Superintendent of Highways John Farrell and the Town of Hunter

Laurie Mercer

When you look at a map of the Catskill Mountain region you don’t see a lot of highways. At the highest peak of Greene County’s Hunter Mountain is a popular downhill ski resort, Hunter Mountain Ski Resort, which has been there for three generations. The town of Hunter includes the villages of Hunter and Tannersville and several hamlets.

In a modern, fully functional municipal building that is constructed in front of a re-purposed, circa 1960 former bowling alley that serves as the highway barn, the crew and equipment share headquarters with the town’s police department, ambulances, town clerk’s office, and courtroom. John Farrell, who comes from pioneer stock here on the mountain, has been superintendent of highways since 1990.

The town’s highway budget is $886,000 with $84,000 coming from CHIPS.

Just hours away from the congestion of New York City, Connecticut, and Boston, Hunter is at the heart of the Catskill Park. The Catskill Mountains occupy the largest and most complex natural area in the east with 600,000 acres spanning four counties, including Greene County. The often narrow, two-lane winding roads with serious drop-offs in places, as well as breathtaking views, are traveled by the tourists who fuel the local economy. For example, Platte Clove Mountain Road (Route 16) is 2.2 miles long with granite boulders on one side and serious drops into oblivion on the other. The road, is recommended by the state as a “Scenic Byway.” In Colorado, the passage, with barely room for two cars to sneak by one another, would rank as a Jeep trail instead.

More than 2,600 miles of road are included in the state’s designated byway system (“Not a high-speed freeway,” the map cautions), which promises to take travelers to routes with unique vistas, recreational/historical/architectural, and cultural resources that offer a special theme or identity.

Hunter, always popular with tourists, now sports four-season thrills to lure visitors. In addition to skiing and other snow sports, it offers the fastest and highest zip line in the state, water park rides, bike trails, hiking, fishing and hunting, museums, special events, water sports, campgrounds, an elk farm, dude- ranch style horseback riding, golf, an amusement park, bowling, go carts, movies, guidedtours ranging from campsite culinary to fishing for large striped bass on the Hudson River, and an obstacle course for training and competition.

On Main Street in the village there is even a Piano Performance Museum where visitors are invited to play a piano from what is termed, “One of the finest collections of pianos in the world.” Volunteers and docents perform period music on corresponding instruments. Special events, like a recent Kenny Chesney concert, will draw an entirely different audience.

Appearances are important here. They like it rustic without much gentrification, user friendly, and safe. John has even been known to paint carefully over some urban-inspired graphitti on awe-inspiring boulders along the roads because, “It’s a tourist town so it matters a lot how it looks. The big thing up here is tourism. It pretty much always has been. We are trying to make the roads wider and also a little bit better looking.”

Most of the village, early Victorian in design, reflects an overall bright, multi-hued paint scheme that was partially funded by a local civic-minded citizen. The aesthetics give the town an upbeat but still old-fashioned appeal, not unlike Aspen, Colorado. The town of Hunter numbers roughly 1,691 residents.

Even the wildlife sometimes caters to outsiders. New Jersey-bred black bears are often relocated here by the DEC when they are causing problems at home. John says the animals, unlike their wilder cousins in the Catskills, are used to being around people in their aggressive quest for food.

“They are not afraid of anything. They can tear open a car door with their claws and then destroy the inside completely. We call them welfare bears,” he says.

Sharing Space and Sharing Services

John has a crew of six —Keith Bryne, Eddie Hollister, Bruce Neal, Mike Siatkowski, Roy Kenyon, and Sean Farrell.

“Our mechanic, Keith, we hired from the private sector about 15 years ago. We are one of the few towns that has its own lift. We also service vehicles for law enforcement and ambulances, which is part of why we need a full-time person on maintenance and repairs.”

To better accommodate the volunteer ambulance corps, which is on site in the same building, John says his team devoted one bay to ambulances and added a small room so volunteers can sleep overnight as needed.

“We just had Kenny Chesney here, which drew 40,000 to 50,000 people, so the ambulance crew can be going 24 hours for 10 days straight,” he says. “The volunteers, EMTs, and police are pretty well used to it by now.”

