Superintendent of Highways John Greeley and the Town of LaFayette

Laurie Mercer

Fifty years from now, on June 1, 2065, somebody will open up a highway department’s inspired time capsule. The four-foot metal tube, clearly marked, was set into the wall of the town of LaFayette’s brand new, state-of-the-art highway department, which had an illustrious ribbon cutting in May 30, 2015.

John Greeley, the town’s superintendent of highways, carefully collected the time capsule contents to reflect what LaFayette is all about right now. Among the items chosen are photos of the current crew and town board members, minutes from the town board meeting, former highway superintendents’ names and years of service, pictures of the old highway garage, and blueprints of the new facility. There also is a quart of Captain Morgan rum for a celebratory toast from John even though, he says, he probably won’t be there.

The capsule provides a little slice of life in the highway department, and its town. John’s influence is felt in the county’s association of highway superintendents, a group of which he is vice president. The town’s roads are frequently cited in professional meetings as, “The best in the county.”

It makes John very proud. In addition to a new building and a lot of new heavy equipment, the town of LaFayette has a crew of seven, plus John. Other crew members include: Joe Ambrose, Art Gabriel, Al Klaiber, Don Skinner, Tom Kurtz, and Tim Storrier.

The town plows and mows 29 lane miles of town road and an additional 26 miles for the county. The budget is $981,873, with $71,420 coming from CHIPS.

While he still plows certain areas in a smaller truck with wings, he says it’s beginning to get old, so he is investing heavily in mentoring Steve Robson, his deputy. On hiring Steve he says, “I like his honesty. He grew up, like I did, working.”

John and Steve brought the majority of the ideas on board for the new building when planning for the facility to come. They even did all the site work, landscaping, and built the flag pole and the dedication area when they began to run out of the project’s budget allocated to landscaping. John estimates that his crew probably saved the town about $1 million by doing the site work, but it wasn’t easy. First, they had to impress the engineers at C&S Engineering that they could do what was required to meet the engineering specs.

“They were a little bit concerned with the magnitude of the job that needed to be done, but we ended up with a great working relationship with those guys,” John says.

Beyond sentiment, the new highway garage has a lot going for it, especially technology-wise. John says from the very beginning, when the building wasn’t even in the blueprint stage, the town board — with whom he has an admirable can-do relationship — was adamant that this new facility would have to fit future-driven goals: serving needs right now while also being engineered to be productive in the years ahead.

“The board basically said, ‘We don’t want you coming back here in 20 years and asking for more,’” says John, cheerfully.

It’s All About Breathing Deeply

Air quality is of primary concern in any garage — consider the air brake test alone that has to take place on each truck for about 10 minutes every morning before they hit the road. That testing generates a lot of carbon monoxide. Units from Rupp Air Systems were installed in the ceilings throughout the building. The units can detect undesirable levels of carbon monoxide and respond automatically by bringing in fresh air at the same temperature as the existing air, even if it’s 20-below outdoors.

Heat is provided by radiant gas — directed from the ceiling down to the floor.

John explains, “Before we even made up our plans, Steve and I talked to all of the highway superintendents in a 40-mile radius from our shop and some in Buffalo. We wanted to find out what they like and didn’t like about where they had to work. Many of them mentioned that when you bring in a truck covered with ice and snow and the building warms from the floor, sometimes the materials in the truck don’t even get warm by morning.”

Radiant gas heat, which LaFayette is using, John says, gives you the sensation of warm sunshine on your skin. It warms every object in the building so that it is warm to the touch. Large, bright units of LEDs light most of the ceilings. In the wash bay, with less use, they opted for less expensive, traditional lights.

“Everything we built here is future-driven,” says John, as he walks through tremendously high ceilinged areas surrounded by portable jacks that make repairs easier. The $3.2-million department is located on 4.5 acres that parallel Route 81, a high-speed, sometimes dangerous road that, more than a century ago, caused the creation of the town of LaFayette — a town that owes its very existence to the convergence of four major highways.

When John and Steve began the site work for the new building, they quickly found that the ground is both wet and hard pan. The site work and early digging produced many surprises.

“I believe that if you do your job, you will be rewarded,” says John.

