Despite constant threats of rising operating costs and falling snow, Earl C. Smith, superintendent of highways for the Town of Putnam Valley, still calls his job the most relaxing he’s ever had.
Monday through Friday, Earl arrives at his office at 5:30 a.m., enjoys a cup of coffee and a doughnut and reads the newspaper. “I just sit and relax for an hour before everybody comes in … it’s the only time of the day I get to do that,” he said.
But sometimes Earl’s up earlier in the morning. “When it snows, you worry,” he begins. “You worry about everybody’s safety, and I have problems sleeping. A few weeks ago, the weather reports were saying it was going to snow. All night long I kept waking up to look out the window to see if it started yet. I do this all the time in the winter. You have to time things just right.” Earl does this because he knows that it can take an hour or two to call everybody in and get to the garage. When it’s snowing hard, two hours lost is like being down 14 points before the opening kickoff.
Then there’s the ever-present stress of working within a budget. Earl, too, scratches his head sometimes when trying to figure out how he’s going to get all the work done with what never seems like quite enough money to do it all.
Sounds like a hassle. Especially if you’re Earl, who’s 63 years old and who ought to be making plans to escape the snow for sunnier confines down south rather than devising strategies to tame yet another nor’easter. But Earl loves his job and when you hear him talk about what it took for him to land his position as highway superintendent for Putnam Valley, you find out that he’s worked his whole life to get there … and he’s not about to stop now.
The Road to Highway Superintendent
Born in 1941 in Putnam Valley, Earl Smith worked his way through the town’s school system, winding up at Peekskill High School. (Putnam Valley didn’t have a high school, then.) There, Earl learned cabinet making and right after graduating in 1961, he became an apprentice with Peekskill Woodworking, where he worked until 1963, eventually becoming a foreman.
In 1963, however, Earl, like so many men in their late teens and early 20s at the time, lived in the shadow of an increasingly contentious situation in Vietnam and was drafted. He was sent to Fort Ord in Monterey, CA, where, at an experimentation center, he served for a year testing 155 self-propelled howitzers, ultimately being discharged because of ulcer problems. He never made it to Vietnam.
Back in Putnam Valley, Earl and a friend started a masonry and carpentry business.
“We really didn’t have a name for the business. I guess we were just Independent Contractor,” Earl explained. “We’d just work through a word-of-mouth kind of deal. We did masonry, primarily doing foundations and concrete patios. Then we got into doing some roofing work. I did this for about five years. My friend and ex-partner went on to staying in the business and now builds homes in Colorado.”
What Earl really liked about having his own company was the freedom that came with it. “If I wanted to go do something, I didn’t have anybody to answer to,” he said.
It was at this moment that Earl got involved in something else — rodeo. “My buddy and I rode bulls and some bareback bronc. We used to ‘rodeo’ all around this area, along with Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Florida. During one winter we went down there and rode bulls and bareback horses,” he recalled.
But how does one get involved in a thing that is widely considered to thrive in the western region of the country but not in a hamlet about an hour or so north of Manhattan? “Cimmaron Ranch was right here in Putnam Valley and my great-uncle took me down there to see a rodeo one time and I kinda’ fell in love with it. I was five years old, then, and I knew that this was something that I wanted to do,” he answered.
Along with his business, the rodeo circuit kept Earl busy. “My friend and I would go to the Catskills to compete in rodeos almost every Thursday night. Then it became Saturdays and Sundays at other local rodeos and sometimes three-day shows in Pennsylvania. It was nice when you own your own business because my partner rode out with me so we just took off Friday morning and went to the rodeo for the weekend.”
Earl became rather successful with bull riding and garnered a few local championships, though he confessed that “It took awhile to get used to the getting on, staying on, getting off, without getting yourself killed.” One day, though, he almost did. At the Little Texas Dude Ranch in Roscoe, NY, in the Catskills, a bareback bronc kicked him in the back, breaking it, which laid him up for about a year. Earl recovered and continued riding for another two years and then retired. In all he spent approximately six years competing in rodeos. To this day, he still misses the competition and the excitement. “I enjoyed the whole deal. I’ve always been kind of a country boy, anyway,” he said.
Immediately after moving on from his contracting gig, Earl caught on with New York State Gas and Electric (NYSG&E), where he attended lineman’s school and installed power lines. “I wanted to do something that was much steadier work than construction,” he said. However, this didn’t prove too steady since some of his rodeo time overlapped with this job and the broken back situation caused a lot of missed time, eventually costing him his job with NYSG&E in 1974.
Earl then went to work for a local laborer’s union. “For them, I worked with the masons and helped them pour concrete, that sort of thing. I was just a laborer, nothing exciting,” he admitted.
In 1975, he returned to where he began — Putnam Valley Elementary School. He worked there for three years as a bus driver/mechanic, which proved to be a significant career move.