He says in the 1970s the area was better known as a “hoot ’em up rodeo type town.”

He adds, “We had 80 licensed bars, and you could get five beers for a buck.”

Like in much of small town America, the circa 1970s wild times just kind of drifted away. John says that raising the drinking age from 18 to 21, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving sympathies had a lot to do with it.

The town cares for 76 lane miles plus 8 miles of dirt, a couple of old cemeteries for maintenance only, and several bridges that were completely rebuilt in the past few years. John says sometimes a flood is a good thing because you get to start over from scratch, rather than make repairs. As for dirt roads, there are only three miles of those left.

“With a dirt road you can lose up to 200 tons of dust each year on one mile. Calcium can help with the dust, but it’s cheaper to pave.”

They store just under 4,000 tons of salt on site.

Surprisingly, his job seems to be more about trees than snow. Chain saws are probably the most often used tool in the highway barn. One of the crew became so skilled at taking trees down that he earned his certification as a licensed logger.

Beyond the tree work, the crew is currently replacing several large culvert pipes, resurfacing some dirt roads, and anticipating more paving plus more retaining walls and guard rails on Platte Clove Mountain Road. They also tend to a few older cemeteries and a landfill’s reed beds. John explains how, in the early 2000s, the town managed to save a lot of money that would have been required to haul leachate from a landfill closed in the early 1990s. After settling tanks help aerate the water, a reed bed below the landfill helps purify what remains.

They have five bridges, several of which have completely washed out in the past few years. The town board approved John’s suggestion to avoid spending $40,000 on needed repairs on a sixth bridge by avoiding the structure altogether. The town used eminent domain to buy a small amount of land and reroute the road around the creek bed. The cost was only $10,000 instead and no more bridge repairs.

The desirability of working for the highway department seems to come and go depending on the local economy. He says, “Through the 1990s, we had pretty good raises, and then it stopped. In 2000, we had pretty good raises again, and now it’s gone again. I try to get the crew a raise every year, but the state says you have to have a 2 percent cap on land tax. Most of our land is parks.”

New employees have to pay a higher amount for their medical insurance. He says managing budget restrictions because of state mandates are his “least favorite part of the job.”

Highway equipment is much improved since John became superintendent. He says, “We have shared services with Catskill and two villages in our town—Tannersville and Hunter. The village of Hunter bought a boom truck, so it would be foolish for us to have one. We bought a grader and none of them have one. We just bought a new tractor that they can use.”

Following a lifetime of handshakes, formal shared service agreements were struck in 2010 following a big flood.

“The whole mountain top signed on,” he says. “Any one of these guys, you call and they are usually here within a day. Hunter is down to two guys, so we can’t really use their manpower. Tannersville has three guys so it’s more often equipment that we share.

“When I got here there were some battles going on between them. We got rid of all that. We do have to keep track of everything. Following one big flood, the state wanted to know how we got repairs done so quickly without them, and I had to say it’s because of our shared services agreement.”

What He Learned at Highway School

and More

John was interviewed for Superintendent’s Profile just after he returned from “highway school” in Ithaca.

“I've been going there for 25 years,” he says. “It was a good one. If you come back with even just one workable idea, it’s worth it.”

This year’s focus was on roadside hazards, which for the town of Hunter often means trees and telephone poles — both things are hard to get rid of.

“We have county, state, town, and village roads here. We do not contract out any roads other than the town’s. Most of our roads are rural and narrow with some serious drop offs, sometimes down several thousand feet covered by dense forest. It’s hard to widen the roads out here. Fortunately we don’t have a lot of accidents because they are slow speed and low volume.”

Improvements that make the area more attractive have been the creation and maintenance of parking lots near trail heads.

“We added three new ones in the Platte Clove area alone. All of them always have cars parked in them for hiking and ice climbing. Years ago you might have seen two or three cars, now you can find 20 to 30 of them. It doesn’t cost anything to walk in the woods.”

