Highway Superintendent Gene Dinsmore and the Town of Lysander

Laurie Mercer - PROFILE CORRESPONDENT

“I love my Rolodex,” said Gene Dinsmore in his tidy office, a former utilities building in Lysander, which is about 10 miles northwest of Syracuse. He is a little bit sheepish about the once traditional way of keeping in touch with people and their phone numbers with note cards mounted on a cylindrical device. But Lysander’s highway garage manages to keep up with technology in the office operations thanks to Cindy Rahle.

“I’m old fashioned, I know. I’m just an old fashioned guy,” he said after just 10 months on the superintendent position, after long careers in other industries as well as a deep commitment to the Army Reserve.

Hold onto your iPods — the Rolodex in question is a classy looking plastic model filled with hand-written notations and business cards. More important to operations, the content carefully weds the previous supervisor’s Rolodex and Gene’s. He is collaborative and appreciative of informed input from anybody, including his crew. It may be symbolic of Gene’s style of management, which is both relaxed and personal, yet he has an underlying determination when it comes to getting the job done.

Even after 10 ten months here he seems to be at home at the desk or out in the truck checking on his crew’s work. They seem to like that Gene is determined but not always serious.

In the highway garage there is a large pad of paper illustrating the schedule of events for each day. For example, various projects to be completed by his team include two employees off to attend erosion school, a truck brake job, water samples from an ice rink, and any person’s name who has the day off. Due to Gene’s army training, he is a firm believer in continuing education for everybody. Sometimes the training is mandatory for getting a job done according to code — for example, in the area of erosion control.

“Somebody on the ground at a job site has to have had this training,” he said. “It can’t be the guy in the backhoe.”

In response, several people in the crew are now trained to watch for issues related to erosion when they are out doing highway work.

Other classes attended by Lysander highway workers have been on mechanics — things like clutch maintenance. Education and training is something this lifetime army reservist firmly believes in.

“I believe in keeping up with the latest methods,” he said. He also instituted a program to have everybody’s hearing tested on the job. Even though his management style is reflective of his military service, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and even came to work on St. Patrick’s Day wearing a large reflective bow tie that is now on his bulletin board.

Gene acknowledged that coming from the “outside” to the position of highway superintendent is becoming more commonplace, but is not a cake walk by any means. Traditionally, the highway garage was staffed by former farm boys who knew their way around heavy equipment and had a decent work ethic. In the past few years Superintendent’s Profile has featured highway superintendents who came to the position after many years in other fields including law enforcement. Gene’s own DNA on the job probably comes from his Army Reserves training, which began in 1972. Although new on the job, his direction in the highway department has made a lot of people, especially the crew, glad that he came. Dan Parish, motor equipment operator, said the difference is like day and night.

“We have a respect for Gene that wasn’t predicted by the town board,” Dan said. “He came in with no highway experience at all, yet he set up goals, prioritized jobs, upgraded the condition of our equipment, as well as the facilities. He always puts safety first. And that is all in 10 months. More work has been accomplished since he took office than in the past six years.”

Appointed by the town board to fill out a one-year term, Gene came to the job in May 2012, when the previous superintendent chose to take early retirement. Gene, a long-time Lysander resident, then had to run for the office, which he did, handily beating his opponent by 1,100 votes. Voting was the easy part he said, compared to learning how to motivate and work with the crew. His predecessor had 16 years on the job with six as superintendent, so the crew was pretty comfortable with what was expected of them.

“I was appointed in May, and then in November I had to run on my own to fill the remaining year of his term, which I am in now. This November I have to run for a four-year term of my own.”

He said what helped get him elected was a good, low-cost PR move when he wrote a series of articles for the local newspaper about his goals for the town.

“No doubt about it, I have to prove myself to the crew,” Gene said. “I was not from within. I explained to them that my grandfather was superintendent for Grand Isle, where I grew up, and an uncle on my mother’s side was a superintendent, so I was somewhat familiar with what the job usually requires in terms of skill sets and work. I had already been involved with Republican politics so I understand how elections are run. Going for the job you might say I was comfortable with what the town board was looking for.”

