When it came time for Mark Minick to take over as highway superintendent for the town of Stillwater it didn’t go down the way he expected. Instead of a calm and quiet transition of power, it was baptism by fire.
Mark remembers it well.
“I got out of the shower and the fire whistle blew. The town garage was fully engulfed. When I got there everything was on fire and smoky. A battery cable through the frame had rotted off and it ended up running on the frame and the salt and water ignited the truck. We ended up getting the garage doors open even though we didn’t have any power. We got as much equipment out as we could and the fire department extinguished the fire.
“After that, we operated the best we could with what we had. It took quite a while for us to get back on our feet and have everything up and running. It took the town board and the insurance company to make everything happen. Those things don’t just happen fast.
“We ended up emergency purchasing a truck to replace the one that was destroyed. Several nearby towns and communities came right over that day. They didn’t know me from Adam. They knew my predecessor but they didn’t know me. They introduced themselves and said, ‘We have an extra truck,’ or ‘If you need anything let us know’ or ‘How can we help?’ That was a great feeling. We did whatever we had to do to get through it. It wasn’t easy but we did it.”
Lucky for the residents of Stillwater, Mark didn’t let the events of that first day drive him away. On the contrary, today Mark is the second longest running highway superintendent in Saratoga County. He just finished his 26th year at the helm.
A native of Stillwater, this farm boy got most of the knowledge and hands-on experience needed to run the highway department from his days on the farm. “I operated a lot of equipment, everything from loaders to tractors and backhoes.”
He also performed myriad jobs before making the highway department his home. After high school, Mark studied electrical trades at BOCES before going to Chauffer’s Training School to learn how to drive a tractor trailer. Next he worked as a service technician for Agway.
“Then I drove a truck for Big John in Clifton Park. They spread lime and liquid fertilizer on fields. From there I worked in a county jail as a correctional officer. It was like being an inmate with keys, so I didn’t stay there long. That led me to Kilby Brothers, where I was a union construction worker doing heavy highway and building construction. I also had my own business, Try-A-Minick General Construction. I started that in 1983 while I was working other jobs.”
So how did he end up at the highway department?
“I was working outside one day and Councilman Artie Baker stopped and asked if I’d be interested in running for highway superintendent. I said, ‘Why not?’ I was always interested in dirt work building roads, excavation and that type of stuff. I enjoyed it and thought I had something to offer the community. I was elected in 1989. For the first time, the election ended in a tie. We had to go to the Supreme Court to get the write-in ballots opened.”
Mark and his wife, Karen, have been married for 28 years. They are proud parents to Mark Joseph, 25, who recently graduated from Albany Law School; and Leah Nichole, 22, who earned a degree in health management and psychology from the University of Buffalo. What does Karen think about Mark being here for so long? “I’m very proud of him and his accomplishments. He loves this town and works hard.”
The end of this term will mark 28 years as superintendent. How much longer would he like to be the highway department’s top dog?
“It’s tough when you’re elected. Sometimes it’s not your choice. I like accomplishing things and my heart is into the roads, equipment, manpower and building and preserving our infrastructure. We have a lot of things happening and I want to see them through. Timewise, I’d say at least another four years. I don’t think I’ll ever fully retire. I don’t really know where it will take me. I’m not one to sit around so I’ll always do something.”
On the Job
The department’s facilities include one building that houses Mark’s office and the police department as well as cold storage. Built in 1971, the main building is across the way. That’s where all the equipment is stored.
“There are two doors, but we can stack two trucks sideways and two deep. It’s not as big as it needs to be, but most of what we use during the winter fits.”
The salt shed, constructed in 1995, holds about 400 tons.
“In a typical winter we use more than that. Depending on the winter, we could have to refill the shed within a week. We don’t mix it. We have a sand pile in the pit and salt here. Most of our salt usage is in the high-density district areas. We use sand and a little salt on the country roads just to get it working a little bit. We have areas throughout the town that use salt and others that don’t. So what happens is the drivers go out and do their routes and on their way back they’ll lightly salt some of the other roads to keep the ice bond from adhering.”
As highway superintendent, it’s Mark’s job to maintain the town’s 128.69 lane miles of road; .75 of which are gravel and the rest are paved. That translates into nine plowing routes that take about three hours to complete.
A 14-man crew helps Mark serve the town’s 8,500 residents. His staff includes John Curtis, foreman, Steve Svendsen, mechanic; Bill Doughty, HEO leader; Kevin Margosian, MEO, Water; HEOs Mark Desorbe and Keith McBride; and MEOs Nick D’Agostino, Mike Garland, Jim Gerardi, John Lennox, Scott Lescault, Dan McNeil, Jim Murphy and Todd Stewart, and Meg McGuire, administrative assistant, who sometimes fills in as wing woman during snowstorms.
