Highway Superintendent Robert E. Kehlenbeck and the Town of Alabama

Laurie Mercer

It happens every once in a while, people thinking that Bob Kehlenbeck in the upstate town of Alabama, actually lives in the deep southern state, the town’s namesake.

“Once I had a problem with a truck transmission and the manufacturer said they would have the proper rep call me back. When he called, he had a real southern drawl, and I knew right away he was misled about Alabama. I had to say it’s a town in Genesee County in upstate New York. I get a lot of that over the phone.”

Alabama has a population of about 2,000, much the same as in the 1800s. Bob has a crew of three. They plow a total of 150 lane miles for the town, state and the county, including the Tonawanda Indian Reservation of the Seneca Tribe. Native Americans have lived here for more than a century. He says the traffic drawn to the reservation smoke shops is considerable.

The highway department’s budget of $600,000 is the largest expense in the town, with $85,900 coming from CHIPS.

Surprisingly, Gov. Cuomo anticipates that the town will soon become part of a major “game changer” and a globally inspired technological force they are calling STAMP, which stands for the WNY Science and Technology Advanced Manufacturing Park. It’s been called “the largest economic development opportunity in the history of Genesee County.”

The sleepy little community, home to thousands of dairy cows, is located in the cross hairs of a project destined to become an epic scale high-tech industrial park. The first tenant, due to break ground any day now, will produce silicon wafers for solar energy less expensively than is now possible using existing technology. These silicon wafers are critical to large-scale solar farming. A company called 1366 Technologies will be the pioneer facility, developing a 130,000 square-foot-manufacturing plant. STAMP is situated on 12,500 acres, or about 8 percent of the land suitable for this kind of development in Genesee County. Just 1366 Technologies alone is expected to employ 1,000 well-paid professionals when it reaches total build-out.

Entrepreneurs involved in this first tenant expect the company to revolutionize solar energy — cutting the cost of making wafers in half by using technology pioneered at MIT. The name of the company —1366 Technologies — refers to the fact that sunlight falls on the planet at a rate of 1,366 watts per square meter, or 130,000 terawatts of energy annually. To power civilization as we know it, just 17TW are required.

Remember the phrase, “where the rubber meets the road”? Well. the town of Alabama is the place where the silicon meets the solar wafer in an area strategically located between Buffalo and Rochester. Visionaries expect solar to replace coal as the cheapest, cleanest fuel source on the planet, and hydro power cuts the cost of making the wafer by a factor of three.

So Why Alabama?

As of early spring, STAMP is just a large sign on a bare site looking for the project’s $700 million investment to begin. One reason why Alabama was chosen is the relatively low cost for electricity due to nearby Niagara Falls (called cheap and clean in promotional materials). Second is the potential pipeline of capable workers educated at one of many area colleges, including six schools that boast a total of more than 17,000 enrolled engineering students.

Water Cures, Then and Now

Heavy hitters behind STAMP have procured tax abatements of a potential $97 million over 10 years. The state and federal governments also have pledged millions for land acquisition and infrastructure. A local newspaper, The Batavian, said 1366 Technologies alone could receive $56 million in incentives from New York with tax abatements of more than $35 million through the Genesee County Economic Development Center. This is big business, not something you find at Home Depot. The wafers are intended for solar energy farms; a heavily subsidized industry that represents about 70 percent of the solar energy market worldwide.

Many anticipate an economic boom here unlike anything that’s happened in Alabama for the past century when several hundred tourists each day walked the plank boardwalk from the spa hotels to take the waters at the “sour springs.” The water also was sold in heavy brown glass bottles that looked like root beer. While the springs still gurgle to the surface, they are inaccessible now, sight unseen under a dense canopy of trees and marshes.

Bob has lived here much of his life and it’s kind of hard to imagine what the impact will be like in Alabama when STAMP begins to make an impression. He says the town is “sort of” waiting for the other shoe to drop. Will the industrial park roads be assigned to the highway department? Will STAMP funds be used to help get his department a much-needed larger space, maybe something they can share with the Town Hall? Nearby Oakfield, similarly affected, has already mapped out future residential developments and additional schools. As Bob explains residents’ reaction to change, “Water is a big issue here. Water to STAMP is coming out of Oakfield with 100,000 feet of pipe in Phase One alone.” As a consequence, most of the town of Oakfield now has municipal water, yeilding one surprising outcome. Bob says, “When municipal treated water came in, milk production went up significantly on one farm where they milk a total of 5,000 cows.

