Superintendent of Highways John Richard and the Town of Herkimer

Laurie Mercer

When you first meet him, you might think that John Richard, highway superintendent, town of Herkimer, is a kind of gruff Santa Claus, complete with a distinctive, gravely voice.

John is forthright in his pride in maintaining the town’s 23 miles of roads and an additional 24 miles of plowing for the county. He took office in January 1971, and his quiet but clear confidence could reflect his 42 years as superintendent.

Twenty-two elections later, John says, “I like to work. I like my job.”

The town’s in-town highway budget is $717,000; outside the town, it is $560,749. The New York State Department of Transportation CHIPS program provides $52,000. The town garage, 140 x 90 feet, was built in 1974; John said it could use some upgrades. His crew did modify the former flat roof that leaked with a peaked one that does not.

John is proud of his crew, who are almost like family to him: Thomas Bernier, Gary Czernecki, Eric Jantzen, John Lowery, Larry Lynch, Ken Miller and Anthony Tubia. Several of these men have more than 20 and 30 years of doing a lot of different tasks in highway maintenance in addition to plowing and mowing.

“These are good jobs, and these men are professionals,” John said. “They like to come to work, which makes my job much easier. They are all equipment operators. No deputy or foreman. That’s the way we work it.”

The crew is unionized.

Meeting Town Needs

John believes that town residents expect the same good conditions throughout the day and night, and to achieve this, the town is somewhat unusual in its scheduling, with slightly overlapping shifts to produce 24-hour coverage for road safety and other tasks.

“I was probably the first one who had a night shift on in this area for sure,” he said.

Given today’s economic realities, people are driving further from rural areas to find employment, while school-bus operational conditions are always a prime concern. While the population growth in Herkimer’s rolling hills and river valley is flat, there are some new homes built by the next generation of what were once large family farms. These newer homes tend to appear higher up on roads that used to be closed seasonally, so the amount of lane miles is up slightly.

John’s extensive background on the job and remarkable memory allow him to recall and refer to labor practices for highway people and how they have evolved. For example, he explained, “Back in the 1970s, the state decided that certain townships didn’t have to plow their roads anymore. They went to a dual system where the town would plow and the state would sand.”

The result, he said, was chaos, with plows sometimes following sanders. In time, it was the responsibility of the crew who was plowing to also sand the same roads.

“I had three men on state roads, and rather than let them go, I started a night shift in order to help the people get safely home in the dark.”

Herkimer gets more than 90 inches of snow a year, and because of its steep hills — nearby mountains are 800 feet above the Mohawk River — winds create tremendous drifts. The town uses salt and sand with a ratio of 6 percent salt, resulting in using about 1,800 tons of salt a year and about 8,000 yards of sand. John has seen the stockpile depleted in especially harsh winters. He said the salt is delivered under state contract; sand comes in at the lowest price.

While years ago plows had a wingman (support crew), today the big trucks with double wings do not have them unless the driver asks for one in special circumstances.

“The state, who originally made us put a wingman in, in time took theirs out,” John said. “The state is running their equipment with no wingman. We can’t afford it either.”

How It Has Changed

Many years ago, John recalled, the biggest need during big snowstorms was for the local dairy farmers to be able to get their milk out of town about four times each week. Other than that, he said, if the roads were bad the school would just close the road. But not today.

“They’ve got to be able to drive the roads 24 hours a day — and sometimes at 75 miles per hour.” Now, he said, his plows work on steep hill roads that were once for seasonal use only.

John has watched the dirt roads disappear to the remaining two miles or so that the town owns and about the same mileage they maintain for the county. Herkimer shares services with Herkimer County and neighboring towns of Fairfield, Frankfort, Litchfield and Little Falls. John said they used to do more shared services when agreements were based on a handshake and not more paperwork. In the old days, he noted, all he had to do was to alert the town’s insurance provider that crew members would be working off site supporting some other municipality, and the deal was done.

Budget cuts caused a reduction in force in recent years, John said. As people retired, they just weren’t replaced; now the work once done by 14 people is accomplished by seven plus John. While he can easily tell you what the town was like when it was primarily dirt roads, his focus is totally on public safety and the future needs of the community. Weekly trash pickup of refuse in the town is greatly appreciated. Twice a year, in spring and fall, the highway crew removes non-recyclable objects, including household goods. They also do quick repairs to the frequent and serious flood-driven washouts in the past few years, which have motivated John to believe in global warming. He is supported in this by town residents, who are concerned about its active wind turbines, which are expected to increase in number, and the possibility of fracking, which mines natural gas from below the Earth’s surface. John said the geography of the beautiful rolling hills, which afford fine, panoramic views, also favors this controversial practice.

