Phelps for many years was one of the largest producers of sauerkraut in the world, so it comes as no surprise that highway superintendent Terry Featherly, as an enterprising kid, hand-planted baby cabbages from the back of a machine that positioned him near the ground. Although Phelps is no longer a manufacturing center for sauerkraut, lots of cabbages are harvested from the fields here every fall. The kraut itself — a staple in many families — is now manufactured by Great Lakes in Manchester.
Phelps hosts a long-time-running annual Sauerkraut Festival that draws salivating-seeking folks from all over. This year it will be held July 31 to August 2 and features enough free chocolate sauerkraut cake (tastes like coconut) to feed at least 100 guests.
Terry, with a strong background in guiderails and asphalt, became the town of Phelps highway superintendent in 2002. The crew of eight men plow and mow 97 miles of paved roads and 1.5 miles of dirt. They plow and mow an additional 22 miles for the county, totaling 119 miles. On this agreement with the county he kind of winced. “This year we took a beating on county roads because salt went up 32 percent, and we already had the contract signed,” he said.
In terms of mowing, his crew mows as many miles as larger nearby towns including Farmington, Canandaigua, and Victor.
“We get a lot of compliments about our mowing. People can be very critical about that. It’s often a safety issue because of the number of deer around here.”
For example, Terry’s son had four deer hits in less than a year while on delivery runs. Dead deer are removed by an outside contractor.
The budget is $1.8 million, with $225,000 coming from CHIPS. Terry is a big supporter of the CHIPS program, which he credits with delivering needed increases for materials.
“We [superintendents] go to Albany to lobby because we are falling farther behind, and CHIPS has definitely helped. When the price of asphalt more than doubles, you are not going to double your budget. So how will you get by getting less work done? The residents won’t allow it!”
The best part of the job? “I like being able to have the ability to make my own decisions,” he said.
But that doesn’t mean he isn't listening to others. Regular attendance in regional highway superintendent meetings is valuable he said because, “You always trust your resources. There are people who have had this job for many years. It always pays to talk to them.”
He also did some independent research comparing the number of miles serviced and the budgets of neighboring towns. He said, “Phelps looks really good.”
Terry’s father worked at GE and owned and worked a farm near where Carrier Circle now stands in Syracuse, Terry’s grandfather also farmed. His mother worked in real estate and as an interior decorator. Terry said Phelps, where he has lived his entire life, remains a farming community at heart.
“The people here are wonderful. We have great people here,” he said.
There are no housing developments and little development in a town that venerates its many historic structures, including a brick, two-story outhouse.
“I’ve lived here my entire life,” he said. “My friends and family are all here.”
Hard work and an enterprising spirit have been motivating him since he was young.
“I went into the grocery business at P&C Foods for seven years, beginning at an early age. I shoveled snow. Did a lot of lawn mowing. I went around selling Christmas cards.”
His determination paid off during his 12 years working for Phelps Guide Rail where he became superintendent and then four more years at Elderlee doing similar work. These jobs kept him on the road a lot.
At both jobs he said, “I worked with signs, guide rails, bridge rail, and right-of-way markers. Even though it paid well, we had built a house and I was getting tired of living out of a suitcase, so I went to work as a laborer for Villager Construction on the paving crew for another four years.”
He helped pave roads in the city of Rochester. One skill he learned while doing road construction, which has proved useful today, is how to track details. For example, tonnage. Terry said he quickly learned how to judge just when to shut off the truck’s deliveries.
“You have to know when to tell the truck to stop. You try to be very careful. You don’t want leftover asphalt.”
Villager grew rapidly while he was there.
“We had two milling machines when I got there and they probably have more then 18 of them now.”
With his background in paving roads and infrastructure, he felt ready to run for the highway superintendent job in 2001.
His First Election — First Lost, Then Won
Few first-time highway superintendent elections are more exciting than Terry’s was. On election night it looked like he lost to the incumbent, who is now the town supervisor. There was so much controversy at the time that Terry’s wife put a scrapbook together for all of the media coverage. Terry explained, “The night of the election they said the incumbent won. I heard he was out celebrating. The next day they re-canvassed the machines, and I got a call from the Board of Elections saying, ‘We’ve got a problem.’ It seems that somebody misread the voting machine for District 2 where it said I had 49 votes but I had 149 votes instead.”
