Henry Allen has spent more than half his life working for the Williamstown highway department.
He went to work for his uncle as a laborer in 1976 and became highway superintendent in 1988. Born and bred in this history-laden town, Henry attended Altmar-Parish-Williamstown School while growing up on a dairy farm.
“My dad had 25 cows,” he said. “Back then, you could raise a family of four on 25 cows. He also cut firewood and had a milk route. We used to help with that. My brother, Ed, still lives on the farm. It’s just a hobby now.”
Following graduation, Henry worked at various factories in the area, including Harden Furniture Company, Laribee Wire and Omega Wire.
“When I got laid off from there, my uncle put me to work for the town. In the beginning, my responsibilities were doing all the common things you do on the highway department. I ran the hay loader a lot before graduating to the trucks. I’d work on the plows during the winter. I got my CDL in 1976. At that time, it was a chauffer’s license. When the CDL license came out, you just went down and took a written exam. They waived the driving part. It was like being grandfathered in.”
In 1987, at his uncle’s urging, Henry ran for the superintendent’s position. He won the election but the transition from being a driver to the head honcho “wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I was scared to death. When you learn how to run the equipment and perform your various duties, there’s a learning curve. Once you get it down pat, it doesn’t matter if you’re digging a ditch or taking out a tree stump. You’re using the same equipment, just doing different tasks. When you become highway superintendent, all of sudden you’re in charge of everything. Not only that, you have to answer to the town board and secure the funds to do the job. There’s also a public relations dynamic to it. When you’re working for the highway department as an hourly employee, if you have a question or problem, you talk to the boss. When you become boss, you’re supposed to have all the answers.
“It took me a long time to make the transition,” continued Henry. “It was six to eight years before I felt comfortable addressing problems, going to town board meetings and dealing with all the issues that can come up. The normal stuff is fine, but when you’re at a public meeting and someone asks you a question, you want to look professional and have a good answer. It takes a long time to get rid of the jitters so you can think properly. It doesn’t bother me too much now. I think my uncle saw something in me that I didn’t.”
Henry has three children: Sherry Lynn, 36, and her husband, Brad Paradis, have 2 girls, Emily, 10 and Gabrielle, 7. She’s an alumni director at SUNY Potsdam. Jeremy, 30, is an energy consultant. Charles, 29, works for the Nelson Tree Company. He and his wife, Erica, have three children: Isabelle, 6; Wyatt, 4 and Chase, 2.
His girlfriend, Jan Ingersoll, had this to say.
“I’ve known Henry for over 40 years. He’s good friends with my brother so he’s always been like family. I’ve been with him on many occasions. We’ve gone to political functions and other social activities and the response to Henry from the people—from the salesmen to legislators to county officials, town board members and the everyday common people like me—is always the same. He’s recognized with great respect. I’m always amazed. He’s genuine and sincere and a man of the utmost integrity, not only in his job, but in his personal life as well. From the first time I saw this magazine on his kitchen table, I knew that one day he would be on the cover.”
A member and former president of the Oswego County Town Superintendent’s Association, Henry has been an active participant at the School for Highway Superintendents in Ithaca, N.Y., for 28 years.
“There’s nothing like highway school to learn the basics. When I go now, it’s for a refresher course to stay sharp. It’s the greatest forum to keep up with legislation at the state level and finding out what’s going on about a myriad of things. You can learn so much about methods and doing things just by rubbing shoulders with other highway superintendents. Some days, if you get around the right group, you learn more after the classes than during. You’re all talking about your projects and your town. I recommend it to anybody.”
What will Henry do when the lights go out on his long career with the highway department?
“That’s one of my dilemmas. I’d like to stay here until I’m 65 and then make an assessment. I’m 63 now. Then I’d like to travel a bit, enjoy my grandkids and listen to bluegrass music.”
The town of Williamstown highway department fits into a single 50 x 80 building. Built in 1967, it’s big enough to accommodate three bays, the boss’s office, a lunchroom and a tool area.
“It’s still in pretty good shape, but with larger equipment, the walls are too close together. We could use twice the room. We make it work but it’s not always easy. Everything has to go in its own spot because that’s where it fits. It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. We also have a 40 x 64 cold storage building that we work out of during the summer.
“We don’t have a salt storage shed,” he added. “We’ve never had one. Two years ago there was grant money available. We applied for it, hoping to get it, but we weren’t successful. Trying to keep our equipment updated, we hate to spend the money on a salt storage facility. The county supplies us with 225 tons of salt and we mix that in our stockpile to alleviate chunking in the winter. We concentrate it mostly in the upper part of the pile and keep it uncovered. Our sand pile is about 15 buckets of sand to one bucket of salt. If you use 3 to 1 or 5 to 1, then you’d really have something, but we can’t do that. Our sand pile is out in the environment and I don’t want that much salt sitting around contaminating everything. The salt is on the upper part of the pile and then it leeches down into the pile, not the ground. We put in about 6 to 8 feet of sand dry and then put the salt-sand mixture on top. Then the salt goes into the untreated sand over the course of the winter.”