“An unbred heifer requires 30 gallons of water a day just for drinking, not including clean up. A milking cow takes more than 60 gallons a day to survive. When you are milking 5,000 head, which is what they do here, having good safe water becomes a big issue business wise, beyond meeting residents’ needs.

“If everything goes right, about 705 households in Alabama will have town water,” he says.

While the population of Alabama (about 2,000) remains about the same as it did in the 1880s, for now Bob’s main concern is the size of the farms and the extreme weight of the farm equipment, which puts tremendous stress on the roads.

“It’s getting to be a big problem in terms of our roads. With 5,000 to 6,000 heifers just in Alabama, the hauling of milk, feed and manure puts a ton of heavy trucks on our roads. Each tanker can haul about 100,000 lbs. And they are talking about larger units to haul even more. Big equipment means the roads will break down more quickly.”

Family Man and More

Bob is a friendly, approachable kind of person. He was born in Middleton and moved to Alabama in 1965 when his father got a new job doing maintenance for a trucking company. His mother was a housewife, tasked with raising seven children. His father began a repair shop where as a youngster Bob honed his mechanical skills. He followed his father to Texas but returned with his wife and daughter after just one year. Texas’s oppressive humidity, fire ants, and snakes were all reasons he came back home. Plus, he had been promised a job in the Alabama highway department if he returned, so, in 1982, he did. Family life today includes his wife, Tina, two daughters, and three grandchildren, plus a new one this spring. For pets he cites a “spastic beagle” and a “fat old cat” they took in when his sister-in-law died.

His departure from a traditional lifestyle occurred two years ago when he decided he wanted a motorcycle.

“I just got the bug.”

He had taken notice of other highway superintendents who were bikers.

“I had ridden a friend’s dirt bike when I was 12 years old. We bombed around on that.”

Happily his wife did not take much convincing. They shopped together for their first motorcycle, which proved to be uncomfortable on long rides. They now enjoy the Yamaha 950.

“On the very first ride she thought we were going just down the street for ice cream, and I took her to Medina. At first she was terrified; she’s good now.”

Another activity they used to enjoy a lot as a couple was re-enactments of the French and Indian War period, familar to Alabama local history.

“I shot competitive black powder for a few years. We cooked on an open fire in cast iron pots. I learned more about American history than I ever did in school.”

He hunts deer with gun and bow, but just for meat. “I am not a horn hunter at all. I don’t care if it’s a big buck or a spike horn.”

He also likes vegetable gardening —“stuff we can and freeze” — and leaves tending flowers for his wife. His other quiet pastime is feeding the birds, mentioning he went through 120 pounds of black oil sunflower seed in just three weeks.

Coming Up

in Alabama’s Highway Department

This is a typically small town operation, for now headquartered in a building more suitable for the mid 1950s when it was built. Bob answers his own phone and counts on a software program to help keep track of all highway department activities. He joined the highway crew part time in 1982 and went full time one year later. He became superintendent in 2004.

“I worked here for 20 years, and I didn’t know what the superintendent job was about. I knew how to do the work, but not how to deal with the state and the politics that go into it.”

For example, “We plow for the state and, while they have no bare roads policy, they do say no more than 115 pounds of salt per land mile, regardless if there is snow, ice, freezing rain, whatever. Every road is a different situation.”

Bob cites the highway superintendent’s annual trip to Albany in matching shirts as inspiring to him.

“I’ve met with assemblymen and senators and most of them do not know what roads like ours are for. Many live in urban areas with lots of public transportation, hotels and apartments. We need to be able to show them what it’s like to maintain safe roads in this part of the state. Winter is very stressful, and people nowadays don’t know how to drive. They won’t slow down. We’ve had some nasty accidents. In fact. we had one here at 4 a.m. this morning. This is a rural community, but we get lots of through traffic, especially people going to the smoke shops on the reservation.”