Seeing Snow and Rain

“In 2010 we had a seven-foot snowstorm in one week. It was devastating. Another reason to widen the roads is to have a place to put snow if it happens again. In a couple of places we had to bucket it out. Toward the end of the storm, we couldn’t even push it out of the parking lot. I thought the whole northeast was under snow, but just down the mountain they only had two inches. Somebody put out an e-mail that it was the best skiing in 30 years, so on Saturday morning there was a line of cars coming up to ski. The ski resort couldn’t even plow out the parking lot, so all of the skiers had to turn around and go home. It was a hazard because emergency vehicles couldn’t get through. It was almost one line of traffic going back down.”

He also clearly remembers another big storm in 1996 that came through the mountain top on a day that began at 60 degrees in the morning to 10 below zero by the end of day.

“The only good thing about the roads that time was that they froze dry. Our culvert pipes just had dirt over them. They froze so solid you couldn’t dig them out. Four months later when it warmed up, the roads started caving in slowly. Even the trees would fall slowly, one at a time sometimes.

“We had one year where there was a storm every weekend from Thanksgiving to Easter,” he continues. “Skiers love to get snowed in here so they can’t get back to work. You are snowed in at the Catskills​? Nobody can argue with that!”

John adds wingmen when conditions are really bad.

“My joke after a long winter,” he says, “is that the wingman and the driver might as well get engaged because of all the time they spend together. Just kidding.”

They have managed to lasso-in the long runs for snow plows that used to take 5.5 hours. Additional and different equipment helped the crew cut that time by two hours per route.

“One of the things about working in a small rural town like Hunter is that people tend to do things the way they did 100 years ago. It’s hard to change habits. When I got here, they had only one truck — no pickups and no one-ton trucks. That’s why it took so long to plow. We do get lots of snow. What still takes us a long time is that we have lots of dead end roads — little tiny ones.”

Coincidentally, Hunter Mt. Ski Resort, which has been attracting tourists for at least three generations, also is the place where artificial snow was invented. Artificial snow certainly levels the playing field for millions of downhill skiers every season.

“They started making snow there around 1950 when one of the guys said if you put water through air it comes out as ice. The advertisements back then boasted the best snow-making equipment in the world. They were leaders in the business. It has come a long way since then with giant guns, but Hunter Mountain was the beginning of it.”

He says like all businesses here, the winter sports promoters have sought to embrace year-round fun and family excitement. You can even get married on the chair lift.

“They do a lot of weddings up there,” says John. “They bring you up on the chair lift and marry you on the top. This town used to be about boarding houses, but now there are three big hotels on the mountain.”

The family who had owned Hunter Mt. Ski Resort for the past three generations just sold out to a large corporation.

Eight FEMA Events Since Becoming Superintendent

Biblical rains and floods also are part of the job description. When John first took office in 1990, FEMA-related paperwork still sat on the desk from the previous superintendent for a big flood in 1987.

“I joke that I do FEMA reports by the foot,” he says. “The last big storm we had, it was six feet of paperwork. Luckily we had a great FEMA rep. She stayed with us the entire time and it worked amazingly well.”

Another big FEMA event here came through with Hurricane Floyd.

“You don’t think of floods on top of a mountain, but it’s true. I went to a seminar once where they had a map of the state as it relates to water fall. And right on top of where we are right now (town of Hunter highway facility) it said we have the highest water fall in the state.

“The last big storm, Irene was it? We had 10 to 12 inches of rainfall in a hurry. They talk about the 100-year storm. Well this was a 500-year storm for sure. I don’t have to worry about another one of this magnitude for another 500 years.”

He says the advantage of the town’s location during a flood-causing storm is that the roads, “bleed out real fast.”

“I think the worse day I ever had on this job was Floyd in September. Some roads were just gone. Because of the sheer volume of water moving so fast, it just washed things right out. You think of all the work you put into them for five or six years, and in two days it’s all gone. Plus the FEMA people want a report three days later. With some of the stuff, you don’t even know what’s happened yet.”