As highway superintendent, Henry is responsible for maintaining the town’s 56.82 lane miles of town road and 36 miles of country roads. Four miles are gravel and 24 miles are paved. That translates into two plowing routes that take about three and a half hours to complete.
Together, Henry and his crew of four full-time employees serve the county’s 1,281 residents. His staff includes Keith Britton, George Kellogg, Tim Phillips and Gerry King, all MEOs.
“During the winter we put five additional seasonal workers on as needed, including Ed Allen, Dale Wheeler, Les Huntley, Pete Solinsky and Gary Wheeler, and I consider myself a working highway superintendent.”
Under Henry’s watchful eye, the Williamstown highway department runs on a total operating budget of $499,000 that includes salaries and benefits for employees and an annual CHIPS allocation of $76,400.
To perform its duties, the town uses a modest fleet of equipment that includes:
• 1971 Oshkosh (winter truck)
• 1980 Champion grader
• 1982 F8000 (summer truck)
• 1987 Ford tractor roadside mower
• 1988 Trojan loader
• 1991 Case bulldozer
• 1994 Autocar (summer/winter truck)
• 2000 Cat loader
• 2001 Oshkosh (winter truck)
• 2005 International 7600 (summer/winter truck)
• 2008 Cat Challenger and roadside mower
• 2010 International Paystar (summer/winter truck)
• 2013 Ford F150
• 2015 Chevy 1 ton
Henry remembers the day he took over from his uncle, Ken Wheeler.
“There was a 1988 1900Z Trojan loader delivered on that day from Tracey Road Equipment. My uncle told me, ‘I got you that new loader. You take care of it and you’ll always have a good piece of equipment. Loaders are the hub of the whole operation.’ That was 29 years ago. We’ve taken care of it and it’s still on the job today. That’s a testament to our diligence and preventive maintenance.”
The department has a five-year plan for purchasing for new equipment.
“We’re trying to stay on track with that. We came up with the five-year plan about four years ago. We’re coming along pretty good on it. We’re in the third year. That’s how we purchased the 2015 one-ton dump truck and we’ve ordered a new International plow/dump truck to replace our 1994 Auto Car. The next thing in line is replacing our 2000 Cat loader, which has close to 9,000 hours on it.”
When it comes to maintaining those vehicles, “we usually get most of the job done in-house. Everyone pitches in. We don’t profess to be diesel mechanics or transmission specialists. We can do brake jobs and minor repairs. I’m fortunate that most of my guys can weld and are quite mechanically inclined. One is trained on air brakes.”
Over his 30 years with the highway department, Henry has seen his share of changes.
“The way we do things is so much different than the way we used to. The biggest change has been in the equipment. The technology that’s built into it nowadays is much better. The hydraulics are leaps and bounds ahead of the old stuff. The equipment requires so much less maintenance. We used to be working on trucks all the time. Now, given the electronics and the sensors and that kind of thing, if everything is working, you hardly have to touch them mechanically.
Doppler radar also has made a difference.
“The computer in my office streams weather constantly. That’s important in this area because we’re in what they call the snow belt, which is off the eastern end of Lake Ontario. We get a lot of extra snow up here because the cold air blows across the lake. Storms can come up in a matter of minutes or hours. It can go from a sunny day to a whiteout. Being able to see the radar is a big help, especially around quitting time.”
Like most highway supers, budget time is Henry’s least favorite time of the year.
“We have a $500,000 budget; $75,000 of that is state aid through the CHIPS program. Now we’re down to $425,000. Then we have revenues because we plow roads for the county. The anticipated revenue I have on that is $90,000. Now it’s down to $300,000. Try and run a highway department for a whole year on that. There’s no way. Not when you have four full-time employees. Trying to hold the line, with the tax gap gets tough. We’ve made great strides here over the years. Our equipment’s the best it’s ever been and I know our roads are the best they’ve ever been, but you can’t get fooled by that. If you take your eyes off your goals, suddenly it starts going the other way. Budget time is stressful for a highway superintendent. I dare say. I don’t care what town you’re in.”
