When the small, hand-lettered signs first appeared in front of each gravel pile in the pit, there might have been a mild sense of fun in the highway barn in the town of East Bloomfield.
“I knew highway work, but running a gravel pit was entirely new to me,” said Brian Bernard, highway superintendent for the town, the man who made the sign while he was learning about the pit. Brian first took his elected office in 2012, following several months in an appointed position. His deputy is Scott Parker.
The town budget for highway is $2,082,173.46, with $104,000 coming from CHIPS. The town has 44 lane miles, plus county and state roads, making a total of 129 miles to maintain. Solar panels on parts of the garage roof help defray increasing expenses for materials, including salt. They use 100 percent salt — which cost $160,000 last winter (2014) and is expected to cost $216,000 in 2015.
Part of this town’s self reliance for materials comes from the town owning its own abundant 56-acre gravel pit.
The town’s gravel pit operation lies right behind the highway barn. The 56-acre facility is dotted by serious-looking mountains of some kind of gravel all surrounded by high cliffs of rock face.
“It was tough at first,” Brian said. “There are many federal laws governing the operation. There are mining laws. Cliffs have to be tapered to a certain angle. We have to wear hard hats when mining. But the guys who work here are really into the gravel pit.”
Brian showed the handbook from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) for mining and materials handling. The book, which Brian jokingly refers to as the Bible, is thick and has tiny print that looks similar to an intense, electronics parts catalog. He said inspectors can show up at any time and levy fines in the thousands of dollars.
He thinks the town probably acquired the acreage when the highway garage was built circa 1956. The 12,000-sq.-ft. garage has an additional salt barn that holds close to 4,000 tons of salt. They also lease a cold storage building so that all the equipment can be stored indoors during the winter.
Brian’s crew of five full-time people, plus some part-time in season, know each other pretty well. Morale is good. Each of the regular crew is assigned his own dump truck for plowing and one smaller truck for salting and plowing places like dead-end streets. There are no real subdivisions in East Bloomfield.
Because the gravel pit requires mining, the activity is tightly controlled by MSHA, which also mandates training. The MSHA handbook, with its tiny print, is the size of a brick and just about as easily comprehended.
Brian said the crew takes eight hours of specific training each spring for re-certification on running the pit. Topics include keeping cliffs tapered to a certain angle and height, CPR, and first aid. In addition, they take county training in other subjects such as chain saw safety and working with loaders.
When it comes to gaining a higher comfort level in running a gravel pit, Brian has found a ready source of wisdom from a former highway superintendent who now works for MSHA. This guy knows the answers when it comes to questions about mining.
Controlling costs related to the pit also demonstrates shared services in action. The town of Bristol actually owns the crusher, so Bristol gets an advantageous rate for the East Bloomfield gravel. He said his crew produces two products: medium and coarse crush gravel. Outside contractors come on site to process even finer grades of rock, including one-inch minus and one-and-a-half-inch minus. Scales on site facilitate billing.
The pit’s budget for 2014 was $90,000. Sales to other towns close to year’s end were $57,203, in addition to the material East Bloomfield uses for road maintenance. Brian expects to return nearly $33,000 to the town thanks to the success at the pit. He hopes that will help cover the anticipated increase in the price of salt. The 2015 budget will be $60,000.
In addition to the benefit of having stable roads, each resident is allowed 30 yards of free bank run gravel each year.
It may all look like rocks to the next person, but there is a lot to learn about gravel. For example, some people like limestone gravel better than East Bloomfield’s gravel, but their choice is often determined by price. In East Bloomfield the product is a comparative bargain at inch-and-a-half minus going for $4.75 a ton. What other commodity can you buy for less than $5 a ton?
“The former highway crews met all of their needs, building roads here with their own gravel,” said Brian. “Coming from Mendon Roads I was impressed. A lot of times in Mendon the bases were not that good with clay and stuff like that. The roads here were built up with gravel from the pit, and it has been very beneficial for everyone here. The roads have good drainage and are very stable.”
In this rocky part of upstate, having a small, non-commercial pit around is not that unusual. Brian said his father-in-law has built up his private driveways with bank run gravel mined on his own property.