Alabama is home to the Tonawanda Indian Reservation, partially in Alabama, partly in Pembroke, and partly in Erie County. It encompasses 7,500 acres. His department is contracted by the state for snow and ice removal on the reservation. The reservation has a modern community hall, but no real population center as such. Just gas station tourist traps and smoke shops.

Three large wildlife refuges maintained by state, county and federal rules also draw lots of bird watchers to his town, which is mostly flat land with open roads.

“People scream about the intersections, but there is nothing wrong with the intersections. It’s the people who don’t stop at a stop sign.”

He regrets the loss of driver education in the local schools.

“There is no fear of the law anymore.”

No surprise then that the highway barn has been outfitted with surveillance cameras and lots of alarms for fire, break-ins and police.

“I’ve got to ask for my job every four years,” he says. “I have got to keep the people happy by keeping the roads in the best shape I can. I like it when I’m out campaigning and somebody says they know they can get home in heavy snow because they live in the town of Alabama.”

He has good things to say about his crew, who he says are quick to “pick up on things.”

A Straight Diet of Treated Salt,

Other Innovations

Alabama used about 2,000 tons of treated salt during this past mild winter. The choice was not easily made.

“I can’t think of any town in Genesee County that uses a salt/sand mix. Sand does not melt ice and snow.”

He says a course put on by Cornell University gave him the measurable proof he needed to take his choice to the town board, where it was initially met with opposition. The town traditionally used a 3-to-1 mix.

“Until I took that course I could not convince them how much money we would save by going with salt alone. After all, sand is $7 a ton compared to $49 for salt. They could not wrap their heads around it until I came back from that course. I had to work to get them to see it my way.”

Bob explains that Alabama used to use about 750 pounds of salt/sand mix per lane mile depending on the level of service required, the kinds of roads, the amount of traffic, and other factors. He said the instructor in the course said that after 18 passes with a car, the sand applied would be gone.

“It gets into the hard pack and there is no traction to it.”

Spring clean up, including intersections filled with sand and ditches getting filled up as well, adds to the cost. So in 2010, they went to straight salt.

“If we put down untreated salt it would go into the wind, taking two or three times the amount to get the same results. We now use Ice Ban [8 to 9 gallons to a ton of salt], which kind of binds it together.”

Another innovation, since he came on board so many years ago is the discontinuance of the wingman.

“Years ago, when I started you had the same wingman, and you got to know what your capabilities were. I never had to worry about that side of the vehicle.”

He still remembers moments from years ago when the wingman’s swift action saved the wing from folding up under the truck. He said the newer trucks with electronic controls reduce the need for an additional person in the vehicle.

“Auto recall on the wing is very useful around here because of the narrow bridges we’ve got. If you get jammed up in one, you just hit this button to bring the wing up. You don’t have to pull two levers. We can save enough money on replacing mirrors and doors to pay for it.”

GPS is another innovation on newer vehicles that Bob says saves Alabama money.

“We got GPS tracking systems on our vehicles unfortunately because of a fatal accident. All I had to hand in on road treatment were hand-written records. Anybody could write that up if they wanted to. Fortunately it wasn’t a problem then. Now the trucks have GPS on them and the data is there on time of day, application rate, and other details dated and time stamped. It’s amazing what can be done now. But it’s too bad it has to be done because people shirk their responsibility when there is an accident.”

Six Feet Under

in Alabama

Plenty of smaller town highway crews inherit dormant old cemeteries in their towns when the cemetery association goes out of business. Additional budget to tend the grounds rarely, if ever, comes with the package. You know what is even more difficult? Taking on a cemetery that is open, which means the highway superintendent, now an untrained grief counselor, has to deal with grieving families and sometimes has to find hidden plots and remains. It’s enough to make plowing in a blizzard look like a day at the beach. He says the town of Oakfield has been very helpful, having been in “the cemetery business for a long time.”

“Cemeteries, don’t get me started on that. Four years ago we got a big one. We take care of four inactive cemeteries in town, which we mow weekly, but this one is open, meaning we have to sell plots, dig graves and keep records. The biggest problem isn’t maintenance, it’s dealing with people and their emotions.”