The cliff hanger continued until absentee ballots were counted, and there were enough of those to sway the election to either candidate. “Two weeks later I got him two to one on the absentee ballots,”
Terry said. “He has a lot of influence in this town. Four years later he came back as town supervisor.” Terry inherited the crew as well. He said some were open to new ideas while others had mixed loyalties. Fortunately the deputy was what Terry calls a “straight shooter.” He said, “He was upfront and honest and helped me learn the job — especially the paperwork — as quickly as possible. He could have set me up for failure very easily, but he didn’t. I am grateful to him for that. I was used to supervising, and he helped me a lot with the office part of the job.”
“The law was written that you don’t have to be here because back in the old days the superintendent was often a farmer who would direct the crew in the morning and return in the afternoon once his farming was done. Today you are being paid as a full time employee. I’ve always had a conscience about that. If you are going to stay on top of things you have to be there to find out what is causing the problems in the roads and determining what we can do to fix them cost effectively.”
Right Out of the Box — Saving About $100,000
When Terry first took office one gentleman retired and two other workers, sons of the former superintendent, quit. Rather than immediately fill two of three open positions, Terry decided to hunker down and to see if the department could work effectively with two fewer people — a crew of eight full-time workers instead of 10.
“I tried it for a year and determined we could save the town a lot of money — about $100,000 — and still keep the roads up in safe working conditions. My thinking was, let’s put that money into the roads.”
It hasn’t quite worked out that way. The town is due for a new highway facility, and for the past two years Terry’s budget for new machinery has been directed toward the cost of a new garage.
“I may do things differently. I’m a little bit more critical about keeping these town roads clean in winter. Some say we run them too much, but I can’t put a dollar value on a person’s life.”
He is quick to offer a recent example when the night driver helped clear a path for an emergency vehicle trying to reach a baby who was choking.
“The driver was just one road over so he jumped on it and opened the road for the ambulance.”
For better coverage Terry shortened all the routes and added one more.
“We had a truck that sat as a backup so we gave it a route. We went to a six-truck route, which cut down on overtime.”
Beyond overtime, Terry’s reconstruction of the routes took into consideration parts of the roads with dangerous conditions and heavy commuter traffic.
“We have hills and S curves and all kinds of things. My main concern was that some of the most difficult roads were coming at the end of the driver’s route. Traffic coming from Newark and heading to the Thruway in Manchester was where we were having some accidents. One side of a hill might be bare and on the other side there is five or six inches of snow that haven’t been plowed yet.”
By adding another route and re-routing the drivers he believes the residents are in better shape during what have been repeated, cold and windy, heavy snowstorms this winter. Terry blames the wind for why they are always out there “chasing drifts.”
He has also had some success getting grant money for the town.
“I’ve gotten two different grants for signs from 3M for about $8,000. We took the old signs and overlaid them with the new Diamond grade sheeting, a premier product that saved the town a lot of money.”
He also helped get them an economic stimulus grant of $150,000 to redo Banker Road to recycle the road and resurface it.
Adding Sand to the Town’s Salted Roads
“On a day like today [a cold one in January] you can’t get to bare roads in these temperatures. You have to find what is a reasonable amount of material to put on the road for the current weather conditions.”
He and the crew often gather in an informal conference to talk about changing weather patterns and the resulting road conditions, including the amount of sun they anticipate, as straight sunshine can quickly melt ice from pavement. The goal is always to limit the use of materials to just what is needed and no more. As the men talked in a huddle outside the barn, one of them referred to “sun hours,” which he said farmers use in addition to a traditional time of day. A sun hour is a measurement of the amount of full sun that shines in a particular location and stated in hours.
“When I started it was straight salt mixed with a liquid,” Terry said. “My first five years in office I did just that. Then I was caught off guard when the price of salt jumped by about $3 a ton in one year. I had watched the other towns around using a sand and salt mix. They were getting the job done. I couldn’t see where their roads were worse than ours. Maybe just a little sloppier, but still safe.