One piece of equipment that works double time due to mining operations is the loader, which runs all summer long doing gravel and all winter loading salt in the trucks. While everybody runs the loader, when it’s time to buy a new one every 10 years on a regular rotation program for all heavy equipment, the crew also offers their input. Ultimately the decision is financial. The last new loader — a 2014 John Deere — cost $195,000.
As for snowplow trucks Brian said, “All the guys have their own trucks. They have assigned routes. Pretty much what they have been doing forever — that’s their route.”
All heavy equipment is routinely rotated out every 10 years. Just this winter, a 2014 Peterbilt truck built for plowing joined the fleet. A new roadside mower is due soon. In equipment, Brian said, they are doing pretty well.
Making a Good
Brian was fortunate to have a father who worked for the Monroe County Parks Department because Brian’s family got to grow up in a cobblestone house nestled in Mendon Ponds Park, a truly lovely and sometimes lively athletic enclave of hundreds of acres lush with natural beauty and teeming with wildlife. Brian remembers riding his bike along endless trails as a young boy. Living in the park offered him the same kind of freedom and adventure that he has found working on the roads in East Bloomfield. He gets to be outdoors, doing what he enjoys, which is working. Brian’s wife, Colleen, grew up in East Bloomfield. The couple built their home in 1992 on acreage donated by his wife’s parents.
Brian and Colleen met at the Mendon Fireman’s Carnival in 1988 and have “been together ever since.” They married in 1991. His wife has worked in customer care for Time Warner for many years. Their daughter, Katie, just turned 15. The family likes to camp with friends. The house plants in his office, which he is not totally confident with, are from his mother who passed away. The plants are doing fine. Brian is a long-time Yankees fan, enjoys the St. Patrick's Day parade, and also becomes nostalgic when describing bird hunting with his dog, Nora, his special breed bird dog that he drove all the way to Wisconsin to pick up.
“I just love watching a dog work,” Brian said. “I don’t care if I don’t get a bird.” He said in Mendon, a lot of highway guys deer hunt and that’s how he got into hunting.
Although the demands of the job often conflict with personal time, his wife said his dedication to the safety of his crew and the maintenance of the town roads for residents is “admirable in today’s work ethic.” He really enjoys being vice president of Ontario County’s Highway Association.
After high school, Brian tried a few jobs but he said he always wanted to get into town highway department work because of his sincere appreciation of heavy machinery and what it can do. His first approach to the Mendon Highway Department ended up with him being offered a mechanics helper job, which he declined.
“I wanted to drive dump trucks and stuff like that.”
He kept in good contact with the person in charge of hiring. “I called the superintendent once a month for about a year. Luckily an opening came up for equipment operator, and that’s how I got started.”
Brian had been plowing snow since he was a teenager, often with his dad, who plowed snow as a sideline for a friend for about 30 years. He can be counted on to pinch hit and still likes plowing. Brian started with the Mendon Highway Department in 1986 and worked his way from equipment operator to heavy equipment operator, and then to foreman. He was with Mendon highways for 25 years. He couldn’t continue in the trajectory to superintendent without moving to Mendon. And a transition from East Bloomfield, which is only a few miles away, never crossed his mind.
A chance meeting with the former superintendent from East Bloomfield who had also once been in sales, led to his being appointed to superintendent for a few brief months.
“When I saw him again, he said something to me about ‘are you interested in taking over when I leave?’ That got me thinking. When he quit before his term was up, another person and myself interviewed with the town board, and I got the job. I started in May and had to run in an election. As my wife recently reminded me, to become a highway superintendent has always been a life goal for me.”
“I took a big chance leaving the town of Mendon,” he said. While he ran unopposed he said he still wanted to go out and meet the people even though it meant knocking on doors, which makes him somewhat uncomfortable.
“One guy actually said, ‘What are your qualifications?’ Nobody asked that. I thought, that’s pretty cool. Where do you want to start?”
A second life goal was to become fire chief, which he has done. Currently inactive in volunteer fire departments, he has worked in Pittsford and Honeoye Falls and has been fire chief in East Bloomfield. He was fire commissioner for five years. One of his fondest Kodak moments is a photograph of his tiny daughter in his big fireman’s hat. He always listens to the scanner for any accidents that might involve town roads, and then he heads to the scene.
On becoming highway superintendent he says, “I like my work so much better doing this. It’s been a good move for me, and my wife thinks so, too. I am closer to home. We can share more things with our daughter.”