Wood — The Big Burn

John owns his own woodlot, and if he has a serious hobby — or a poetic streak — it comes while working up his considerable firewood pile for winter. He seems to have a special connection to certain types of trees.

“My woodlot is about 100 acres. I finally put a road in; it’s like a hobby. I like to go up there. It’s actually nice, going up there by yourself. I probably still have three cord of wood in the basement left this spring.

“If I burn soft maple, I don’t cut it until September because soft maple, when it dries out, is a lot like ash. No BTUs, no heat. But if it has a little water in it, it burns well. I burn beech and cherry if I can get it, and yellow birch I love. Yellow birch is hard to cut and hard to split. I split it all by hand. That’s all part of it. Plus it’s good exercise.”

When wood harvesting is work and not necessarily exercise, tree felling is an everyday occurrence in the town of Hunter.

“We had the town logged of all the ash about five years ago because of the ash borer. Anywhere there is a trail head it occurred especially heavily. We are a heavy hiker area. You can see the infestation right around the area where people have come in and brought their own firewood from someplace else.

“Along the roads, it got really bad. Eight years ago we started really aggressively cutting ash trees. We’ve taken down 500 to 600 trees already. The one good thing about ash trees is you can cut them and burn them right away. My father called them parlor wood, which is nice on a milder day, because they don’t throw much heat.”

He mentions that the town, because of its magnitude of parkland, makes the borer that much worse to contend with, and now there is a new threat.

“Now it’s the hemlocks with this thing that grows on the bottom of the tree and turns it white. It’s called the woody adelgid. It slowly kills the tree by taking all the sap out of it. On Platte Clove Mountain Road you can almost see where every year the infestation is moving up the mountainside.”

“We are surrounded by forest, so trees are often the biggest thing we are doing. Greene County highway helps us a lot by bringing in a boom truck when we need it.”

Opposition to cutting trees comes not from the citizens but from the state.

“The state doesn’t want any trees taken down. We are a state preserve, forever wild, that sort of thing. Up here they hug everything. We were stopped once from cutting trees unexpectedly. A forester has to come down first and inventory the road for trees.”

John says following procedures takes lot of time, but in one trail head area where the trail head was right on the road with little parking, the result was a much larger parking area, and “It worked out nice.”

More restrictions come because Hunter Mountain is part of the watershed for New York City. Even minimal work on the road shoulders has to be cleaned up and re-seeded the same day the job is done.

“If you clear over a certain amount of land, there are restrictions including totally surrounding the area with a silt fence.”

Briefly, the water that leaves Hunter goes through a series of dams, reservoirs, aqueducts, and even a tunnel through a mountain before reaching the city.

Dispersing the cut wood is no problem in an area where wood burning is commonplace. The wood is cut to correct lengths and given free to residents. The alternative would be time-consuming chipping and eventual disposal. In accordance with New York State law, no wood can travel more than 50 miles from its origin.

“We could leave wood along the side of the road. People would come get it, but that causes a lot of problems with traffic. Offering free firewood does not. We will even cut it to lengths they can use, and if they have no truck we will deliver it to their homes. One older gentleman said he preferred to chop it up himself. His daughter said chopping wood from us gave him more enjoyment then he had had in a long time.”

Good Morning, Town of Hunter Highway Department

John usually answers his own phone, but he does have once a week backup with a secretary and is often aided by the town clerk.

“The town clerk and the secretary are really good. They know we are all in this together. If I need something, they get it to me fast.”

While going through an old shed at his home, John recently unearthed his old, metal-edged, three-toe-binding type skis from his youth and his time on ski patrol. Skiing is actually mandatory up to fifth grade in school here.

“They go up to the mountain twice a week. It is actually part of the curriculum.”

He says his forefathers moved to the mountain area in the 1800s. John grew up here and never left. His family was a big one with eight kids, devoted to self sufficiency, a trait he still demonstrates. The Farrells grew and canned their own food and ate venison that they shot. His mother’s side of the family ran a boarding house in Platte Clove. John’s father was superintendent of highways back in the 1950s for one term.

“He was a Democrat and that never happens here, and that’s why he only went one term.”

