Highway Superintendent Herb Hasbrouck and the Town of Grafton

Herb Hasbrouck is a man comfortable in his own skin. He handles himself with confidence and ease as he tells of his journey to this job and his plans to leave things better than he found them.

Born and bred in this history-laden town he calls the “Adirondacks,” Herb attended Berlin Central High School. Before moving into the highway superintendent’s office, he worked for the Grafton Lakes State Park. Herb attributed his time there as the best preparation for the job.

“I worked for Robert Perkins. He was a good trainer. One thing I remember was putting in a ball field. He would work with his engineers and us to do it. We’d do the bulldozing, backhoeing and hauling the gravel. I also worked for various contractors running equipment and taking care of the roads.”

So what attracted him to the superintendent’s position?

“At the time I owned a log truck and was selling firewood. Things were slow and for insurance purposes, I was offered a job by the previous superintendent. I accepted and was with him for two years before he became ill. That’s when I decided to run for the position. I was opposed the first time I ran in 1984. They were two-year terms then. This will be my second four-year term, making me the longest running highway superintendent in Rensselaer County. My term is up in 2016 and if things stay status quo, I’d like to go again. I want the residents to understand the highway superintendent’s job, its responsibilities and what we really do for our community. There’s a lot to it. It’s like being married to your job 24 hours a day. You’re always responsible for the public’s safety, egress, phone calls at night, downed trees, snowstorms, washouts.”

This superintendent has been a member of the Grafton Volunteer Fire Company for over 40 years and is currently the fire commissioner. He has served as president of the Rensselaer County Town Highway Association for 10 years, too. Herb also can be found attending the Cornell Highway School for Highway Superintendents in Ithaca every year.

“The classes focus on road and bridge maintenance techniques, traffic calming and safety measures, working with and managing difficult soil conditions, complying with New York State Department of Environmental Conservation drainage and sediment control measures, managing equipment and personnel and continuing education in programs related to maintaining public safety throughout your municipality.”

Growing up in an area that ranges between 1,600 to 1,800 feet above sea level — the same as nearby Lake George — it’s no surprise that Herb enjoys the outdoors.

“We have every type of animal here and plenty of them. The fishing is great and since turkey hunting opened I’d just as soon do that. It’s so beautiful to see a turkey come in with its feathers out. In the spring you call the Tom either by hand or mouth. They’ll come in gobbling and fanning out. In the beginning I shot some but now I take a camera. It’s more impressive to snap a nice picture and get up and walk away.

“It’s wonderful to see them out there. We sent notices out that the deer population in this area has really taken hold. Two years ago my dog was barking so l went out on the porch only to find myself standing five feet from a bear at my bird feeder. I had to back away. They’re not there to hurt you. They’re just looking for food. It’s great to experience the wildlife up here.”

An avid NASCAR fan, Herb is father to daughter, Kimberly, and has three grandsons, Zachary, Jacob and Jordan. In his spare time, he and his wife, Maxine, enjoy traveling in their newly purchased 37 foot fifth wheel camper. When he finally does retire, Herb will be playing more golf and doing more turkey hunting.

The Job

The town of Grafton’s highway department fits into a single 60 foot by 100 foot building. Built in the 1970s, it houses four bays, two of which have concrete floors.

“The present supervisor is trying to get concrete on the other two. Through the years it was mostly cold storage for winter. Now that we have additional equipment we’re trying to heat it more.”

Herb’s office is located in the town hall. That also is where you will find the McNealy Bell and the only “Down with the Rent” flag in New York State.

“The bell belonged to the Methodist Church. It was put there in the early 1900s. The church’s congregation slowly began to diminish until it closed and joined with the one in Berlin. The other towns wanted the bell but the parishioners donated it to the town of Grafton.

“The ‘Down with the Rent’ flag was given to the Grafton library. We had it restored and placed inside special glass. The New York State Museum has been begging for it but we’re not going to let it go. It’s the only one known to be in captivity.”