Another problem is another result of technological innovation. According to John, “Because of all the blacktop, the upkeep is costing more and more each year. It’s harder to maintain to keep the roads in good shape than the old dirt roads.”

He has a long history of town finances and highways, and dirt roads were once enough.

“Our roads are oil and stone or blacktop. We did about eight miles of oil and stone this year for about $106,000.”

John almost sounds nostalgic for the old times when he said, “I’ll tell you. Way back when, with our dirt roads, we’d come along with a grader three times a year and shape up the road, and people were happy with it. Now they want to go 70 miles an hour down a farm road. With blacktop, you have to have a maintenance program of patching, repairing and resurfacing.”

The Importance

of Funding

A savvy entrepreneur when it comes to seeking grant money for infrastructure and FEMA money to repair various kinds of storm-driven damage, John said it is all too easy to get buried under the mountains of paperwork, arranged in neat piles, which he scales every morning in one of his three offices (home, highway garage, town hall).

His office assistant — when he has one — is a part-time summer intern from a nearby college. John said that the intern program has been a success because the students chosen are “real workers” — genuine praise coming from a man who has been doing all of the office work for 42 years. He scoffs at the concept of a paperless office.

What does John wish for? “I would like to see a new Gradall,” he said. “And replace one of my large snowplows. We could use a couple of new Ford 450s. But all of this is my wish list. No matter what, we will do the job just like we always have.”

Because of washouts, the Gradall has seen lots of work; the town’s main machine was built in 1989. He said the Town Board, with whom he works closely, would “buy me all this new equipment, but they just can’t. I know the situation here. I’m also a taxpayer. We are working on the second year of a three-year contract, with no new equipment phase. Right now we’ve just got to repair and fix. I have to make the board understand our need for new equipment or else we have to do more repairs.”

John was able to get a grant for more than a million dollars to refurbish the Mitchell Bridge over the West Canada Creek. More recently, he and his crew just refurbished a bridge on Fiddleton Road that goes over North Creek, a small stream that washed out during intense rains. His crew had to approach the repairs from underneath the structure, where, he said, they “reworked the I-beams.”

For reinforcement, he asked the fire department to help open up the metal latticework that forms the top of the bridge with their high-pressure hoses. The firemen also backed the highway crew by cleaning structural I-beams with their hoses.

John just finished the town’s most recent FEMA projects.

“We had a washout on Sulfur Springs that took the road out. We had to replace a dozen culverts. We try to jump one size larger, or use two pipes when there was one. FEMA would pay for one size higher. You’ve got to keep on improving conditions. If it isn’t taking the water, it needs improvement.”

He also did concrete catch basins and some creek work. With two big culverts installed with outside contractors, the job came to about $300,000 for each installation. FEMA covered approximately 75 percent of the total cost. The state picked up 12 percent and the town was responsible for the remaining 13 percent.

Constant Maintenance

The town’s rolling terrain and deep gullies have led to a lot of bank slides that often block the drainage patterns. John said the crew shores up steep bank slides by “kind of digging them out and installing large riprap to hold the ground in place.”

The solution is not always a lasting success, as, he noted, “If it’s sliding material, it still wants to slide.”

Budgets and manpower are strained when flooding hits, even when expected.

“Washouts bring the gravel down,” John said. “Culverts get plugged and the roads can be taken right out.”

Last year, for example, the West Canada Creek was going right over the bridge in Middleville. Many state roads were closed. In addition, while the Mohawk River and the West Canada Creek are the two primary water sources in town, there are many drainage ditches, which swell to become small creeks themselves during the increasingly turbulent rains that have pounded the town.

“We still have one project that is not completed from damage that occurred three years ago,” John said.

Efforts to find funding for the serious embankment washout on a dead-end road, which could cost a million dollars to repair, are ongoing. Right now, some residents have to walk on someone else’s lawn to reach their own homes. Because the road has been closed, residents in three homes have not been able to use their own driveways.

“The town has declared that the situation will be fixed by the upcoming winter,” John said.

If they don’t receive grant money they are prepared to take out a loan to get the road repaired and open it once again.

In addition to plowing, sanding, and cutting grass along the roads, the highway crew mows a large public park adjacent to the school facilities. They also tend to a very old cemetery by mowing it several times a year; John said it is not unusual to get a phone call from someplace else from someone looking for a relative in the Herkimer cemetery. He also oversees the sewer district and will provide the town’s direct line for some of the water system to an assisted-living facility that is just now being built on a town hill. As water commissioner, he is responsible for three water districts, where he repairs breaks.