On the flip side, his favorite part is “trying to make improvements to the town and the sense of accomplishment you get when you do. I think the best thing that ever happened to Williamstown was back in 1991-92. We were able to secure a gravel bed, thanks to William Britton. Our roads were so desperately needing gravel. They were built back in the 1960s and a lot of them were laid out in the 1950s and 1960s. Gravel was plentiful, but you didn’t have the equipment to move anything. In 1981, the town took over the road system at Kasoag Lake, which basically was a resort community. The woman who owned the property at the time was elderly and I believe she wanted to relieve herself of the tax burden. She had a lot of parcels that weren’t on the water. They weren’t very attractive and hadn’t sold. Off to the left was a 15-acre parcel of the most beautiful gravel you ever saw. The town was sitting on it and didn’t realize what they had.
“Mr. Britton looked it up and discovered the town owned all 15 acres. We had a gravel bed that was more like a gold mine. It was exactly what we needed. Over the next 20 years, we would tear up a mile to a mile and a half of road a year, add 12 to 16 inches of gravel, grade them up then repave them with cold mix paving. I’m very proud of the road system we have today. It’s about 28 miles. They’re some of the best roads in the county. They’re not hot mix roads and don’t have striping and all that stuff, but they’re in good shape with little cracking. They work just fine for our community. Thanks to a joint effort between the highway department and the town board, we were able to transform the roads in Williamstown. A large part was due to that gravel bed.”
Looking back, would Henry change anything about the job?
“I’d get an education on how I could be an efficient boss; how to manage things better. I learned as I went along, but I think I could have done things a lot better and a lot easier if I had more knowledge. The highway school helped, but that only brings you so far. I needed management skills. I wish I had more of those when I took over. I was young and wet behind the ears. I thought, ‘I’ve worked here for 11 years. I know how to do this.’ When you get into stretching money and trying to secure funds, public relations and stuff like that, it’s a whole new dynamic from digging a ditch with a shovel.”
When it’s all said and done, Henry wants to be remembered for improving the town’s highway system.
“We’ve been able to upgrade all the roads 100 percent. I don’t think anybody here will tell you that the town isn’t better than it was 20 years ago. We were able to do that and, at the same time, improve the quality of our equipment. A lot of towns are faced with a choice. Do I buy a new piece of equipment or do I fix the road? Working with the town board as a team, we were able to accomplish both. The public may not care about a new piece of equipment, but they travel on these roads every day and it’s the roads they’re concerned about. Are the safe? Are they in good shape? I believe Williamstown roads are.
Henry also believes that he’s “here to serve the public. If you’re a superintendent of a highway department in a small, rural community, you’re the only show in town. If an individual needs help, they come and see you. If the town board wants to make improvements in the town, they come and see you. If the fire department is having trouble, they come and see you. Somebody’s stuck in a snow bank. Someone’s got a big tree that’s half dead. Someone has to get into their camp in the middle of winter. It’s so many different things. And the highway department is going to try and meet those needs however we can. I had a lot of ideas I wanted to implement and I’ve been blessed to be able to do that. I think the town is better for it.”
What more could the townspeople ask for?
Facts About the Town of Williamstown
• On a lonely road near the hamlet of Williamstown stands a lasting monument to a man who dedicated 40 years of his life building what is known as the Case Wall. During the Civil War, Jonathon I. Case built a stone fence entirely of field-stone, laid and fitted without any kind of mortar or cement. The wall followed the contour of the land and in places reached a height of 12 feet and a width of 6 feet. Case could perform sentry duty with horse and wagon atop the wall, thereby thwarting poachers who were often caught stealing apples from his large apple orchard. Not wanting to stop his wall construction along the road (now known as Case Road) and around the orchard, Jonathan proceeded to fence in his large hip-roof barn and surrounding acreage on the opposite side of the road. He had completed more than two miles of wall before he died in 1880, an old man of 92 years. At present, Williamstown historians are making every effort to have the Case Stone Wall designated an Oswego County Historical Landmark.
• In 1994, the town’s new community center was named the William Britton Memorial Center. A legislator and town board member, Britton was best known as a visionary who got things done.
• In 1996, Williamstown produced a Miss New York State. She was Tammy Harris, daughter of John and Donna Harris. There’s a sign on the state highway recognizing the “Home of Miss New York State Tammy Harris, 1996.”
• The Oswego Cranberry started in 1997 with 828 acres and planted 50 cranberries. It was the state’s first cranberry fame and led to the company erecting a sign on Route 13, dubbing Williamstown the “Cranberry Capital of New York State.”
• In 2006, agricultural use of the land has seen a resurgence as Amish settlers from Ohio moved into the Kasoag region, purchasing land from Richard and Joan DeGraff. The Amish expanded on agriculture and with their thrifty and environmentally sound reputation are worthy successors to the pioneers who first came to the sandy soil of Kasoag 200 years before.