“So I decided to go and try using sand, which we had never done before. My theory was that if I could mix the salt and sand and some of the liquid treatment, the sand would actually carry some of the liquid. My goal was to get a higher concentration of liquid on the roads, plus it offers an opportunity to cut back on our salt use.”
Terry said the plan is working.
“We are still burning the roads off, but we are not going through as much salt — salt being the most expensive element in the mix. In fact, salt just went up with a last minute jump of 32 percent for us. Sand [from a Hansen-run pit nearby] also went up a little bit.
“We used to use around 5,000 tons of salt a year. Now we are closer to 3,000 tons and maybe even a little less.
“When the winds pick up we might not salt right away in the areas where there will be major drifting and areas that collect snow,” he said. “We might stick to putting salt down on hills, curves, and intersections for awhile.”
Terry acknowledges salt’s lack of effectiveness at certain temperatures. He said a high concentration might appear to help but will often become greasy and slick before it really begins to burn through the ice.
Even harder on the town’s roads he said is the constant freezing and then high temperatures that have characterized the past few years.
“With all the freezing and thawing, water is getting into the surface and breaking the bond. Potholes start popping up. If the road buckles a little bit, the snowplow will come through and take out chunks of asphalt.”
He said that while he is still a little uncertain about global warming, he knows that during winters in Phelps for most of his life, “it used to get cold and stay cold.”
Terry and the crew do most of the milling while rebuilding roads themselves. Milling sometimes also leads to unpleasant surprises.
“When you see water in the asphalt while milling on an 80-degree day in summer you know you’ve got a potential moisture problem.”
A routine fix is to cut a trench across the road and lay tile and then pack it down with gravel.
There are only two dirt roads remaining in the town.
“Of that total of 1.5 miles of dirt road, I don’t know what we are going to do yet,” said Terry.
Just one long-time farm family occupies the road along with a few other residents. He said the older folks want to keep it dirt but that their children might want to see it paved one day.
“It’s costing the town several thousands of dollars for dust oil. We have to grade it every year.”
The road also ends in a steep hill with a blind curve that ends at an intersection that has also been the scene of some accidents. Terry said to adequately deal with this dirt road, it would take more than oil and stone. Given its configurations he said he would also want to “take the hills down so they are not so steep and build up the intersection.”
While the crew often gets homemade baked goods at Christmas, they also got a loud complaint about the noise the trucks were making in the early morning hours. Rather than dismiss the complainer, Terry quickly realized that the drivers were probably driving with their jake break on. Plus the new routes were putting them on this resident’s road earlier than he was used to hearing the sounds of heavy equipment moving snow.
“The truck is loud, but you don’t need the jake break when the plow is down. Just a few days before the complaint I had been telling the guys that when they are out salting and not plowing to use their jake brake because they were killing the brakes on the six-wheelers.”
Other sensitive issues with residents is tree work.
“You have to feel them out a little bit. You don’t want to come in and say we are going to take your tree down even if it is on town property. That’s not the way to approach things, and trees are important to people here.”
Support Where Needed
During the past 12 years there have been about 12 deadly accidents in Phelps. The most recent (January 2015) occurred near Terry’s home when two local teenagers hit a tree while traveling 100 miles an hour. Alcohol was involved. He said most accidents have involved driver error with the exception of an out-of-state-couple from Maryland traveling from Niagara Falls to Geneva this summer. Both were killed instantly when a seemingly healthy tree limb overhanging the road fell onto their car. Because the highway department is on call in such emergencies, Terry and his crew assisted the fire department in getting the tree limb off of the car, difficult work that took them long into the night.
“One more second and they [the couple] would have been OK,” he said with real remorse about the freak accident. His crew and excavator have also assisted tearing down an abandoned house that caught fire.
“It is written in our organization that we are to assist in an emergency, even at the school,” Terry said.
But when the crew did some quick pothole repairs in the school’s parking lot they were reprimanded by the town board and learned that potholes were not considered an emergency.