“During the Depression, my father said when people left the parks in September there was nothing. No work. No ski slopes. As the skiing business came along many of the small farms sold out. Tourism became the main line of work here.”

John is quick to notice not only the difference in snowfall as you climb to higher elevations on the mountain, but also the differences in vegetation and temperature.

“Feel how much cooler it is up here? That’s why people came to the Catskills in summer, to escape the heat. There were two trains coming here. People say it was the growth of automobiles that killed it, but I think it was air conditioning.”

“In the 1970s, you did anything you could get for work,” he says.

Hunting was big in the 1980s, but that sport is no longer strong here. He never left the area and worked in various jobs related to skiing and construction.

“I am a typical upstate guy, taking care of my own cars. You learn to do everything yourself to save money.”

There is a vintage hulk of a 1939 Plymouth on his property right now just waiting for the time and attention it will take to restore when John eventually retires.

In 1987, he married a woman he met while walking down the aisle at his brother’s wedding. John was the best man and Cathy, now his wife, was the maid of honor.

“We never met before we were walking down the aisle.”

They dated for several years while she earned her teaching degree.

“At age 32, I decided to run for office here.”

The desire to start a family and the possibility of regular employment with benefits, plus his background, made it seem like a good fit. With three grown children — John (Sean), Kathleen, and Emily — the couple live in an older farmhouse that once belonged to John’s father. It has a lovely porch with hanging baskets providing color accents.

“It was pretty well gone when we got it,” he says. “One of my brothers offered to put a modular on the spot, but I said we would fix it up. We ended up working on it for 25 years and it is almost done. We are doing it ourselves. It’s a nice place. I put an addition on the back and that newer part takes almost nothing to heat.”

A naturally efficient person, John says creating a smaller carbon footprint in the future, possibly with geothermal means, is very much on his mind.

Highway Work and How It Affects Families

Cathy's impressive creative writing skills are apparent in her description of what her husband does for a living. She wrote, “I am proud of my husband and the job he does. In 27 years I have never heard him complain when he is called out in the middle of the night, the middle of a birthday party, on Christmas morning, during a family reunion, or when relaxing on the couch after a long day’s work that suddenly isn’t over yet.

“The snow falls, or the call comes in informing him a tree is down or a large falling boulder has made a mountain road impassable, and out he goes. He remains on the job regardless of the time it takes, despite the fact that he receives no overtime pay as per contract salary. During a snowstorm, it is not unusual for him to work from 7:00 in the morning to 11:00 or 12:00 at night and then come home and try to catch a few hours’ sleep only to get up at 5:00 a.m. and do it all over again.”

“During the winter months, family and social plans are always ‘weather permitting.’ In 2010, we had a seven-foot snowstorm on the mountaintop and my husband worked for 72 hours straight. I did not see him during this time, and I had to rely on friends and neighbors to help me shovel out my own car and driveway so we could make it to the airport in time to catch a flight to Indiana to see our son on his 19th birthday, which coincided with his deployment to Afghanistan.

“Every two years when my husband comes up for re-election, we have had to wonder if he will be out of a job or not. Fortunately, he has been cross-endorsed for most of the elections, but until he is notified of this, he takes nothing for granted. He hopes the job he does every day proves his worthiness. He is willing to help the town and its people beyond the ordinary duties of a highway superintendent. John puts his heart into everything he does.”

Clearly describing a good, go-to guy, this glowing recommendation is shared by the residents who vote for John Farrell every two years.

About the Town

of Hunter

The land around Hunter is the locality of the well-known, classic children’s story about Rip Van Winkle. In a nutshell, Rip falls asleep for 20 years off in the mountains following an argument with his wife. When he wakes up, things appear very different to him. The town of Hunter, likewise, has gone through tremendous changes from wealth to almost oblivion and back. Today, they seem to be very much on track for another glorious future. You can’t beat the area for its scenic values. The proximity to large population centers brings summer residents with second homes, tourists, and lots of magic beans.