The town also has a 40 feet by 60 feet salt shed and a 28 feet by 32 feet recycling building.

“Recycling was introduced in the late ’80s when the state mandated that you belong to a recycling program. We chose to do our own. The residents bring their recyclables here where they’re separated and put in the proper containers. Our only cost is for the C & D containers. Recycling products are free to the residents and garbage bags cost three dollars.”

As highway superintendent Herb is responsible for maintaining the town’s 108 lane miles of road, 90 percent of which are gravel and the rest are dirt. That translates into four plowing routes that take close to four hours to complete.

“We didn’t have much ice last winter but we did have a lot of little snowstorms — over and over. Winters aren’t like they were when I was growing up. Things stayed frozen all season. The ground was hard and you could plow the roads without hurting them. Now it’s freeze and thaw, freeze and thaw. Many times with wet snow you find yourself plowing half the road away then we have to go back in the spring and try and recover.”

Unfortunately, Herb doesn’t foresee blacktopping those roads any time soon.

“I don’t think we have the money to do it. One of my goals that I’m already working on is upgrading the water shed infrastructure — larger culverts. It seems like we’re getting heavier and bigger storms and upgrading the drainage framework would help save the gravel and maintenance on the roads.”

Surveying and deeding those roads also is on Herb’s wish list.

“Ninety percent of our roads are user roads. That means only a portion of the road is being used. You can’t widen it. You can’t cut trees on it. You can’t do anything,” he said. “First settlers came into the area. You owned a farm here and I owned a farm over here. I had cows and you had chickens. You would come to me for milk and I would go to you for eggs. That common path became a user path. As wagons came in it widened a little bit and became a user wagon trail. Cars kept using the roads so there’s no deed to the actual municipality. They’re maintained by use.

“To have them surveyed and deeded takes money. If you have a property owner who’s not willing to turn over the piece then it has to be purchased. We’ve done well with the projects in new developments and roads. If someone comes to us and wants to develop on a road that portion has to be deeded to the town.”

Herb’s crew of six full-time and two part-timers help him serve the town’s 2,000 residents. His staff includes Deputy James Goyer, Edward Reddick, Jack Reinhard, James Goyer Jr. and Leonard Deschaine (all HEMOs); Nathan Wagar, laborer/recycling; Jodie Deschaine, general maintenance/recycling; and Harold Goyer, laborer.

“They never call me, this crew,” Herb bragged. “They get out of every jam they can. When they do call me I better go because I know something’s wrong. Quite often it means the town plow is turned over on the road after a snow or ice storm. Those little things can tie you up for hours. One time it took six hours before the truck was upright. It couldn’t be fixed right away.”

Under Herb’s direction, the town of Grafton highway department runs on a total operating budget of $595,257 that includes salaries and benefits for employees and an annual CHIPS allocation of $86,500.

To carry out its duties, the county uses a well-rounded fleet of equipment that includes:

• 1962 Euclid dozer

• 1970 Cat loader

• 1975 White Farm Boss tractor

• 1975 Tag utility

• 1977 Cat grader

• 1978 Ford backhoe

• 1983 mowing machine

• 1990 John Deere loader

• 1990 Volvo grader

• 1992 Chevy boom truck 3500

• 1992 International dump truck with plow

• 1996 International dump truck

• 1997 Cat excavator

• 2000 International dump truck

• 2001 Ford ambulance

• 2003 Dodge

• 2004 Dodge

• 2005 Everest plow and wing (two)

• 2005 International dump truck with sander body

• 2005 International dump truck

• 2009 Ford

• 2011 Ford F350

• 2011 John Deere 624K loader

• Morbark brush/bandit tree chipper

• Two 1990 sanders

• Swack sander Z510H

• Two PU sanders

Currently, the department relies on county and/or state bid to purchase equipment.

“You have to review the specs closely to see if they meet your needs. If not, you have to go out to bid on your own.”

In these tough economic times and skyrocketing prices, how do small highway departments like Herb’s pay for their equipment?