A more pressing and personal emergency came with a highway garage fire a couple of years ago.
“It eventually kind of smoldered itself out, rather than spread, but we had a lot of smoke damage in the truck bay.”
They think it was caused by the lack of a battery disconnect.
“Most of our trucks have battery disconnects. Most are Macks. All of our other trucks have a battery disconnect, but this one didn’t. This fire happened to start in the only International we had. It was a good truck. I went home at 4:40 and close to 9 I got the call saying the alarm was going off. The alarm sensed the heat. One of the crew lives nearby and saw what was happening. With that, we were all off and running.”
Welcome to paperwork. It’s been two-and-a-half years since the flames were extinguished, and yet the insurance claims on the truck fire are still being bickered over in court. He also posted a reminder about the battery disconnect right where the crew checks out at the end of their shifts.
They pressure washed the walls. All truck upholstery had to be cleaned because Terry says that soot is highly corrosive and the interiors were covered with lots of it.
Town budgets mandate that the department hang on to its equipment for a long time before replacement. What was once a 10-year rotation is now about 15 years. Preventive maintenance has all trucks sent out to be rustproofed once a year. Now for the good news — there is a brand new Mack 2015 coming their way that cost $202,000. The vehicle is currently at TENCO being powder-coated and having the box put back on. In Phelps each man is assigned his own vehicle; this time it’s Danny's turn for a new truck.
There may be few things gnarlier than trying to get older asphalt out of a truck body, especially those tight spots at the end near the cab. The Phelps crew uses corner-guards to prevent that from happening. The device, as yet untested, kind of looks like a large metal arrowhead. Terry has a picture of it on his phone. Asphalt season is still a few months away so they aren’t sure how it will work. Self-starters all of them — the crew also created a broom attachment to the excavator to help with spring clean up. Terry says it works great getting stones and sod out of the yards while also sweeping up on other tasks like shoulder box-outs. They also rebuilt a roll-off dumpster container designed to use for tree work.
He said morale is good, with an occasional group-wide chicken wing and pizza lunch. The crew, which he refers to as “my guys,” are: Dan Bremer, Greg Phillips, Dave Rasmussen, Josh Colf, Kyle Tiffany, Perry Adams, and Bill Poorman.
As he described their common interests, he said, “A lot of the boys are hunters. A bunch of us are into racing.”
Terry says he began watching Formula One races as a kid with his dad at Watkins Glen.
“NASCAR, Formula One, I like all that stuff.”
Terry and his wife Diana, who helps supervise three acute medical facilities, are active in the Phelps Lions Club. Daughter Brittney lives with grandsons Kendrick (5) and Gus (5 months) in Rochester, while son Chad is beginning his career path. Terry and Diana enjoy camping with friends; he just bought his first motorcycle, a 2003 Yamaha.
Terry pointed to a new box culvert on Oaks Corners, completed in 2006, as an example of a job where the town and village worked together and required no outside help, including engineers.
“We drew the design on a piece of paper and took it to the Army Corps of Engineers. I had them approve the design, and the DEC had a look at it as well. The village was especially helpful to us because they had a track excavator and the tools, including a laser transit, to do concrete work with.”
They were replacing an old stone archway that appears to be held in place without mortar of any kind. During the many years it has been trafficked, especially by very large equipment coming from a Elam-run gravel pit just yards from the bridge, small dips had appeared in the road. Terry, for one, began to fear it might collapse.
“The road had little dips in it where stones had settled,” he said. “So we took it on.”
Building what you see today — an attractive new, pre-cast, box culvert over a fast-moving creek was not, he said, “a typical highway job.”
Working with the crew he created simple hand-made drawings for the short but problematic span on busy Cross Road. He is pleased with how it turned out. Bridge approvals came from the Army Corps of Engineers and the DEC with all the work done in-house including support from the village DPW. Terry said they received a letter from the DEC saying they had all done a commendable job.