Hunter Mountain is the tallest mountain in mountainous Greene County and the second tallest in the Catskill Mountains. While Native Americans hunted all over the place, they chose to inhabit the lower elevations. The word “clove” in topography refers to a ravine between mountains. White settlers reached the Hunter area by approaching it from one of three different cloves. Later on, in the mid-1800s, the natives taught the settlers how to tan hides using the tannin found in the abundant forest of lush hemlock. Lots of fresh, moving streams have always powered any kind of industry in the early days, and Tannersville, a village in the town of Hunter, was a force to be reckoned with.

Called Lot 25 in 1708 when Queen Anne granted it to seven men, the lot was then sold to John Hunter of New Rochelle, who called it Greenland because of the lush groves of hemlock. When a Colonel Edwards built a tannery in the town, locals chose to call it Edwardsville. Then, when he closed the tannery and people lost their jobs, the townspeople took his name away and called it Hunter, honoring John Hunter instead.

By the mid-1800s, there was a growing furniture industry, turning out mostly chairs and bedsteads, and by the mid 19th century, tourism was already in full force. As early as 1830 first class service was to be had at Hunter House, and similarly grand hotels dotted the ridges within awe-inspiring views. One such hotel in its day proved to be the largest frame structure in the United States with a one-mile long circumference. Vistas, streams, and waterfalls, that’s what the place is still all about. The arrival of the railroad in 1882 kept things chugging along. The Otis Elevator Company built one such railway, specially constructed for the steep vertical climbs necessary to scale the mountaintop.

While the wealthy built elaborate summer homes in their private parks (some parks still exist) the village had at least 40 boarding houses to make summering available to families with less means. For the well-to-do and swells, it was an endless summer of parties and balls, providing jobs for the locals. The good times attracted many artists of all kinds, and lots of visitors ended up building summer mini-mansions of their own. In 1890 alone, Mark Twain, already famous, spent the summer here walking around town in his white linen suits and giving readings when he chose to.

Another visitor who built an architect-designed estate here was Elizabeth Custer, the widow of General Custer, a likely presidential candidate, who took the fall in 1876, at the Battle of Little Big Horn. His wife wrote four books about her husband and went on the lecture circuit promoting her memories for 40 years.

Vacation habits can rapidly change, and by the 1920s tourism was a dying industry here. Hotels with tiny bedrooms and often shared bathrooms were old and out of date. Given a four- to five-month season, maintenance year around was a significant expense. Add to that the gangsters from New York City who allegedly sold “fire insurance” to hotel owners. If you didn’t give them money, they burned your hotel to the ground. Most of these lovely places now exist only on postcards.

The scrapping of the railroad service to Hunter in 1941 drove the final nail in the coffin, so to speak. It wasn’t until 1960 with the birth of the ski industry here that the local economy started to turn around. Two brothers, Israel and Orville Slutzky, owned the mountain. Along with investors they opened up the ski resort in 1960, but the snow was sparse for several years and the business failed. Once again, like Rip Van Winkle’s story, they persevered and created a major success — for themselves — and for the local people’s employment prospects. The mountain, with large hotels and many slopes, continues to be the largest employer in town.

Hunter’s claim for great skiing nationally came in 1964 on the “Johnny Carson Show,” the most watched TV show in America. Hunter Mountain ski instructor Kitty Falger spent 20 ridiculously funny minutes, on live TV, trying to teach Carson to ski. That kind of free publicity in today’s world would be worth millions of dollars.

Keeping up with modern demands for all kinds of distractions while vacationing, the town of Hunter offers visitors dozens of enticements. In just nine years, the Hunter Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to eradicating eyesores, has managed to acquire and then restore 85 significant structures. In addition, the “Paint Program” begun by artist Elena Patterson has gotten lots of press by using a combination of private contributions and grant money to almost completely re-paint the town in colors that are bright, full-blown Victorian in palette. It's hard not to feel upbeat just driving down Main Street while the intricacies of Victorian architecture, like the leaves changing color, reflect dozens of hues.

The town of Hunter is still thriving, despite some setbacks, because lots of people still find it beguiling to be this close to nature, safely, and so they continue to drive the winding roads to the mountain top.

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