Early earth work sometimes tested his resolve. They found a place where the ground dropped off and required filling with stone and gravel. Then there were were some surprises — quicksand.

“We found what they call ‘running sand,’ which basically is quicksand,” says John. “We would take one bucket out, and it would fill up instantly.”

“We ended up having to go back and undercut to a clay level, which is solid. I would say that two-thirds of our parking lot, which is large, is on what proved to be unsuitable soil.”

The site, formerly a lumber supply business, also had a lot of concrete in the ground. He estimates that an outside contractor might charge $100,000 to remediate the concrete.

It took them all one summer to prepare the site for the ground breaking, while still doing their scheduled work on the highways.

“There were some long days for sure,” says John. “We were working out of an old barn. When we got done plowing, we would come down here to work on the site.”

Notable in the improvements are water systems, both inside and out. All the water from inside the building goes into grid separators before being discharged. All of the water outside the building goes into pipes that drain into detention ponds and finally into swales toward Route 81.

John explains, “We planned all of our piping and electrical lines so that if we ever had a problem in 25 years, we wouldn’t have to dig up the blacktop.”

The Grand

New Garage

For John, part of his DNA and core values is his desire to protect his workers from contaminants and an unsafe environment.

“I told them, when I took office as superintendent, ‘you guys have a right to come to work every day to a place that is safe, clean, and productive. You deserve to go home to your families, and what you are working in is not safe. We will have a new highway garage. You have my word on it.’”

The former garage could serve as a poster child for the many conditions that can plague worn-out, highly polluted highway garages, from the days of old before guidelines and regulations were put into practice. The former garage will probably be sold by the town. The location is ideal in terms of the town’s long-term plans to renovate the village’s four corner area, turning this historic convergence of four highways into a lively, mixed-use development area. The plans are in the works.

LaFayette is located at the convergence of four major highways. The north-south highways Interstate 81 and U.S. 11 intersect U.S. Route 20 in LaFayette while New York State 11A is a north-south highway in the town that parallels U.S. 11. From LaFayette any traveler can motor almost from coast to coast, while Route 81 will take them from Canada to Tennessee.

John calls the iconic blacktop, “a very important highway.” Recently he and Kathy drove Route 81 all the way to Tennessee for a vacation.

The town of LaFayette roads get a salt-sand mix. They use 1,500 tons of salt and 4,500 tons of sand each year. Salt is stored in the county’s salt barn on a reciprocal arrangement. Shared services with all the neighboring towns is a constant, especially when all the towns are surface treating roads in summer.

Why They Call LaFayette the Crossroads of

New York

Located in the heart of New York, LaFayette’s center is at the crossroads of two of the longest roads in the country — where travelers can drive from Canada to Florida or from the east and the west coasts. Route 81 also barrels past the new highway garage, and in the event of an accident, the new building will be able to provide videotape of much of the road in that location.

The new building also is designed with a second possible strategic use in mind — that of a disaster headquarters. The open architecture, treatment of door locks, and some other significant features make it FEMA-approved in the event of a community-wide emergency. The building is centrally located and wired with multi-channel radio hand sets especially designed to communicate with everyone involved in such events on a dedicated radio frequency.

John says, “In the event of an emergency, this building has been built so that it would function as a command center. Our job, as highway people, would be to ensure that all residents are safe, and then the county, including state police, would lead the response.”

One might think that the hilly roads along apple orchards are the stuff that only grace Norman Rockwell illustrations, but they would be wrong. In 1993, during an epic water event, a large mudslide obliterated one side of Tully Hill Farms Road, taking several homes with it.

John explains, “We spent the entire summer trying to clean it all up and still take care of the roads as usual. The roads were covered with acres of mud.”

A careful look at the valley today still demonstrates a more barren area that produced the unexpected event.

LaFayette is known for its apple production and for its Apple Festival — the weekend before Columbus Day —which draws thousands of spectators to its crafts, food, and pageantry in this beautiful apple-centric upstate region. LaFayette also is home to the hamlet of Cardiff where the largest hoax ever perpetrated in America was unearthed — the Cardiff Giant. Apple production continues to be the giant of local agribusiness.