Finally, and most important, he said, “At my stage in life I love it here, and I thought I’d like to give back to my community a little bit. The town of Lysander had a situation where they needed a superintendent. They took me up on my offer to do the job. I’m glad they did. I like a challenge,” said Gene, who, before he retired from the military, repeatedly asked to be sent to war; a request his superiors denied. Instead he trained up to 7,000 soldiers in the proper handling of poisons by working seven-day work weeks. He said that the army fully expected Saddam Hussein and others to be more proactive in their use of poisons against our troops, so the training was critical to operations. He is very proud that his son, with 22 years of active duty, has experienced combat during five different tours in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said when he got the superintendent’s job he could still do the physical requirements (including push ups, “give me 10”), for army recruits.

“After I got here,” Gene said, “I realized that the job can be a lot of work. It’s not the equipment that’s the challenge as much as leading a crew of 18 full- and part-time, often strong-willed individuals who have been here forever.”

He credits his patience, his army-centered values and training, Cindy his office assistant (“She is a good soldier; it’s all about getting the work done.”), and his weekly Friday breakfast meetings with area superintendents as helping this newcomer to what truckers would say is to, “keep it between the lines.”

Lysander’s highway department budget is $1,844,593 with $103,000 coming from CHIPS. The town itself has 97 lane miles of roads to plow and mow plus another 30 or so for the county, giving him 255 lane miles in all for winter’s work.

One recurring problem is vandals stealing the sign on “Dingle Hold Road.” Another challenge was the contamination of the barn’s underground storage of fuel, which resulted in blowing up one of the trucks. Gene points to the sample drawn from their supply and its creepy yellow segments of pollution and fuel, which he keeps on his office desk. Next on his list is a re-do of the entire fueling structure.

How They Get the Job Done, Reasonably

“Snow? The normal here is around 120 inches,” he said. “There is lake effect from Lake Ontario and a little bit from Lake Erie. We are right on some kind of thermal condition that puts the northern and southern parts of the town in completely different weather patterns, sometimes accounting for six inches or more difference in snowfall. We also have a lot of wind. This is farm country with plenty of open fields, so there is plenty of drifting.”

His response is to have routine operations include a late afternoon or early morning check on drifting. While there is no call for bare road conditions here the town’s goal is for safe, passable roads.

“We concentrate our efforts on what we call the school bus hours — roughly beginning at 6:30 am. During the following 12 hours we try and maintain our highest level of service. With only one shift, and call-ins for overtime, we have to prioritize, and our choice is to be slightly less aggressive in the evening and nighttime hours. If the citizens ever asked for bare roads, it would cost the town an additional several hundred thousand dollars.”

Lysander uses straight salt in its trucks; the salt barn holds 12,000 tons. Gene said he also has a sand pile “just in case,” but that people don’t like them using sand because, “It makes a mess.”

He said the town’s equipment is adequate for present day needs, including a one-year-old John Deere payloader and a one-year-old tandem dump truck.

Rolling Hills, Lots

of Water

Gene has lived in Lysander since 1982. “They have always done a good job here of making the roads passable. Our new residential housing — and there is lots of it — is mostly clustered in the eastern end of town. Development has been on a 30-year binge. Many residents commute to Syracuse where the defense industry, among others, provides solid jobs. This is a strong community. We could survive without Syracuse.”

The town of Lysander’s employers have a few important players including a large Budweiser brewery that he said is “going gangbusters” producing microbrews as well as their flagship product in one of the premier breweries in the company’s chain. Bud is headquartered just down the road from the highway barn. McClain Northeast, a large network of food and tobacco distributors owned by Wal-Mart, is also centered here. Gene said he pays special attention to the highways used by the large trucks coming and going from the industrial parks just a stone’s throw from the highway garage.