The superintendent also is the sales agent, the person who digs the hole, followed by interment, and later the setting.

“Because of inadequate record keeping, sometimes we are also the people looking for a family member’s remains.”

It’s a far cry from plowing and salting the roads. In Alabama and elsewhere, there is no additional funding when the highway crew takes over this hallowed ground.

“Family members are fresh from grief. And then there are the removals and reburials, some of which are caused by a lack of space in the family plot.”

He has also looked for burials that were not where they were supposed to be. The only upside is that the department can legally refuse to do winter burials, which a cemetery association must accommodate.

“You need a lot of extra heavy equipment like jackhammers. Alabama has a little mausoleum to keep them in until spring.”

Because of poor and spotty record keeping over the years, Bob has found himself on the end of a long metal pole digging in the earth for earthly remains, sometimes to no avail.

“You don’t know which you are getting into. A family had bought six plots. The father died and there was a grave next to him for his wife, but we couldn’t find the vault. We went back to the records we had and he was cremated, which means there is an urn, not a vault. In the really olden days there can be a wooden coffin or even a cardboard box.”

He says without a hard outer box, the location of a grave is much harder to determine.

When a son died the following year and they prepared the ground for burial, they found another burial site not on the records. Another son told Bob the family had his four-year-old sister buried there many years ago, but that is all he knew.

“I slid a pole in the ground and I didn’t hit anything. How far away is she? You don’t know what you are getting into.

“When we got handed the cemetery, the town clerk and I went through all of the records we had. We went plot by plot. I’ve got a record now on my computer. We have found people buried who aren’t in the records. In one case there were only 18 inches between two vaults of a woman’s husband and his uncle. There wasn’t enough room for her burial.”

Bob, a newcomer in the mortuary trade, took his concerns to nearby Oakfield where the highway department has a history with administering an open cemetery. Oakfield didn’t have a clue on what to advise. He also called the local mortuary and the state department assigned to cemeteries asking for guidance.

“The state said I have two options: Offer a grave site someplace else and bury mom and dad sometime later. Or, get notarized permission to dig dad up and move him to a place in the cemetery with room for his wife.”

The direct relatives elected to have dad’s urn dug up and set aside until their mother was in the ground. Then, unknown to other family members, the urn was set in with his wife’s vault.

“They elected to put him in with mom, but they didn’t want the grandchildren to know this.”

To make things easier in arranging eternal care, Bob says he notes everything on his computer records including notations if the burial is for an urn or a vault.

A more contemporary problem involves the tendency to add sometimes garish decorations to a grave site, which upsets people visiting family plots nearby.

“Having people complain that the cemetery was beginning to look gaudy is a problem. Having to communicate about such issues is not easily done. You’ve got certain rules to follow including no permanent planting.

“We dig the holes, we prepare the foundation. We see families who come in for pre-buying because somebody in the family is terminally ill. We get young people who have died unexpectedly. It falls back on the taxpayers now, and we just had to raise our prices this year.”

What to Do When 40 Percent of Town Land Is Not Taxed

Being home to three different wildlife refuge centers totaling many thousands of acres of unbridled wilderness and marshes gives Alabama its distinctive character. But 40 percent of the land also is not taxable, which means there is a juggling act between what is naturally beautiful and what it costs to maintain those wilderness places. The Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge covers 10,818 acres, extending into Orleans County, and the largest federal refuge in the state. Several more thousand acres of refuges, including the Oak Orchard Wildlife Management area and the Tonawanda Wildlife Management Area, add to this waterway paradise for migratory birds and numerous mammals including beaver and muskrat.

An old overgrown feeder for the Erie Canal is still visible near the Tonawanda Creek.

While lovely to look at, the marshes and swamps cause problems on the roads.

“The ditches have all grown up and they aren’t maintaining them as well as they once did. Along with the creeks all water flows into Lake Ontario. The water can’t get away even when the creeks are low. It floods out the roads.”

Bob says the changing rain patterns haven’t helped either.

“We used to get spring rains, now we get deluges of 2 to 3 inches at a time.”