The Vinegar Hill Sports Complex

In the old days when LaFayette was even more densely planted to all kinds of premium apple varieties, they also had acres of scrub trees whose fruit was suitable only for vinegar, so they called that area, which is carved with a steep hill, Vinegar Hill. The name stuck, so the town called the new sports complex, built by the highway department, Vinegar Hill Sports Complex — a true community-wide initiative.

While the highway crews did the work, the Optimist Club donated the materials and built the lacrosse box themselves. While coaches, players, referees, neighbors, and others labored in donated worker t-shirts, the sports park quickly took shape. The highway crew used their equipment and talents for demolition of a former, little-used park, and worked toward site improvement, including a massive retaining wall. The park now hosts lacrosse, basketball, and soccer, with nice metal benches for spectators.

John says some of the country’s best lacrosse players got their start here in LaFayette’s Vinegar Hill Sports Complex.

“We took an old park that is off the beaten path and revitalized it to have some value,” says John of the area they help construct.

The tiny town has had four #1 recruits for lacrosse players in the country.

“Lyle Thompson is a Native American from here,” says John. “He won the biggest award you can get, like the Heisman trophy for lacrosse. This box in Vinegar Hill Sports Complex is sacred ground to serious lacrosse players of all ages.”

John’s own son, John Greeley III, learned to play “in the box” here. Playing championship games by the time he was in 8th grade, he went on to a full scholarship, including books and board, at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where he starred as #9 on the lacrosse team. He now lives and works in security in Las Vegas where he also volunteer-coaches the game. His father says that giving back is something you learn growing up in a rural community like LaFayette. John describes his son, who calls him every day, as being “very worldly.” When his father recently asked him if he would ever come home to live in LaFayette, his son answered, “One traffic light and a Dollar General?”

The game of lacrosse was played as a blood sport by Native Americans across many acres. Serious injury and fatalities were commonplace. The game may have originated with the nearby Onondaga tribe, who live on a reservation bordering LaFayette. Of the town’s 68,000 acres, more than 6,000 acres comprise the Onondaga Reservation. John’s own sports while growing up were wrestling and baseball. Today, he likes to hunt turkey and white tails and travel with his relatively new wife Kathy (www.uniquejewelerybyKathy.com). His property, graced by a magnificent weeping willow tree, is where he gardens for what he calls his therapy. He also takes his weekly golf game seriously enough to have acquired professional-quality clubs.

LaFayette also is looking out for its senior citizens. In another park adjacent to the garage, the crew recently put in a handicapped accessible senior workout area, with a mile-long, paved path, landscaped with a little more privacy, and featuring equipment and instruction for safe, senior-driven stretching exercises.

Local Boy

Makes Good

It is not lost on John that his helping to plan and build the new highway facility gave him a chance to stretch out in some areas that he had devoted himself to in his past. John was born, with a fraternal twin, in Syracuse. In 1962, he helped build the home that his mother still lives in. His dad died in 1990. In his younger, hipster days he played in a touring band that did cover-tunes of the “oldies,” playing in clubs and Holiday Inns. His son flew him to Las Vegas for an Eagles concert and gave him a new Fender acoustic guitar, so who knows? John may be ready to rock on, at least off the job.

Having graduated from high school in 1977, he briefly attended college and quickly found higher education was not for him. He says his dad gave him a week living at home without paying for room and board. By the time the deadline was up John was in boot camp in Florida, having enlisted in the Sea Bees. He initially signed up agreeing to a “buddy deal” with his friend. An older brother served in Vietnam.

The military taught him a lot. He gleaned information from his experience watching airplanes take off and land on carriers, which now influences the traffic flow in the town’s slick new highway garage. The entrance and egress are wide open, with continuous paths in and out so that vehicles, even with plows, can easily move about.

“Our plows have wings, which is not too far in concept from jet airliners’ wings,” he says.

He was in the service for eight years, being stationed all over the world, including time spent off the coast of Africa, while building bridges and runways.

Upon discharge he took a job at Carrier in Syracuse, and then moved to the DOT in LaFayette as a maintenance worker who moved up the channel quickly.

“I was up for a big promotion there,” he says, “when the town highway superintendent came to me and asked if I would take over for him when he was ready to retire. I had to weigh my options. I was raising my son as a single parent. If I went with DOT, I would be called out to places like Binghamton and Oswego in snowstorms and have to make arrangements for a baby sitter. Or I could go with the town department and be home every night.”