Gene is a history buff who just decorated the office hallway with large framed portraits of Millard Fillmore, this nation’s 13th president, who grew up around here. He remarked that the popularity of Lysander for business is one of geography. “The reason there is industry centered here is because of our location. Interstate 81 runs from Pennsylvania and ends up in Tennessee. Then we’ve got the NYS Thruway going east and west. So this is ideal for distribution. For example, Rite Aid has a big distribution center here.”

He said the crew pays special attention to the highway needs for the numerous 18-wheelers in transit to and from here. He said the heavily used truck routes are “the first thing we hit in the morning and the last thing we do a second time in the evening before we come back to the highway garage. Those companies are good neighbors, and they provide a lot of good jobs.”

Water is a big feature in Lysander with homes built along several good size smaller-scale lakes, including Cross Lake and Beaver or Mud Lake. The charming Seneca River flows for many miles, forming the boundary of the town. One highway worker even remembers a few commercial barges using the river as transport when he was young. There are many freely flowing streams, but it’s the culverts backing up and flooding homes that got Gene’s attention when he took the job. Among his projects has been a well-crafted solution to the flooding that some homes located at the bottom of a steep hill experience. His crew formed gravel barriers set into freshly dug culverts, which slow down the flow of water — allowing it to sink into the earth faster — on especially steeply pitched roads.

The solution was presented to him during his weekly informal breakfast meetings with other highway professionals and a county engineer. The gravel barrier idea, as well as borrowing a special tool used to clear out old culverts with high water pressure, can be directly related to Gene’s weekly breakfast club.

The Breakfast Club

While Gene takes part in all available formal training, including the sessions held annually in Ithaca, he also meets on a weekly basis with eight to 10 other area highway professionals, including a county engineer. In this group he says, “I am the new kid. I learn from them. I am all ears. They are a good bunch of guys.”

He said they talk equipment, personnel and relationships with their various town boards and how to improve them. As the result of these informal get-togethers he said he got to borrow a specialized piece of equipment to flush out drainage pipes that would have cost the town $3,000 to purchase.

Gene thinks that his tenure was eased because 3/5ths of the town board also was brand new to the job when he got there. “One party has controlled this town since the Erie Canal days. Then two independents and one established party member formed a new sub-party called ‘Lysander First.’ They managed to get elected, and I think it was a good thing. Short-term there were a lot of hurt feelings. Long-term it will be fine.”

It may be Gene’s willingness to wait for long-term results that helped him toward improving morale in his department, which he believes improved when the crew noticed that he was paying more attention to the equipment and fixing it. One workers said, “The equipment has never been in such good shape. Trucks meet legal standards, and the safety of his men is always a first.”

On attitudes Gene said, “I believe we’ve made strides. I’ve striven to put in the time; not to be a no-show boss. I have a couple of employees who have taken me to task and have been pretty vocal about it. Rather than challenging them back I let them know that these issues can be resolved in due course. You don’t get to point your finger and raise your voice. This problem didn’t occur just now, and we’re not going to fix it here and now.”

In answering any challenge he likes to quote Winston Churchill who famously said, “Never, ever give up.” He admits that getting used to being confronted with argumentative citizens takes some getting used to. For example, the woman who wanted her neighbor cited for having too many cars, which caused them to be parked out in the road. When the plow came by it had to go around the car, and when the car drove off later on, the woman had to drive through the mess. While understandably a highway-based problem, the resolution was ultimately up to the board.

Another upset was the blown engine on a fairly new truck, which was caused by seepage and contamination in the highway barn’s fuel storage tanks. Gene keeps a pop jar full of the offending fluids in his office as a constant reminder of the task at hand, which includes fixing the leaks.

“Our own MEO John Gilbert solved the problem. We had pick-up trucks down for a time because there was H2O in the fuel. A small pipe leak was to blame,” Gene said. With a completely drained tank, fuel additive, and new fuel filters the mystery was solved and things were back to a new normal.

What Brought

Him Here

It was an advertisement in the newspaper for the job of highway superintendent that first got Gene’s attention. “I was dumfounded that nobody from within wanted the top spot.