Mark is quick to acknowledge his men.
“I appreciate their hard work and what they do. I thank them on behalf of myself, the town and the taxpayers all the time. It’s important. We all have bad days. We all have personal things going on and there’s so much that plays into an outcome. Sometimes it’s a tough juggle. I tell them right on the spot. It’s not a one-man show. It takes everybody.”
Under Mark’s dutiful eye, the town of Stillwater’s highway department runs on a total operating budget of $2.7 million that includes salaries, employee benefits and an annual CHIPS allocation of $130,000.
To fulfill its responsibilities, the department uses a convoy of equipment consisting of, in part:
• 1989 Ford dump truck with plow
• 1990 Ford dump truck with plow and sander
• 1991 Ford recycling dump truck
• 1994 Trail trailer
• 1994 Ford LT9000
• 1997 Chevy pickup
• 2001 Mack dump truck with wing, plow and sander
• 2001 International dump truck with plow and wing
• 2003 International van
• 2003 Ford F350 Super
• 2003 Bri-Mar trailer
• 2004 Mack dump truck with plow
• 2003 Ford E350 Super
• 2005 Chevy 4500
• 2007 Mack dump truck with plow and wing (2)
• 2008 Ford F250 Super (2)
• 2009 Ford F550 with dump truck, plow and sander
• 2009 Elgin sweeper
• 2010 International bucket
• 2007 Chevy Uplander
• 2009 Nissan sweeper truck
• Caterpillar 308E-CR-SB
• Morbark wood chipper
• Miller Wire-matic 250 Weld
• Blaw-Knox paver
• Diamond side wing flall
• John Deere loader
• Dump truck with plow and wing sander 4500
• Dump truck with plow and wing sander CV713
When asked how he budgets for new equipment Mark said, “I typically like to keep $300,000 in the budget annually for equipment replacement. I try to keep the fleet up-to-date to reduce our downtime and repair costs. Unfortunately, others don’t always agree with that. It doesn’t matter if it’s state, federal, county or town. Other things become more of a priority than the highway so when they need money for their thing, it ends up sacrificing something from the highway department. Roads and bridges are vital and essential and people don’t have them as a priority. It’s something that’s taken for granted. The problem is there are certain levels of road maintenance and if you don’t keep it there you fall below a certain quality of road and it ends up costing you a ton of money to fix. That’s why I’m big on being proactive and performing preventive maintenance.”
What does he do in the line of preventive maintenance?
“I ride all my roads annually. Every spring and fall I’ll start listing things that need to be done to the roads to keep them in good condition. They used to say ‘worst first’” so in the past they’d take the worst road and fix it but I don’t think it works. Preventive maintenance and keeping your roads in good condition is more cost-effective for the taxpayer, the community, everyone. What happens is — and people don’t think about this — when you have a road that’s bad or ridden with potholes or something of that nature you’re paying extra money on shocks, tires, brakes and suspension for your car.
“So is the garbage man and the school bus, highway department, electric company. Everyone who travels that road is paying extra money for repairs. Guess who pays for that in the end. It gets passed on to the users. That’s us. We’re the ones who use the electric, use the garbage services and the school. That multiplies. It’s not a savings. It’s a huge burden on everyone. And they don’t even think about that. You’re paying multiple times on that pothole where if you paid once through your taxes to fix it or use the fuel tax money to fix your roads it would be a one-shot deal. That needs to be focused on more. Over the years, people have gotten away from paying attention to that and that’s a huge, huge cost to the people.”
Like most highway superintendents, Mark agrees that today’s vehicles are more efficient and user-friendly but they’re harder to work on.
“A lot of things are plug-and-play in computers. Years ago it was simpler by far. You pretty much have to have their program, their computer. We’ve been looking into that, but it’s expensive. You can spend anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 or more and, depending on what you get, you have to be hooked into the factory. It’s not one size fits all. You can only do simple things without factory authorization.”
Mark also admits that “trucks don’t seem to be lasting as long … it’s because of the conditions we work under. We don’t just drive to work for an hour through the sand, salt and snow. We drive through that for 10, 12, 14 hours at a rip. Then your truck goes into a warm building at night and comes out cold in the morning. We do some barrier shield and other things like that to prevent it but still … I think a lot of that is related to the quality of steel being used. If they’re using recycled steel or something like that, it seems to rust faster.”
For Mark, his favorite part of the job thus far is the highway department’s daily accomplishments.