“He pulled a fast one,” he says of the former superintendent. “He didn’t want to retire.” He had to retire for medical reasons. I became superintendent by default.”

John may be the highway superintendent, but he also is part of local history where the really important news is shared over coffee at Cindy’s diner, near the old highway barn. He is gregarious and well-liked, probably for his “get-er-done” bona fides. He calls David Muir, the ABC anchor newsman, a “good kid.” David grew up nearby in the town of Onondaga.

John, who became a computer nerd way back in the 1980s, has also turned to Facebook to keep the community constantly informed on highway-related matters. He checks the roads at 2 a.m. and he can announce a school closure more quickly than the school does. He does all of the social media himself and has plenty of “likes.” His long-term goal is for a variable message machine at the end of the driveway that he can input while sitting at his desk. Besides school closings, it would remind people of the many benefits provided to them by the town, including curbside brush pickup twice a year, electronic device recycling, and free mulch always on hand.

He says he took an extension school course in computers a long time ago because he saw them as the wave of the future.

“The social media thing gives me a chance to tell the residents what is going on and to create a dialogue with them.”

It must be working. On a typical e-waste pick-up day, they collect 22,519 pounds of computers, TVs and other gear. The crew also recycled 96 pounds of household batteries, in a town with about 4,000 residents.

John says his Facebook contacts typically want to share that they have brush on their road, or they question why we took a tree down. Short reply: “We didn’t; it fell.”

He says he began daily postings on Facebook about two years ago because he felt he might be missing some important dialogue.

“Social media gives me a chance to convey what is going on and explain why, which also saves me a lot of time in phone calls.”

LaFayette highways are often long and hilly, winding along meandering apple orchards. Many of the remaining farms use heavily-laden, manure-hauling 18-wheeler trucks, which sometimes spill, and more quickly breakdown the edge of any highway.

John says, “We get to clean it up. The farmers know their rights. They know when it’s mixed with sand they can spread it wherever they want. When it spills, the DEC can fine them $100.”

Funding the New Building With Dollars and Sense

In the town of LaFayette, they like to pay cash for things. For example two new Western Star plow trucks purchased from Tracey Road Equipment. The 10-wheeler with a unibody design will be used as a sander in winter and a dump truck in nice weather. One model is a 10-wheeler, the other is a 6-wheeler. In addition, John and Steve use their pickups with wings on them to sometimes “hit the hills before the big plow trucks go out.”

The town board puts a certain amount of dollars in an equipment fund. In doing so, John says, “We were able to pay cash for the wheel excavator, and cash for the Caterpillar skid steer. We paid cash for the trucks that Steve and I drive.”

“If I can get the town board to put money into an equipment fund, it prevents us from having to finance our needs in heavy equipment.”

He says he has given the board a 15-year plan for the future, which they may modify or tweak, but which states the needs for equipment over that period of time.

To get the community behind the need for a new highway barn, they put out a referendum, which passed easily, with 80 percent in favor of it.

“It’s all about transparency,” he says about getting along with citizens and the town board.

As for funding the new $3.2 million facility, the town went to a bond. John says they have $250.000 in surplus, but it hasn’t been a cake walk.

“When the town finally got the money, we saved another $200,000 in finance charges because the interest rate at the time was working to our advantage.”

“It’s hard to budget with change orders and unforeseen circumstances,” says John. “When you do services for the highway department, you have to get three quotes. Then you can’t exceed ‘x’ amount of dollars with that supplier. When you get to that number you have to go back and get three quotes again.”

He says sticking to the $3.2 million number was difficult because you have to fluctuate as the work progresses and change orders begin to present themselves.

The Softer Side of Highway Work

Right in front of the highway garage on Route 81, is a professionally produced highway sign that says, “Nesting Area.”

The only one of its kind, the sign bears some explaining. It appeared when a parent of a child who was waiting near the area for her school bus witnessed a baby Canada goose nearly get taken down by the bus. The experience left the child disturbed enough that the mother took the matter up with the town board. So John posted a professional sign that says, “Nesting Area,” to make the world in LaFayette a safer place for everybody, even the goslings.