Now he said he realizes how much work is involved. “Not everybody has as much patience as I do.”

Gene grew up in Grand Isle. He attended Erie Community College back when it was Erie County Tech, majoring in civil technology, which led him to supervising construction, an industry he first entered as a laborer in high school. Many jobs he considered big today are nearly invisible when he drives by them. All represent foundation work, for instance, parts of Strong Memorial Hospital, Jefferson Road, and a traffic circle by Keeler Street and St. Paul Street in Rochester.

Working for Ford Pile Driving (no longer in business), he helped construct the Southern Tier Expressway. He said of that major landscape changer, “We used to commiserate that we were the first ones on site when it was still a swamp. We had to slug through the mud until it was tolerable with initial foundation preparation work. Then we would move on.”

During one winter when construction was slow he took a job with Sun Oil and stayed there for the next 16 years. As Central New York’s operations manager he continued to make his home in Lysander while his work took him from Tonawanda to Philadelphia, and from Syracuse to Binghamton.

He became a contract hauler for Agway and operated a fuel truck with diesel and gas while servicing 1,200 customers “When Agway folded, the Army and being a hauler for construction equipment were my primary jobs.” He added that unexpectedly, one day the axe just fell when the rental division sold .

He said, “I heard that United Rentals was desperate for a driver; they took me right in for the next eight years.”

He retired from the Army Reserve in 2007. He said after 26 years in the service it was time for him to move on. “Even on the day I retired I could still physically pass the physical qualification test for any 18-year-old.” He is especially pleased that his office assistant also is active in the Army Reserve.

In addition to his son in the military he has a daughter and seven grandchildren, including some who can be counted on for making artwork for his office featuring Gene’s big equipment. He met his second wife, Joanne, at the American Legion Hall 16 years ago. He calls her, “a treasure, my partner for life.” In his down time he loves shooting traps, which he compares to requiring the same mental diligence that running the highway department does.

Demonstrating Respect for the

Town’s Departed

“We have six very old cemeteries that we take care of. Earliest stones are dated 1794. A number of churches have come and gone and left behind cemeteries. We take them seriously now. Although they are pretty much neglected, like trees growing up where they shouldn’t be. We are trying to turn that situation around.”

Just in time for Mother’s Day recently, Babcock Cemetery had already benefited from some much-needed care, including pushing the vegetation back beyond the boundaries and weed whipping the grass. They were righting stones in some cases, and generally making it a lot more appealing to the occasional visitor.

When asked if townspeople had noticed that there was a significant difference in the way the crew handled its assignments, one worker volunteered that the word “was getting out,” although great challenges lie ahead.

“It is remarkable and refreshing to me,” said Gene, “that even though I am new to the job, somebody would want to nominate me to be profiled in a magazine. I am only as good as my crew.”

Lysander — An Old Erie Canal Town Still Centrally Located

Like much of upstate in Onondaga County, Lysander originated as part of a Military Tract in what was then the county of Oswego. Basically, land was distributed to soldiers who served in the Revolution, as part of their recompense. Both the location and the shape of many lots were determined by the Seneca River’s long and winding flow that formed the eastern and southern boundary of the town. A nine-foot drop at Baldwinsville — a village in the town — supported early mills.

Then as now, settlers liked the town’s small lakes, including Cross Lake, which borders the southwestern part of town with the town line passing right through it, and the smaller Beaver Lake also called Mud Lake.

With the establishment of Onondaga County in 1794, Lysander kept its name and acquired additional territory, including what are now Hannibal and Granby and what currently constitutes the towns of Cicero and Clay.

Historians note that settlement here was slowed by “extreme unhealthfulness” in the early years. Native Americans, including hunting parties of Onondagas and Cayugas, came by the Seneca and Oswego Rivers in their canoes, but the evidence is scant that they ever stayed, thus they were spared the Indian Wars. Pioneers here only had to battle wild animals. Fishing the rivers became a source of continuous revenue while the woods abounded with game.