The sign out front says '”Phelps Highway Garage Founded 1930,” and not a lot has gone on with the building since then. While solid and in good shape, its doors are now too narrow for modern equipment, and it’s cold and somewhat uncomfortable to work in. Designs for a new highway building have been on the board for about four years. It is likely that a new building will be up sometime late fall, 2015. First, the existing building — a solid cinder block like they used to build with a fairly new roof — is determined by the town board to be coming down. Terry would prefer to keep it for storing equipment that now lives outdoors year around. Or as he puts it, “Close to $100,000 in equipment sitting out there year around.”
To compensate for the harsh environment the crew follows a strict regimen of washing all heavy equipment following use and annual salt prevention.
“Equipment lasts longer when it’s in good shape, and you get more money for it when you’re done,” he said.
“The new building is going out for bid right now. It will occupy the same site we are on. I have heard two different stories including that they will demolish this building before they begin to build.”
New at the entire town is a state audit, which has a lot of people taking a good look at how they do business.
“I think the audit is a good thing,” said Terry who added this is the first one in his 13 years on the job. “It allows a superintendent a chance to find out if there are things that we should be doing or doing things that you shouldn’t.”
As for tips to others he relies almost completely on a daily ledger of events.
“Everything goes in the ledger and the same everything goes into the computer.”
Terry often relies on his wife Diana for data entry using a Quicken program she customized and set up for him.
With the cost of salt, asphalt, fuel, and other elements changing every month he said it is key to know what your balances are. His daily diary where he records everything has been useful in preparing for the audit.
“You can have a situation where you have an asphalt ticket but you can’t remember why. Our truck was helping out at another town so the bill came here. Without the diary I might have had a hard time figuring it out.”
There is a copy of an old photo on Terry’s office wall of four of his predecessors sort of scowling at the camera in their blue-bib overalls. Two have cigarettes in their lips and some are posing hands on hips in a very manly attitude — a portrait of self-confidence. At the center is a steam-driven roller of some sort. The snapshot gives you the distinct feeling that Terry and his crew have some very large boots to fill.
About the Town
Even by upstate standards Phelps, organized in 1796, is a very old town. It has more cobblestone buildings than nearly any other village in the state and one of the last remaining two-story brick privies — with a flared slate roof and finial — that is perfectly preserved. A high regard for the past is evident at every turn, including the Harmon Cobblestone Farmhouse and Cobblestone Smokehouse, and the William Huffman Cobblestone House — all listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A rare gem is the Baptist Church built in 1839 on Church Street where each side has slightly different courses of lake cobbles. Cobbles from Lake Ontario were considered to be somewhat more showy than field cobbles which are abundantly used as well. Most cobblestone buildings were done by the masons who also created the Erie Canal. The cement using burned limestone was apparently the same for both cobblestones and the canal.
The town or district was originally named Sullivan to honor General Sullivan who led an expedition here that effectively wiped out the native inhabitants during the summer and fall of 1779. The name was changed to Phelps in 1796 after what historians suggest was a sumptuous feast at the tavern of Jonathan Oaks, which was hosted by settler Oliver Phelps.
Gaining title to the land from the Indians was influenced by two Phelps settlers, James Robison, son of the first settler, and Nathaniel Sanborn, who drove 100 head of cattle to the Genesee country, intended as gifts. At that time nearly 400 acres of land would cost about $100. The first settler, John Decker Robison built and opened the first tavern in the area on his tract in 1793. The area around the tavern became a trade center. Some of Robison’s land is now a part of the village. There was a steady stream of pioneers who remained here after that time. By 1796 it was so well populated that it became necessary to organize the town and to elect officials. Thus Phelps was formed that year.
Among the usual officials elected at the first town meeting were Oliver Humphrey and Patrick Burnett as commissioners of highways with Jesse Warner and Philetus Swift as overseers of highways. By 1850 Phelps had about 5,500 residents, a number that approaches the number of residents (about 7,000) today. Patriotism was often a driving force, and the men from Phelps fought in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and saw action on the Niagara Frontier. The town created an organization for men and women known as the Phelps Union Soldiers Aid Society, devoted to the personal comfort of sick and wounded soldiers.
