weather.”

Centered in Hornby

“I grew up here. I was born here about a mile from where I live now,” Don said. His small dairy family farm is about a half mile from his home today. The family “sold out” the cows and some land in 1966.

Educated for two years in a one-room schoolhouse (still standing) that his father also attended, Don is well qualified when he said that if we still had the one-room school system in place, “kids would be a lot smarter.” He described a small room with about 20 kids of all ages. You walked to school, which he said was “uphill both ways.” In winter they rode their hand sleds. Then in 1957, Corning consolidated the school district and he was sent to Painted Post with “warm rooms, bright lights, and the school bus picked you up at the door!”

Besides being a keen fan of local history, Don also represents a time when education was a lot more fluid and adventuresome. He graduated from high school early at age 17 because he never had to go to Kindergarten. “If you could count to 10, tied your shoes, and knew your ABCs you started in first grade instead.”

Following school Don worked on a dairy.

“They sold out and I became a construction equipment operator. I have never driven more than seven or eight miles to go to work.”

His wife, Freda, now retired, is ready to hook on the fifth wheel and go out to see the county with Don, but he’s not ready yet.

“Retirement? Then what? I wonder about that,” he said. His interest in repairing multi-trade, small equipment is likely to grow into a second career.

Their children — son, Ron, is in the highway department, plus Don and Kelly — all live nearby. The boys hunt with their dad; photographs document a father-and-son’s quest for wild boar out of state.

There is a sense of efficiency about Don. And some sentimentality. For example, there is a beautiful very old American flag on a nice brass stand taking up valuable space in his cramped office. It looks like the flags that once graced every public school assembly. When the new Town Hall was built, the old, hand-stitched, 100 percent cotton flag was replaced. Don saved the original flag for his office. Patriotism runs deep in Hornby.

Before he got into highway work, Don worked on the construction of a high end apartment complex in Irwin in 1970. When it was completed, he took over maintenance and grounds on the complex until 1978. His entry to the highway world came via his activity in the Fire Department.

“I had to get elected. I ran against the incumbent superintendent. I actually beat him two to one.”

“The equipment was pretty rough. There wasn’t a lot getting done back then. There was no maintenance schedule. So when I came in the guys were very receptive to some organization.”

But one can never be too confident in the face of an election in a town of just 1,700 people. Don usually has competition for the job, and one time he actually lost a primary. He ran as an independent instead. He still got elected. How did that happen? “Everybody told me I had nothing to worry. We came back and won two to one on the Independent ticket.”

When he is running for office, what does he offer the voter? He said, “To give them even better service for their money. To improve the roads as much as we can.”

Besides his family, Don is the 2005 champion of street stock car racing at the Woodhall Raceway. He retired from racing with a championship and sold off the gear, including the racing vehicles, shortly after. He said of his former obsession with cars, which he shared with his sons, “It’s like a part-time job. We were fortunate to have some pretty good sponsorships.” He still follows the sport but from the bleachers instead of the pits.

Wind Turbines? Pot Bust Hauling?

Upstate is becoming an epicenter in the search of greener utility options. Just about anything that jiggles media interest and promises a smaller carbon footprint will find an audience. Don said a few years ago Hornby was dropped for consideration on wind turbine projects due to strong and vocal opponents in the town. He isn’t sure that the same fate would greet a new proposal today. The wind industry took root in nearby Cohocton instead. Turbines — often looking like lazy puppets — can be seen from 390 South. Don said, “We still have three test towers, which indicate some hope for people who are for it. It would be a big boost to the town. Cohocton has cut its taxes quite a lot. If those test towers ever disappear we’ll know our chances of it coming here are done. If not, there is still hope.”

Rather than upsetting, Don finds wind turbines “intriguing,” and far more appealing than “gas lines that cut big swaths in the woods all up and down. The gas lines look like the dickens.”

Recalling memorable moments on the job during his career the pot bust is right up there.

He explained, “In the early 1980s we helped haul out a 10-ton load of pot a deer hunter had spotted growing in a corn field. Law enforcement had us come over and help them harvest and load it. That was kind of a learning experience.”

As for tips for other superintendents he said, “If we didn’t do our own work most of the time we wouldn’t have a new building and better equipment and working conditions. For example, the salt storage shed we built for $56,000. We had estimates of $100,000, and that’s just for the walls!”