He doesn’t mention the good fortune of being in charge, but you get the sense that he likes being a boss, if not THE boss. As for temperament, he is thoughtful and low key. This crew clearly knows what is expected of them.
“I get up at 2:45 a.m. to check the roads. I’m fortunate that’s not year-round. Pretty soon [winter] the guys will take turns Monday through Thursday and give me a break. Basically I watch the roads Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. In addition we have two night guys.”
A Failed Drug Test
“This group here, they all take their jobs very seriously. They all have an interest in it. It’s impressive to watch them,” Brian said.
Surprisingly it was a personnel issue that gave Brian the worst day on the job to date.
“We’ve had some personnel changes here, including a termination because of a failed drug and alcohol test.”
Random testing, part of federal law, is done about four to five times a year here. A supervisor also can ask for a random test. Had Brian ever terminated a person before? “No. And he was a senior man. You are pulling the carpet out from under someone. You are ending their livelihood, too.”
Brian being the new guy on the job said the crew’s response was, “pretty quiet.”
The move required court time, testimony, written documentation, and a lot of personal stress. No surprise that as a result Brian, on the advice of his insurance agent, added personal protection on his insurance policy because he is now an elected, public official.
He calls East Bloomfield in Ontario County a “bedroom community” of nearly 4,000 residents — many of whom head to Rochester for work. There are no housing developments as such. The town has the Antique Wireless Museum, with items that have appeared in major movies, and another museum, Vintage Tracks, devoted to crawler vehicles mobilized by tracks. One of the local restaurants — the Holloway House — has been serving visitors since the 1800s when it was a stagecoach stop and inn. East Bloomfield also is home to the Northern Spy apple, which was first grown here in 1800 from seedlings brought from Connecticut. East Bloomfield is no longer orchard country, but the Northern Spy reigns as one of America’s most popular apples.
Why Drainage Is the First Priority
Brian considers drainage to be “Number One” when it comes to roads.
“You either keep the water away from the roads or work with it through ditching, using pipes and culverts. You also have to be careful to understand what size traffic you have over the road. Here in East Bloomfield we don’t have very many weight limits on roads; we are a thoroughfare for heavy trucks.”
One goal Brian has is to eventually replace all the metal drainage pipe in town.
“I’d like to put all plastic pipe in the culverts and get all the ditching done. A lot of our culverts are metal. We want to get them prepped for later in life repaving.”
He already is looking ahead to a major project in 2016 that will follow the same formula — first, in summer, doing all the drainage necessary and replacing the culverts. Any serious culvert problems might be replaced by a box culvert to encourage more flow. Then the following summer, after the new surfaces have settled, they’ll put their attention into the blacktopping.
So far, he said, roads taking a longer time to settle have him somewhat flummoxed. In one of his first projects here they replaced all the culverts and then put NovaChip on top of the road. He said some of the roads over the culverts are not really settled enough to please him. “It’s taking a lot of time,” he said.
NovaChipping is one tool that Brian had used successfully in Mendon. He said it was new to the crew in East Bloomfield.
“They like it, but if they think I am making a wrong decision they will let me know. I appreciate that. They are a good bunch to work with. I don’t want to lose any. One member has been here for 35 years, and he promises to remain here to be a thorn in my side.”
As for resident complaints, the top one remains the proverbial fallen mailbox. The crew is taking the higher ground this year when budgets are everything, and a new mailbox and pole could cost taxpayers $50.
“This year I had one of the guys take photographs of about six mailboxes, which we sent to the homeowners and said we would not be responsible for them because they are in such poor condition. All these years I’ve done mailboxes, sometimes I think it would be cheaper for the taxpayers to get everybody a post office box!”
One particularly memorable mailbox that got squashed like a pancake is hung prominently on the wall of the highway garage. The driver’s quote, “I just nicked it.” provides the caption.
Miles and Miles
“If it were up to me I’d repave every road, but we don’t have the budget for that. My budget was just approved, so we can get going on our plan of action,” he said. “On our roads we do a lot of wedging and grading with tons of stone and oil.”
He said it was a busy year and one in which they got an additional $12,000 from the state for winter breakage. That money will go toward roadwork. A reimbursement for $10,000 just arrived from FEMA because of erosion-caused problems.
Because it’s a small town, shared services work out very well. “We did a big drainage project for the town hall last year.”