Phelps has two active waterways—the Canandaigua Lake outlet and Flint Creek, where mills of every description were erected. It had grist mills, woolen mills, flour mills, paper mills, and lumber mills. Flint Creek, which crosses the village in an east and west direction with an abundant “fall,” operated the machinery in mills that lined its banks for nearly a century. The falls can be easily seen from the Main Street bridge.
Other industries including a basket factory, malt-house, machine shop, a carriage factory, cider mills, and a brandy distillery were businesses that thrived in the early days. By 1883 the largest industry in town was the Crown Manufacturing Company, which manufactured grain and fertilizer drills and wheel arrow grass sowers. Times were prosperous. By 1892 Phelps had 20 schoolhouses, 15 of which were built from brick and stone. The Pennsylvania Railroad's Northern Region of lines passed through Phelps connecting Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with the resorts of Sodus Point and Lake Ontario and opening up the markets for industries here.
One local resident said that until the 1970s the four railroads in town brought with them an excellent tax base. Sauerkraut manufacturing was the largest employer in town. The popular pickled cabbage produced the town’s first millionaire — Burton Babcock.
Visitors to Phelps today can easily slip into the past by visiting the Phelps hotel, a historic landmark built in 1867 by peppermint magnate, Lehman Hotchkiss at a cost of $26,000. Before the Depression wealthy New York City visitors who came to this part of upstate to pheasant hunt, chose the hotel for lodging and fine food. The hotel, now called The Historic Phelps Hotel, is still a family-owned business. A specialty called “Chicken in the Ruff,” remains a special of the day.
Blending a beautiful past with purposeful present is evident in the skillfully preserved buildings that deserve landmark status. For example, in 2005 the Historical Society acquired what they call “The Country Lawyer’s Office.” Built around 1835 the red brick building with four white pillars occupies a prominent location on Main Street. A modest philanthropist named Mary Hicks Preston purchased both the lawyer's office and the Howe House where the Historical Society is located. Mary Hicks was born in the same house where she died the day after her 97th birthday. A large inheritance from her aunt allowed Mary to travel and to donate to her favorite charities — the library and community center among them — but always in an anonymous manner. Mary helped found the Historical Society in Phelps and was the secretary for many years.
Mary’s careful investment strategies continue to benefit Phelps in the form of the Mary Hicks Preston Foundation which continues to make grants available to non-profit organizations who improve the social, recreational, and educational opportunities available to Phelps’ residents as well as preserving historically significant buildings and artifacts in the area.
Don Tiffany, the person who received the Historical Society’s Mary Hicks Preston Lifetime Achievement Award this year, was also the Phelps highway superintendent for about a half a dozen years so his interest in highways is well rehearsed and goes deep. Don was there when the last well-traveled road in Phelps was paved. “It was in 1973,” says Don, now retired. “It might have been Stryker Road, which is out toward Wayne County.” Don retired from the highways department in 1982.
Following a career selling heavy equipment he turned to the highway job saying, “It was a mistake. The job was a lot more political then I thought.”
On the plus side he remembers how fortunate they were to have an abundance of gravel in town. He says, “If you wanted to build up a road you just asked a local farmer if they would be willing to sell some gravel. We had very little hauling. One reason our roads are good is that they were built with good gravel. It was a blessing.”
Don has talked to the old timers enough to sound like he was there in the hard years of the 1930s when the town’s four Walter Trucks,“4-wheel drive, expensive, huge, gas-guzzling, behemoths,” would sometimes get stuck when enormous drifts of snow fell behind them. Then the driver (this was before radios) would have to climb out and walk to the nearest farmhouse to call for backup. In especially bad situations the second truck would get stuck, which meant they also weren't out plowing. Sometimes the drifts might capture three of them.
“Snow drifts might be 15 to 20 feet right across the highway and the V-plows just had to keep trying to ram through them,” Don recalled. In the 1930s and 1940s, it was not unusual for farm families to be snowed in for weeks. Salt, he said, was unknown prior to 1950. At that time heavy equipment would be used to back up steep hills while workers threw shovels of sand at the road.
“Highway work could wear you right down to a frazzle, especially in winter time.”