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The Cardiff Giant — A Hoax That

Made Millions

In the town of Lafayette lies the hamlet of Cardiff, scene of one of the world’s greatest hoaxes. Imagine yourself taken back to October 16, 1869, when two workers digging a well discovered a 10-foot-tall, petrified man. Almost immediately a tent was erected over the giant and people easily parted with 25 cents and soon 50 cents for a peek. That was a lot of money then. It’s worth noting that this part of upstate was known as the “burned over” district because of the many religions and social movements that have their roots planted in the soil here. Religions founded here by laypeople include the Latter Day Saints movement (Mormons), and the Millerites. Millerites started the following still-active churches: Adventists, Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and International Bible Students.

More upstate beliefs arrived with the Fox sisters, who launched Spiritualism, the Shakers, and the Oneida Society, a group that favored co-mingling marriages. The women’s rights movement was formally started in Seneca Falls in a building that has become probably the only laundromat in the state with a historic marker.

The author of the phrase “burned over” said that the area had been so heavily evangelized that it had no more fuel (the unconverted) left to burn (conversion). Amid this willingness to believe, few suspected the credentials of the Cardiff Giant, a 10-foot-tall supposedly “petrified” man. When famous entertainer and entrepreneur P.T. Barnum failed to purchase the original Cardiff Giant, he had a fake one made. The stone cutting replicator built several more copies of the giant for exhibition — half a dozen of them by the end of the year.

“It is rather rich,” quipped the Philadelphia Inquirer while reporting on Barnum’s exhibit, “that we should be victimized by such a fraud upon a fraud.” Having done the carnival circuit, the original giant changed hands again in 1947. The original giant, now called the greatest hoax on America at that time, rests in its forever home at the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown, still getting the attention it deserves inside the front hall.

Surprisingly, the hoax, which cost around $45,000 in today’s dollars to engineer, was not about money, but about god. The originator, George Hull, a cigar maker, an atheist, and a skeptic, found himself locked in a theological debate with a revivalist preacher. George reported being flabbergasted by the preacher’s reading of the Bible, especially the Book of Genesis, which reads: “There were giants in the earth in those days.”

So George ordered up a giant made from a five-ton block of gypsum quarried in Dodge, Iowa, claiming it would become a statue of Lincoln! Next the slab goes to a Chicago marble dealer who agrees to the scheme in exchange for a share in the profits. History.com says Hull was posing as the model while the two men carved the gypsum into an anthropological wonder of a man with one arm clutching his stomach, the other at his side. Its lips-drawn-smiling expression remains very creepy, even by today’s standards for horror films. To appear authentic, Hull drove pins into the body to make them look like skin pores, and used chemicals to simulate great age.

Where to bury the 3,000 pound giant? William “Stub” Newell, a distant relative in the small valley town of Cardiff, who was sworn to secrecy, had the ideal spot on his hillside farm. Once again the deal was bartered for a piece of the action. On a chilly night, in November 1868, the men buried their treasure under roots to enhance the idea that many years had passed since the petrified man took his last gigantic gasp. Hull went back to making cigars in Syracuse. One year later Newell hired a pair of unsuspecting workers to dig a well on a specific spot and voila — they discover the Cardiff Giant. Within days, a tent was erected over their find, and the cash to peek at him began to flow.

Meanwhile the major newspapers in large cities declared the giant, “A New Wonder,” and a “Singular Discovery.” After profiting from the initial gate, the conspirators quickly sold the giant for $30,000 for a three-quarter stake in the manly asset. Aspersions were cast of course. Some sharp-eyed locals remember seeing George Hull transporting a massive crate through Cardiff a year earlier.

Barnum displayed his copy as the original and even outsold Hull’s discovery in ticket sales. That’s marketing for you. Barnum’s signage said “Six Million People Have Paid to See Him,” and he was “Taller Than Goliath Whom David Slew.” During court proceedings concerning Barnum’s giant’s authenticity, the judge ruled in Barnum’s favor saying the showman could not be sued for not calling a fake giant a fake.

Some scientists of the day clung to the statue theory, but as Barnum once pointed out, there is a sucker born every minute, and some of us still want to believe that giants once walked the earth.

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