The crew addressed the gutters and then they trenched to an adjacent property to tap into a catch basin to get rid of rain water efficiently. The crew also tends to the Veterans Park, which is used for community events including patriotic celebrations. They also helped refurbish some baseball diamonds at the American Legion. The school mows some areas, like Veterans Park, while the highway crew salts the school parking lots in return.
A routinely flooded area that has endangered a private home with an irate owner on Wayland Road is typical of how Brian approaches a problem. Working with town engineers Brian determined that a box culvert would work or possibly a large-capacity pipe made from aluminum.
Turning to Computers (and His Wife)
Brian has come to rely heavily on computer software developed for highway superintendents called Williamson Law. When he took office the software was installed but had not yet been used. Today he said writing invoices, tracking plow routes, watching the budget, monitoring salt usage, and taking inventory is routine and just minutes from getting done.
“I use it every day,” he said. “Anything having to do with the job I put in there. I wouldn’t want to be without it. It is second nature to me now.”
One thing that doesn’t come easily, he said, is writing letters, and this is where his wife, Colleen, has helped tremendously.
“The biggest downfall of my life is how to make letters up and stuff. I always ask my wife to proofread them. Next thing I know she has changed it all around.”
Still he is wise enough to admit that the letter always gets better and its purpose is more readily understood.
If his wife isn’t available, he never goes it alone. He says then he turns to the supervisor’s secretary.
About East Bloomfield
Like a lot of upstate towns, East Bloomfield started out being much larger than it is today. Created in 1789, then called Bloomfield, the town at that time included what is now Mendon, Victor, and both East and West Bloomfield. The original residents were Seneca Indians who lived in a village known as “Gan-dou-gar-ae” on the east side of Mud Creek.
The natives were driven out by the Marquis de Denonville in 1687 as the French attempted to control the fur trade. Today at Gonondagan, the state’s only museum dedicated to Native Americans, there are many proofs of the once-abundant crops and storage places that the Seneca enjoyed in a large village of some 3,000 inhabitants in nearby Victor. Only older Indians, women, and children were on hand when Denonville arrived to burn the village and the crops. According to historians, the Indians were as outraged by the destruction of food as they were about the loss of life. Today, small kernels of burnt corn are on display in the museum, bearing witness to what remains of what was once a storage place for tons of grain essential to Seneca life.
In 1789, as part of the Phelps and Gorham purchase, what is now East Bloomfield was sold to a party of purchasers from Massachusetts. The speculators were captains, generals, a deacon, a judge, and a doctor. That year the pioneer settlement of East Bloomfield began.
Deacon John Adams of Alford, Massachusetts, is called the founder, buying property in the spring of 1789 and leading a party of 24 hardy souls seeking a new life.
Saw mills were built, a gristmill, a tannery, and a distillery. The first school opened in 1792. The population in 1830, when the town included more territory, was 3,861, about the same as it is today. Patriotism ran deep. During the Civil War more than 100 volunteers are credited to the town. The town’s dead Civil War soldiers were honored in 1868 with the unveiling of a brown granite monument, still admired, that cost a substantial $6,000 at that time.
It once had two village post offices and a railroad station. In its early days the village became an epicenter of activity for making wagons, carriages, and harnesses. The East Bloomfield Station certainly helped fuel the economy for local merchants, including groceries, boots and shoes, agricultural implements, feed, coal, blacksmithing, lumber, general hardware, and specialized items like an evaporator. By the early part of the 19th century, there were seven distilleries, three clock factories, two gun shops, potash factories, and cabinet makers, among other trades.
Genesee Country wheat grown here deserved its word-wide status as premium grain. It was sold widely abroad. That wheat was sold carrying a label that read Genesee Flour—Bloomfield.
More first facts: In 1870 a company in Bloomfield bored pine logs and banded them together with iron, creating the industry’s first natural gas pipeline. It stretched from the town to Rochester, 25 miles away.
East Bloomfield is older than Rochester. In fact, Nathaniel Rochester, founder of the city on the Genesee waterfalls, once lived in Bloomfield, as did abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Many churches were founded early and were well attended. There are enough Morman, feminist, and social reformers mentioned in its early history to define East Bloomfield as a place that enriched the mind and spirit as well as the fields. As for modern day heroes, Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte once called East Bloomfield home.