“We accomplish something every day. If we’re out doing a road reconstruction or paving job, at the end of the day everything comes together. That’s a great feeling.”
What’s the most important part?
“Keeping everyone safe. Keeping the production up. It’s all important. There’s not one thing that’s more important than another. Everything plays in together.”
Despite all he’s accomplished as superintendent, there are several things Mark would like to see completed before he leaves.
“We have an $8 million water project. We’re going to be tying our water system into Saratoga County’s system. The engineering and approvals are complete. Our tentative start date is May 1. I’d also like to see a new highway department complex somewhere outside. We’re surrounded by the residents, right in the middle of the community. We’re out here with loaders and dump trucks, banging tailgates and all sorts of things during all hours of the night in the winter. We’re all on two sides of the road in two separate buildings. We’re cramped for space and really need a bigger area.”
When he’s finally looking in the rearview mirror of his time as highway superintendent Mark would like to be remembered as being “hard-working and dedicated; someone who prepared for the future and made a difference in the community.”
About the Town of Stillwater*
The town of Stillwater celebrated its bicentennial in 1988, as one of more than 100 towns erected by the legislature on March 7, 1788; presumably to authorize more polling places for the upcoming election of delegates to the State Convention that would determine whether or not the State of New York would ratify the proposed constitution.
However, Stillwater had been on the highway of history long before 1788. Strategically situated at the joining of two rivers — the Hudson and the Hoosic, which made a natural crossing place for Indians as they went to their summer hunting grounds and later on, the “King's Highway” between Albany and Montreal. Hunters and traders also knew the trail up the Hudson River very well.
The place of the “Still Waters” knew early settlement. French people were here in the early 1600s and are known to have had a mill but they had to go to Albany to have their babies baptized in the Catholic faith.
Soldiers used this highway during the drawn-out French and Indian Wars. The early Fort Ingoldsby (1709), and its successor. Fort Winslow (1756), gave them shelter and protection on their journeys to and from Canada. Sometimes, the forts became their burial place.
With the signing of the treaty of peace in 1759, the pioneer homesteaders took the route of the ammunition wagons. In 1762, a Congregational Church society from Connecticut, with their pastor, Rev. Robert Campbell, settled in the southern part of the town. About the same time, Baptists from Rhode Island settled in the northern section. In 1764, 200 Scotch Irish Presbyterians were overtaken by winter here on their way to lands at Lake George. They were hospitably taken in by residents of Stillwater and Schaghticoke, where they stayed for two years until a purchase of lands could be arranged in a less rigorous climate than Lake George. They became early settlers of Salem, N.Y.
Stillwater Village grew quickly from a straggling outpost into a market center for the northern settlements along the river, the settlers in the lake region and others to the east.
At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, gristmills, saw mills, a tannery, an ashery and fuller’s works, a brewery and brick kiln, as well as stores and saloons, made it a thriving settlement.
When the news of the Battle of Lexington arrived, enlistment began at once. George Palmer equipped a company of militia, which marched to Ticonderoga to offer their services; “the first troops to march from this province against the British as the north.”
As the fighting threatened the river communities, families were sent to Albany or back to New England for safety and the men stayed to face the British. The British were beaten at the Battles of Bemis Heights and Freeman’s Farm, in the town of Stillwater, a victory which rates with the most important battles of the world. This is now the site of the Saratoga National Historical Park.
The battles, however, left desolation in their wake; buildings burned, cattle confiscated, crops wiped out. Re-turning residents had to start all over again, as well as being on the alert at all times for attacks from Indians and Tories.
At the beginning of the 19th century, progress and prosperity began a triumphant march up the old warpath of the nation. The Champlain Canal, opened in 1823, started a golden age in commerce, transportation, church and home building, stores, inns, mills, and services, such as barns for changing for mules and horses.
During this period Stillwater produced Congressmen, presidential electors, members of the Assembly, and judges. A Stillwater girl, Abigail Powers, daughter of Elder Lemuel Powers of the First Baptist Church, became Mrs. Millard Fillmore, the nation’s 13th First Lady. The town was an educational as well as a commercial center, with an academy, which flourished for many years.
In 1824, there were more sheep than people. In addition to all the mills and industries, farming was very important. For example, in 1860, local farms produced 101,935 pounds of butter and 13,090 pounds of cheese.
However, progress caught up with Stillwater and then bypassed it. The canal was overtaken by the railroads. There were devastating mill fires and stores dwindled or closed.
Stillwater has become a “bedroom community,” with people commuting to work in the nearby Capital District. There is now a building boom, as the charm of the village, with its stately Victorian homes and its situation by the river and rolling hills, is discovered.
(*History courtesy of www.stillwaterny.org/history)