“In the past we’ve used anticipation notes. They’re similar to a bank loan or municipal bond — small payments and very low interest. Generally, we buy new equipment on an as-needed basis. My hope is to be able to turn vehicles over every 10 years before we have to put a lot of money into them. That’s hard to do in today’s economy. There also are a lot of businesses that have to fold and there’s nothing wrong with their equipment. If it’s well maintained you can pick it up for a reasonable price.

“We just bought a new John Deere loader. It was $130,000 on state bid. If a contractor were to buy that same piece of equipment it would cost $180,000. Some wealthier towns will purchase a piece of equipment like that, hang onto it for two years and then swap it because they can buy a new one for what they can get for it.”

Herb also found another way to satisfy his equipment needs. As president of the Rensselaer County Highway Association for the past 10 years, he helped start one of the best shared services programs in the county.

“We all belong to it — the cities, towns and villages. We swap equipment back and forth and help each other. I’m extremely proud of that. We share anything we need, including manpower. I don’t have a paver so when we do some blacktop we rely on the county or Brunswick’s paver. In return, I supply trucks to them to haul blacktop to their jobs. It’s a win-win.”

When it comes to maintaining that equipment it’s pretty much up to the highway superintendent.

“No one on my crew is a mechanic. We do whatever we can in-house but sometimes it’s more involved than you think. I have salesmen who visit the garage and can’t believe some of the things we do here. At times we’ve been known to install our own dump bodies. We’ve pulled motors out of graders. It’s such a small crew. I’m very impressed by how much we can get done. We’re also saving money by doing it ourselves.”

For Herb state-of-the art technology in today’s vehicles isn’t always a good thing.

“The maintenance has been taken away from the average ‘home’ mechanic.” You need to have the equipment to work on it and we don’t. We can’t afford it. The newer models don’t seem to hold up any better. In fact, they can be more problematic because they are so technology-based so we rely on our local dealer for repairs. In the past six to eight years they don’t stock parts because they’re so expensive. Sometimes you’re out a week or more. I had a radiator crack on a newer truck and had to wait almost 14 days to get the part. It wasn’t a stock item. In fact, it was so new they didn’t expect them to go bad.”

It’s not just the equipment that’s changed. The highway superintendent’s job has, too.

“I grew up not knowing anything about computers. Thanks to this job, I’ve learned a little more about them. We track the weather all the time and we’re always looking up part replacements and costs. If we don’t know how to fix a problem with a truck we go online. When we bought our loader all the setup was done through a computer program. If something goes wrong they can shut it down from their office. They’re monitoring that loader and telling us when it needs to be serviced. That’s all done through the new technology and it’s scary.”

Over the years, Herb and his crew have dealt with numerous storms and hurricane-related events, the most recent being Hurricane Irene.

“During the storm, many of the town’s roads and bridges were lost,” he recalled. “I obtained FEMA funding to replace approximately $1 million in damaged infrastructure throughout the town. We used town forces to put in a large elliptical plate arch bridge with preformed metal abutments and head walls up on Fox Hollow Road. It was an innovative bridge design and complicated to install. The project had a price tag of $200,000 but we saved the town $50,000 by doing the work ourselves. I’m very proud of that bridge. Many towns contract that out. They’re not easy to do and with the small crew that I have in order to complete a project like that. When it turns out you just grin.

“The Dunham Road Bridge also failed during the hurricane. We partnered with a local contractor to install a new elliptical plate arch bridge with reinforced concrete head walls. This time the town saved $35,000 on a $300,000 project.”

Other repairs that were done with town forces after Irene included:

• Replacing a large bolted elliptical culvert that was destroyed and found 400 feet downstream in a large creek that flows through Johnson Road. Herb oversaw the replacement of a 14-foot span that was 12 feet high and 16 feet long. He saved the town $40,000 on a $100,000 job.

• Restoring every town road, including removing trees, rebuilding roads and installing new culverts, ditch sections and drainage structures. Total savings to the town was estimated at $250,000.