“While still working for the elementary school, I put in an application at the highway department,” Earl began. “Then one day, I went to the highway superintendent to tell him that there’s a tree limb lying in the road. He said, ‘Oh, by the way, do you want a job? One of the guys turned in a resignation this morning.’ So I said, ‘sure,’ and he said, ‘you start in two weeks.’ And that’s how I got my start here.”
Earl explained his progression through the ranks at the Town of Putnam Valley’s highway department. “I started out as a laborer, became a truck driver, then a machine operator, a foreman, and finally the highway superintendent. What happened was when I was nine years as a foreman, the highway superintendent was forced to resign and the town board appointed me in 2001 to finish his term. Then I ran my first election in 2002 unopposed. I ran unopposed again this past November and won. My current term expires in December 2006.”
Running the Putnam Valley’s Highway Department
For the town’s approximately 10,000 residents, Earl runs the Town of Putnam Valley’s highway department on an annual operating budget of $2.5 million. The highway department also receives $100,000 in annual CHIPS allocation. He is responsible for 94 lane mi. of roads (six roads are gravel and approximately 230 roads are paved). His staff consists of 21 full-timers (there are no part-time employees) in the highway department and four in the Lake Peekskill Improvement District. Normal working hours are 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., except, of course, for Earl who prefers his quiet time at the office before 7 a.m. Earl said, “Sometimes I let the guys go a little early.”
Earl’s responsibilities with the Lake Peekskill Improvement District involve overseeing a staff of four full-time employees, including a foreman, who manage the district’s own water lines, handle trash pickup and maintain the lake’s beaches.
“I’m in charge of the foreman in that district,” Earl explained. “They have their own facility at Lake Peekskill, but the foreman reports every morning to me. They pick up garbage twice a week; pick up recycling twice a week. And they take care of the water district and beaches. They handle the water that comes out of the NYC aqueduct. They have a pump station and a chlorination station. The water is a little discolored, and the residents really just use it as a secondary water supply. We have nothing to do with the primary water supply.”
The highway department’s facilities consist of one highway garage (all trucks are stored outside), two truck lifts, a 6,000-ton salt storage barn, and “every tool we need to work on our equipment,” according to Earl. The department leases none of its equipment, but its fleet is impressive (See Town of Putnam Valley Highway Department’s Equipment Fleet.) Earl anticipates that he will soon need to update a portion of his fleet by acquiring new sand trucks and pickups. For preventative maintenance, Earl has three mechanics who work on equipment daily.
For snow removal, the Town of Putnam Valley Highway Department uses nine plowing routes, which take approximately 3.5 hours to complete.
During an average day, Earl and his crews perform blacktopping and drainage work. “We cut shoulders … sometimes we need to go out and change some pipes that are rotting. Sometimes rain and snowstorms will wash out some of our dirt roads. And, of course, there’s tree cleanup after storms, too.”
Although there aren’t many dirt roads for Earl’s department to maintain, there are still enough to keep him and his crews busy. The department grades the dirt roads too, sometimes three times a year and uses magnesium chloride on them in the spring after grading.
“We use a Champion grader,” began Earl. “We’ll grade [the road]; rake it; then roll it. There’s one road, though, that gets a lot of traffic. It’s between two blacktop roads and it serves as a shortcut. That gets quite a few holes, especially when it rains.”
Earl would love to have no dirt roads to maintain, though. “Dirt roads are a pain in the butt,” he lamented. “I’ve paved a couple of them since I’ve taken over. There was this one dirt road that we paved a couple of years ago — the first year I was in office — because it was at the base of a hill and it was always swampy there. In the winter, it was practically a sheet of ice — all the time. Since we put the blacktop on it, it’s been a helluva lot less maintenance.”
Occasionally, Earl’s department helps out in the community. For the past several months, Earl and his crew have been working with the town’s parks and recreation department to construct a soccer field and a softball field at a local park. There, Earl and crew are installing the drainage system. The park should be completed by mid-summer. Putnam Valley’s highway department also helps out the Putnam Valley School District with snow removal from time to time.
Earl doesn’t believe that just because he has a certain amount of money in his budget that he should use it all because it’s there. “You have to draw the line,” he said. “For example, right now we’re pretty much caught up on the drainage, so we don’t really need to spend money on this at the moment. So, we can save that money. If you had a million dollars in your budget, but you know you’re only going to need $500,000, you don’t need to have a budget of a million dollars. I try to buy a product that’s as inexpensive as possible, so I call up several different places to make sure I’m getting the cheapest price available.”
One way Earl is saving money for Putnam Valley has been through his recycling program. Though not officially in charge of recycling, Earl set up a program where once a month Putnam Valley residents take their recyclable junk to the highway department. Earl explained, “It’s a clean-out-your-basement thing. We hired a company that brings in some dumpsters and then our residents — once a month on Saturday mornings — pay ‘x-amount’ of dollars to have their junk sorted into the right bins.”