“Almost nothing was accomplished toward settlement in Lysander until about the beginning of the present century,” read the text of Onondaga’s Centennial, published in 1896. For example, a census taken in 1797 records 15 inhabitants in town, and property valued at only $1,500.

Small settlements and hamlets bloomed here, often named after the postmaster or, as with Polkville, the current president. The river was king for transit. John McHarrie, around 1792 created a business helping boats ascend up the rapids as they attempted to pass Lysander and McHarrie’s log cabin. The actual place became known as McHarrie’s Rifts. Back then what passed for a road came from the south in a northeasterly direction and ended at McHarrie’s cabin where a ford crossed the river. As early as 1814 the road appears on surveys, but it was eventually abandoned. The state road from Onondaga to Oswego laid out in 1807 crossed the river at these rifts where a mail route passed in 1806. The section was improved between the river and Oswego in 1811.

Progress was halted here due to what was then called, in the middle of August, “the sickly season,” caused by a malignant fever. Workmen not stricken with the disease had to bury the dead. As soon as new workmen were recruited, they too would get sick and die.

The Seneca River was used as a public highway and was part of the Inland Navigation Company’s system. In 1808 Dr. Baldwin, a local who was forced by law to provide passage for boats around his dam, petitioned the Legislature to build a canal and locks. In 1809 the same entrepreneur built a toll bridge where a bridge now stands. Baldwinsville, as a result, became a frontier destination.

Influences on the local economy took a turn for the worse in 1820 when business diverted to the Erie Canal checked Lysander’s growth.

Baldwin the man was a local hero. He supplied guns (on loan) to the troops for free, built a large flotilla of boats in service to the U.S. during most of the war and commanded a company of soldiers at the battle of Oswego where he was slightly wounded.

When Dr. Baldwin first got here in 1807, they called the settlement “Columbia.” Within 10 years it was called “Baldwin’s Bridge.” Finally the village area became Baldwinsville. He opened a store in town in 1807. A later relative ran a small commercial boat with passengers both to and from Syracuse by way of the river, the outlet, and Onondaga Lake.

It’s hard to imagine how pioneers worked just for sustenance. For example, history records around 1796 the first wild grass, which afforded wild hay to feed cattle and sheep, was cut and harvested in Lysander in Beaver Meadow. Fields were cut often with hand sickles. The cured grass was then drawn to Macksville through the woods by ox teams. A more colorful story is about the distillery that was built to help settlers dispose of surplus wood and ashes, as well as providing alcoholic beverages. History says the habit was to run off a pail of whiskey and then blow a tin horn to notify customers that the brew was on tap in the town store.

Roads and highways appear in the public records as early as 1808 during the first town meeting. Alexander Adams is the “overseer of highways.” A whopping $250 was set aside for roads and bridges. They also promised “ten dollars on every wolf’s scalp caught in town by an inhabitant of the town.” The bounty on bears was $5, but the most nettlesome fine of all was $5 to “any man letting Canada thistles or burweed go to seed on his farm.”

Though slavery was abolished in Lysander in 1821, all slaves were not freed until 1830. Of the number of slaves brought to town, two came with a Methodist preacher who came from the South and created a 1,000-acre, typically southern homestead.

Lysander’s population peak of 5,833, reached in 1850, was never exceeded.

About the time the first railroad, the Syracuse and Oswego, began stopping at one station in Baldwinsville, another local influence was coming to fruition — the commercial culture of tobacco. What began in a small way on ten acres in 1845 quickly grew so that 10 years later 554,987 pounds of tobacco were being grown in this sparsely inhabited county. For many years tobacco was the touchstone of a burgeoning industry.

By 1850, the village of Baldwinsville was typical in professions and industries: stores, taverns, lawyers, physicians, clergymen, meeting houses, schools, a woolen factory, tanneries, a sash factory, furnaces, plaster mills, carriage making shops, and seven blacksmiths.

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