Just viewing the many refuge areas from a car window you can see great blue herons in flight, ospreys nesting on the top of a pole, and many songbirds vocalizing constantly. Visitors enjoy exercising here because they won’t get run over by cars. Often they approach a blocked bridge that is now a bike trail, using what was once a dirt through road on Bob’s agenda.

“This road used to go all the way through until someone came along and hit the bridge, which fell right into the creek. It was a county bridge and the cost of repair was a million dollars for a little used road. So they elected to end the road for vehicles right here.”

Where Rubber Meets the Road

Bob says he is grateful that he inherited good roads when he took over the position as superintendent. Even though the building is too small and old, he says most of the equipment is sufficient, even if it’s not replaced as often as he would like it to be.

“The town board would like us to keep equipment longer than we want to. I’ve tried to impress upon them that after nine or 10 years, you start buying the truck back through repairs and stuff. The vehicles take a lot of hard abuse and get fatigued.

“We just ordered a new Mack. Our most recent one is a 2014 Mack. The drivers like all the Macks’ computer controls for snow and ice removal. It has electronically controlled hydraulics, which I was leery about at first. I mean when I was starting out, it was all operated with cables and rods. Then they went to air controls. If you didn’t keep the system clean, stuff would get into the controls. Now it is fingertip control. It’s almost bullet proof.”

With the STAMP program and its potential for Alabama becoming a boom town gleaming in their headlights, it’s fair to ask Bob if he is in favor of the changes to come.

“I don’t know if I am or not. Nobody really knows yet what they will be. You hear one thing, then another. It hasn’t quite shaken out. I personally don’t see the need for tax credits. If the state cut their taxes, that would bring business in.”

Ready or not, life in Alabama — and the highway department — is about to experience a historic, seismic shift.

About the Town

of Alabama

It was French fur trader William Poudrit who set up a trading post in what is now the Tonawanda Indian Reservation in Alabama while staking his claim as the first white pioneer here. Some of the area’s most notable residents were Native Americans, including a chief named William Parker who served in the War of 1812. His wife was a niece of the famous Red Jacket, and his son, General Ely S. Parker, for many years a chief, was an aide on the staff of General Ulysses S. Grant.

The reservation, now 7,500 acres, once numbered 45,000 acres.

First settled around 1806, the town of Alabama was established in 1826. Originally called “Gerrysville” after then Vice-President Elbridge Gerry, the town in 1828, for unknown reasons, chose to name itself after a southern state.

When the first town meeting was held in 1826, among those elected were three gentlemen chosen as “commissioner of highways,” making Bob Kehlenbeck part of an illustrious, nearly 200-year-long history.

State Roads 63 and 77 intersect in the town, so there has always been plenty of through traffic. One of its loftiest times in history came in the 1880s when water cures were very popular. Water from local sour springs was bottled for medicinal purposes, and a 37-room hotel named “Spring House,” offered tourists bed and board.

The once famous Alabama Sour Springs number eight or nine and are remarkable in that while they all lie within a circle of 50 rods, water testing has shown that no two springs are alike in their cocktail of elements. The main ingredients that medical practitioners claimed had medicinal value are sulfuric acid, proto-sulphate of iron, alumina, lime, magnesia, potash, soda, chloride of sodium, and silica in varying amounts.

The sour springs water was bottled and transported across the country. One account has 25,000 bottles being sold in one year at 25 cents a bottle, a not inconsiderable sum then, even for medicine. One doctor tried to capture the sour water’s virtues when he said, “The peculiar character of these waters renders them useful in treating many chronic diseases, especially those of the digestive organs, especially stomach, and bowels.”

It’s in the town hall’s lovingly-put-together exhibit of Alabama history where visitors get a good idea of what life in Alabama has been like, largely unchanged from the horse and buggy days. The buggies themselves, the marching band uniforms, patriotic materials, and those large, dark brown glass bottles that took the water from the Alabama Sour Springs to cure the world from stomach troubles, have a nice homey glow. One wonders what items from the STAMP project will one day find their way into the exhibit. Just think of it, silicon wafer chips surrounded by the dusty reminders of what life was once like here in this farming community, largely unchanged for nearly 200 years.

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