Earl is in the process of creating a filtration system that will recycle the water used when washing his equipment fleet. “Right now we just wash trucks outside, which has always been a no-no to me because you wash the salt and the oils and stuff right into the ground,” he said. “We’re going to have a filtration system, which will recycle the water and filter the oils and greases out of it. Then, we’ll be able to reuse the water.
“We’re working toward putting up a new washing shed — approximately 30 feet by 50 feet — and we’re going to hook a wood stove up to it so that there’ll be heat in there. Then, we’ll hook up the recycling wash unit. This time of the year, with how cold it is, you can’t wash the salt off because it freezes right then. We would be able to bring the truck inside where it’s warm, wash it off, and it would dry before you get it back outside. And we would stop the salt and grease from going back into the ground,” Earl concluded, and added that he expects the washing facility to be completed in the spring.
On the Home Front
Earl has been married to his wife, Michelle, for 25 years. They have three children: Shawn (from a previous marriage), 29, who works as a foreman for Yorktown Autobody, which is approximately 10 mi. outside of Putnam Valley; Michael, 20, who is attending the University of Rhode Island, majoring in engineering; and Shannon, 17, who is a senior at Kennedy Catholic High School and hopes to attend Cortland State University, where she would like to study to be an elementary school teacher.
For 44 years, Earl has been a volunteer fireman with the Putnam Valley Volunteer Fire Department. “I started there when I was 18 years old as an active fireman. Right now, I’m classified as a driver for the fire department. We have a lot of members that are also members of the highway department. If there’s a fire, they leave the job to go, especially during the day. A couple of the guys are ambulance members. It works out well because the ambulance building is right next to the highway garage,” Earl said.
Earl also is a member of the Westchester Putnam Highway Superintendent’s Association. “We have meetings usually once a month. We primarily do fundraisers and send the money to different organizations, such as the Make-A-Wish Foundation. We’ll also donate money to private causes, such as if a child gets hurt or if a family’s house bums down. We’re also talking about creating a scholarship for members’ children.”
Putnam Valley: Centuries
Away From Manhattan
Cradled by the Hudson Highlands, Putnam Valley is less than an hour from midtown Manhattan by car (on a good day), but centuries away from the New York City way of life. Putnam Valley, with a population of approximately 10,000 people, includes several lakeside communities, the Clarence Fahenstock State Park and many miles of hiking and riding trails.
Before the Europeans arrived, the Canopus group of the Nochpeem band of the “Wappinger Indian Confederacy” made the area their home. As part of the Mohican nation, they spoke the Algonquian language.
In 1600, approximately 4,700 members of this confederacy ranged over an area that spread from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, along the Hudson River and extending eastward toward Connecticut.
The footpaths made by the Native Americans usually followed the stream valleys. The first settlers followed these footpaths and over time, these became the roads known today as Peekskill Hollow, Canopus Hollow and Oscawana Lake.
Native American villages were usually positioned on the side hill, facing south, and within easy access to water. The principal settlement in Putnam Valley is believed to have been in the hollow at Canopus Hill and one of the largest villages in the entire region. Other campsites might have been located at Roaring Brook, Tompkins Corners and Adam Corners.
The vestiges of the Native Americans are in the names they left behind. The name “Oscawana” is thought to have been a Native American personal name. One of the signers of the deed dated 1682 at Croton was a Native American named “Askawanes.” In 1683, one “Oskewana” sold a tract of land to the Van Cortlandt family. “Wiccopee” is said to mean “house by the water.”
In 1697, Adolph Philipse (sometimes spelled Flypsen or Flipse) was granted a patent for a large tract of land called the Highland Patent, that would later become Putnam Valley County. In 1717 this land became the South Ward of Dutchess County, one of the original 12 counties in New York established in 1683.
A Dutchess County census taken in 1714 tallied just 18 heads of households in what became the South Ward. The Philipse family made little attempt to divide their land or encourage settlement. By 1737 there were only 161 heads of households in the entire ward.
The tract passed through the Philipse family, was divided into lots in 1751 and eventually lot No. 4, which included the area of Putnam Valley, was left to Colonel Beverly and Susannah Philipse Robinson. As a result of their British loyalty during the Revolutionary War, the State of New York confiscated their property in 1779. Most of the land was sold in 1781 to tenant farmers already living and farming in this area.
It was not until 1812 that Putnam County was separated from Dutchess. The area that became Putnam Valley was part of Philipstown, established in 1788.
On March 14, 1839, the independent town of Quincy was incorporated. It is thought that the residents, being largely Democrats, took a skeptical view of John Quincy Adams’ political views, and therefore, changed the name to the Town of Putnam Valley in February 1840.
A small section of the town of Carmel, which lay northwest of Peekskill Hollow Creek and east of what is now the Taconic State Parkway, was annexed to Putnam Valley on April 13, 1861. The residents of that area, having felt completely isolated from the rest of Carmel but close to the settlement at Tompkins Corners, petitioned for this change. P