The town uses salt and sand on the roads, 10 percent salt to sand. He said the days when contractors would truck the sand to the highway garage have changed because the “price of fuel has changed all that.” Transportation becomes a bigger budget issue with every gasoline hike.

Don enjoys working with the board to set priorities. He also champions friends he has made through the Association of Highway Superintendents, at whose meetings he also had perfect attendance last year. “Sometimes just talking to somebody teaches you more than you learn in class.”

As for his eventual retirement he said, “I’ve traveled to many states and there isn’t a thing here that’s going to hurt you (in Hornby). Seldom the weather. Very few bugs. It’s not a bad area to live in.” Don, a fairly faithful churchgoer, and Hornby are heading down that highway of life together. The highway department has a big influence in the town.

And as superintendent of the largest employer in town Don frequently says, “As I tell the guys, we work in a glass house. Everybody sees us.”

Hornby — A Town That Time Forgot

Hornby is actually a whittled down piece of land that was once a part of a region that included Vermont. Within Hornby, which itself is modest size, are the locations and communities of Dyke, Ferenbaugh, and the hamlet of Hornby. In 1683 when counties were established in New York state, the present Steuben County was part of Albany County. This enormous county once encompassed the northern part of New York state and all of the present state of Vermont—extending westward to the Pacific Ocean. Eventually Steuben County and its various cities, towns, and villages, came to be.

The name comes from John Hornby, a landowner of the Pultney Tract, one of the many land deals that drew the boundaries on early maps. Little by little boundaries changed, and in 1826, Hornby was erected from the old town of Painted Post. The whittling down process continued. In 1831 the town of Campbell was taken from Hornby. Another part of the town was annexed to Orange, Schuyler County.

Settlement began with two brothers, Asa and Uriah Nash, in 1814. It was called the Nash Settlement. The Platt Settlement and the Palmer Settlement were nearby. Nash Lake, a seemingly bottomless body of spring water, covered 60 acres and had plenty of fish. Soon taverns and saw mills were constructed. Marriages, births, and burials became more routine.

Even a very early written history of the town citing well-tilled farmlands could be captured today. It reads, “the hills open to admit the beautiful valley of Post Creek, which is divided by the east line of the town and the county.” The writer recalls a time when hogs fattened on beechnuts, wolves often killed sheep, and the Native Americans were “never numerous nor troublesome.”

By the river there was a general store then called Bonham’s after the proprietor whom history records as a “good fellow.” Goods were brought in wagons from Newburg on the Hudson. Prized items were bake-kettles and skillets (no stoves then), ammunition, tea, coffee, and notions. Often times a barter of goods for trade would include hides and grains, which were then shipped via one-time-only arks built just for springtime river transit. Once the goods got to their destination, the ark was dismantled and sold for lumber. Maple sugar here was another prized item for barter.

A lack of serviceable roads could hurt development. When a local landowner complained about the transportation issue while making a tax payment in Bath, the agent informed him that if he would open a road, the work thus done would apply toward payment for his lands, at the rate of $1 per rod. While his neighbors were skeptical, the man constructed 180 rods of road that year and 89 rods the next one. The road reportedly opened along the valley below the high-water mark and subsequently had to be moved to the foot of the hill. Before this road was created it took two days to get to Corning just six miles away.

The year 1827 in the town’s history marks a “vigorous” opening of roads. Surveys were taking place all over town and “nearly 300 days of road work” were laid out that year. A commissioner of highways had been elected at a local tavern just the year before.

The eastern part of town along what is now Route 414 began to grow thanks to people like Thomas Oldfield and Samuel Lilly who cleared their land and opened the road that now leads to Corning.

Cheaper freight came with the railroad that ran from Corning to Watkins Glen. Once the woods were cleared, the opportunity to use the water power of two converging creeks as a sawmill was realized around 1840. Early times were rough enough to have a need for a high fence to protect sheep from wolves and wildcats.

While the wolves and wildcats are long gone, the beauty of the pristine landscape surrounding Hornby endures. Parts of the town, in fact, are overgrown former farm fields and pastures without farmers and without cows, now reverting back to what they looked like before the pioneers arrived.

Progress, for Hornby, may be leaving things alone.

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