In conjunction with the town engineer, Herb also reviews and approves all projects as part of the Planning Board process.

“I’ve reviewed, approved and inspected some of the largest projects in Grafton, including upscale residential subdivisions situated on roughly 100 acre tracts of land near environmentally sensitive areas.”

That partnership helps the town maintain quality control, ensures the construction is done properly and eliminates any potential damage to the environment.

“It produces a better project for the town and, in many cases, the cooperation between the developer and the highway superintendent results in improvements in the town’s infrastructure that wouldn’t normally take place.”

The Town

The town of Grafton is located north of the center of Rensselaer County. It is bounded on the north by Pittstown and Hoosick, on the east by Petersburgh, on the south by Berlin and Poestenkill and on the west by Brunswick. Like Stephentown, it’s rectangular in shape. Its surface contains more small lakes and ponds than any other town in the county and these are the headwaters of many streams flowing in every direction. The town may be said to be the center of the watershed of Rensselaer County.

Grafton possesses the most uneven surface of any town in the county. It is located within the limits of the Petersburgh Range of mountains and the principal peaks in the town reach an altitude of from 1,000 to 1,200 feet above sea level. Only a small portion of the land is cultivable but the hillsides afford excellent grazing. Nevertheless, many of Grafton’s inhabitants have farms, which, by years of constant care and cultivation, have been rendered almost as productive as any within the county.

Ponds and small streams are abundant. Cranberry Lake, in the southern part, is the source of the Quacken Kill, which flows by a devious to the western limits of the town, affording some excellent mill sites. In the northern part of the town are several creeks flowing toward the Hoosick Valley. The ponds of Grafton are noted for their purity and high quality water.

Grafton was settled in the 1780s and 1790s by pioneers moving westward from New England and by Dutch settlers moving up the Hudson River. At that time, the land was part of the Northeast Manor of Rensselaerwyck owned by the VanRensselaers. This area was known as Roxborough. Farmers whose lands were devastated by the Revolutionary War were attracted to the leases of large tracts of land offered by the Patroon. The boundaries of the town were set up and the town officials were chosen on March 20, 1807. In the record book containing the minutes of the first meeting, the election or appointment of officials, such as supervisor, constable and justice, are listed. Other officials were Pound-Keepers, Fence-Viewers and Overseers of the Poor.

• Pound-Keepers were in charge of stray horses, cows, sheep and pigs.

• Fence-Viewers settled all boundary line disputes.

• Overseer of the Poor was in charge of seeing to the welfare of the elderly, orphans or infirmed who had no families to care for them.

The early settlers devoted much of their time to clearing the land and planting crops necessary to their survival. As the land clearing took place and housing materials were needed, sawmills became big business, with as many as 50 mills over the years. The earliest was established in 1800 before the town was officially erected. As by-products of the logging industry, charcoal and potash were manufactured in great quantity.

By 1813, the town had progressed enough to have 10 school districts. Also that year the assessment rolls showed the following businesses: six saw mills, four cider mills, one lime house, one blacksmith shop, one shoemaker-tan shop and one grist mill. In 1814 a cheese house was added.

The town peaked around 1840 and was a flourishing community with churches, stores, lovely homes and many businesses. By 1850, the population was 2033, more than the present day census. During this period of rapid growth, the people of the nearby mountains didn’t own their land outright and were under the control of the patroon system, even after 30 plus years of settlement. The old patroon had been very lenient with his tenants and let the rents accumulate over a number of years. When he died in 1839, he son began pressuring farmers to pay their back rents. Since the rents were to be paid with a portion of the yearly crops, to pay up the accumulation at one time would have taken all the people had.