Herkimer Native and Delighted Grandpa

John, who was born in Herkimer and has lived here ever since, remembers when, years ago, North Creek was a popular destination for people who would drive their vehicles into the shallow, rock-bottom stream to wash their cars.

John was raised on a 400-acre farm that is still in the family. His time in the Army was spent in Oklahoma working on the Pershing missile system, which used nuclear warheads. He continued to farm until he climbed off the tractor for good to become Herkimer’s full-time highway superintendent. Before becoming superintendent, John was a licensed mechanic and owned a garage and drove a school bus. He has four children, all with college degrees, and 10 grandchildren, all of whom live within 45 minutes of his home. When the camera isn’t on him and the tape recorder isn’t running, he is quick to break into a smile when he names those grandchildren: Hunter, Alexis, Giovanni, Rory, Jesse, Marcella, Avery, Rossi, Braysen and Gunnar. Family and hard work, he said, are at the core of his being.

Even though John just returned from a family vacation, he is the kind of superintendent who so closely identifies with his long career path that he is never really fully relaxed about taking time off.

“What if a pipe broke?” he said. “It’s hard to get away with this job. I depend on my men to cover for me, and through shared services there is someone in the village who will back me up. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to leave.”

He used to be an avid deer hunter and fisherman, he said, and when he does leave Herkimer it is often to visit his camp in Speculator in the Adirondacks, surrounded by his family.

Outside the highway garage, as part of the crew was hauling sand to mix with salt in preparation for the coming winter, John reflected on the 22 elections he has won to maintain his position.

“It’s tough going door to door to get elected. You are kind of working on getting elected all year long. I tell my crew that superintendents today have it easy compared to 40 years ago. Back in the old days I was hardly ever home; you worked around the clock. You pulled off the road at 9 o’clock at night and came back at 4 o’clock in the morning.”

Just then John’s phone rang — Jeannie, his wife, was checking in. With his work and personal life so strongly linked, his voice softened by 47 years of marriage.

“She’s been with me in this business for a very long time.”

About the Town

of Herkimer

The town of Herkimer honors General Nicholas Herkimer, a legendary soldier who commanded his troops to fight in hand-to-hand combat against the British in early August 1777. Herkimer had managed to muster 800 men and boys to help protect Fort Stanwix, which was under attack.

Herkimer and his men were ambushed by Iroquois and British Loyalists, including John Jost, Herkimer’s own brother, while the general lay dying in a marshy ravine west of the Indian village of Oriskany. After six hours of brutal engagement, Herkimer was carried off the field and taken to his home. An amputation of his leg went badly, and he died hours later while reading his Bible. Fighting against great odds, Herkimer’s gallant army was credited with winning one of the most decisive battles of the Revolutionary War.

Herkimer’s legendary status as a martyr to American independence began immediately, resulting in recognition that included placing his name on a place previously known as the Stone Ridge. Preservation of Herkimer’s home by New York State began in 1914, and a major renovation was completed in the 1960s. A 19th-century barn is now a visitor center featuring interpretive exhibits and other programs. On Sundays from Memorial Day to Labor Day, costumed staff members and volunteers help interpret historical activities for today’s families. A special Sugaring Off Day and a fall Apple Bee are annual events.

Prior to 1700, the Herkimer region was home to the Mohawks of the Iroquois Five Nations. Then, because most white settlers here were from Germany, the area became known as German Flats. The first few buildings in the pioneer settlement were blockhouses, a church, and soon a school.

Until the French and Indian Wars, the community progressed peacefully for a time. When massacres became commonplace, the people responded by building a community with five blockhouses. By 1776, Fort Herkimer was a haven of safety in this turbulent terrain. About the same time, Fort Dayton was erected in the town. General George Washington visited Fort Dayton in July 1783 while inspecting Mohawk Valley fortifications.

There probably aren’t too many towns in the state with a more genuine grip on early American history and the country’s struggle for independence from Britain than Herkimer. The area endured many battles in 1757-58, during the French and English War, and later during the American Revolution.

Progressing from Indian paths to navigable roads began early here. During the town’s first town meeting in 1789, commissioners of highways and overseers of highways were elected, along with other officials that bespoke an increasingly civilized place. All together, this early highway crew numbered about a dozen — more than they have in Herkimer today.

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