The uprising of the farmers all across the Northeast Districts came to be known as the Anti-Rent Wars. Whenever the patroon sent rent collectors or the sheriff traveling through the hills to serve eviction notices or collect rents, sounds of tin horns blowing could be heard for miles. This sounded an alarm from farm to farm and farmers disguised in long “dresses” and hoods would descend upon the unlucky individual and drive them back to Troy and Albany, often wearing tar and feathers. One of the killings that took place at this time was Elijah Smith, a Grafton man who was a sympathizer with the patroon. He was killed by a band of men and his tombstone reads, “Killed by Anti-Renters dressed in disguise.” The only known flag carried during the Anti-Rent War hangs in the Grafton Town Hall today. In 1850, the anti-rent problems were solved when a Supreme Court ruling removed the patroons from power.

During the boom of the 1850s, many new industries were set up, including:

• Grafton Mineral Paint Company — shipped 600-700 tons per year to Boston and England.

• Blue Factory — established to manufacture blue dye. This was used over a wide local area and exported to Europe.

• Scriven’s Shirt Shop — started as a home sewing business and eventually grew to a large, well-known factory.

• Tilley’s Barrel Company — manufactured wooden barrels and later became Tilley Ladder Company.

The 1855 census lists these other businesses and occupations: blacksmiths, hotel keepers, mercantile, clerk, physician, teacher, shoemaker, artist, copper, miller, tinker, toll collector, teamsters, mechanics, sawyers, painters and servants. The Civil War came after this period of movement and progress. Nearly all eligible men from 14 to 40 went off to serve. The businesses and farms suffered badly during this period and never recovered to the level it had prior to the war.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s Grafton had another boom in the form of the tourist industry. Because of the abundance of the picturesque lakes in the town, it became a popular summer resort. Several large and luxurious hotels were built and the former Tilley farm became the Troy Times Fresh Air Home for children from the cities. Today, Grafton has regained some of its popularity as a summer area. Many tourists enjoy the Grafton Lakes State Park and the surrounding lakes. Summer homes continue to be popular and several day camps for children can be found in the town. At this time there is very little industry in Grafton. It is mainly residential and has maintained its small town image throughout its 192 years of growth and change.

Today visitors can see some of Grafton’s historical sites, including:

• The Dickinson Hill Fire Tower was erected and placed into service in 1924 on the northern slope of the Rensselaer Plateau. It is the only remaining fire tower in Rensselaer County and provides an unparalleled view including Mt. Marcy and the High Peaks in the Adirondacks, the Green Mountains of Vermont, the Taconic Range that forms the border between New York and Massachusetts to the east and the Helderberg Mountains to the south and west. The near-field view is of the forest canopy that comprises the Rensselaer Plateau, the fifth largest unfragmented forest in New York State. The Tower was neglected for years but in 2010 an agreement was reached between the New York State Police — who control the entire 12-acre tower site — and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, which transferred control of the tower to Grafton Lakes State Park. The Friends of Grafton Lakes State Park agreed to carry out the necessary work to restore the Tower. In 2011 the Tower was placed on the New York State Register of Historic Places and was accepted for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places and in 2012 the newly restored tower reopened.

• The Waite House — Dr. Rufus S. Waite was born in Petersburgh on June 5, 1797. He studied medicine with Dr. Ebenezer Robinson of Petersburgh and obtained a license to practice about 1817. In 1819 he came to Grafton and settled there permanently. In May 1848 he purchased land to the east of the Baptist Church. He was a member of the Baptist Church and in 1850 he helped them obtain the property next to his for their church. When the church was built he had his house finished with the same architecture and color of the Baptist Church. His practice was constant and extensive and he became well-known over a large portion of the county. He was the first settled physician of Grafton and died in 1860.

• Grafton Peace Pagoda — In a clearing off a back road, the pointed pinnacle of a solid Buddhist pagoda dedicated to peace rises up above the nearby tree line. People of many faiths and ethnic origins come to this remote spot, apparently looking for something in short supply in other, more accessible places. Unexpectedly given this land in 1983 for a monument to peace, Jun Yasuda and helpers from diverse faiths and backgrounds built the Grafton Peace Pagoda between 1985 and 1993. A statue of Buddha sits in a niche in the front of the pagoda and scenes from his life are carved along its side,

(History courtesy of http://history.rays-place.com/ny/ren-grafton-ny.htm.)

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