Most people would not be pleased to know that their government official is a member of the Liar's Club, but the residents of the village of Castorland in upstate New York don't seem to mind. In fact, several of them also are members.
The Liar's Club is a Castorland tradition. Locals gather at the department of public works office for coffee, donuts and conversation. As legend has it, a lot of the storytellers stretch the truth just a bit, their tales of escapades interrupted only when the fire alarm sounds, calling away many of the regulars because they are volunteer firemen.
“Every morning I start my day by going down to the DPW and putting on the coffee,” said Mark Birchenough, superintendent of public works for the village of Castorland and one of the volunteer firemen. “From there, I have to go up to the pump house and pull samples, which take about an hour to process. Upon returning, the local members of the 'Liars Club' start to congregate, tell a few stories (many of which are lies) and keep each other up to date on what is going on in our lives.”
It's one of many examples of Mark's close relationship with the small community, and one of the numerous services he does for its residents. As his wife Linda says, “Thirty years of service and dedication to the village and surrounding communities does not end here. Mark has made many good friends and contacts over the years.”
A One-Man Show
Mark was working at Lowville Sport and Farm Supply in 1987 when he spied a job ad at the post office.
“[Castorland was] looking to replace the sitting superintendent of public works, Walt Thomas, who was approaching retirement,” Mark said. He got the job, but Thomas died six weeks later, so his training period didn't last long.
Instead, he's had to create his own job description. In fact, he's had to create several because his position covers four areas: the water treatment plant, the sewage treatment plant, road maintenance, and taking care of the village park.
His wife calls him a one-man show.
“Some of his basic responsibilities include the obvious of mowing the village-owned lawns from one end of the village to the other, keeping the streets plowed and maintaining the sewer and water operations on a daily basis,” she said.
That last job became a little easier in July 2009 when the village transitioned to remote meter reading via radio.
“My meter checking days were done,” he said.
Until then, he was responsible for manually reading all 110 water meters. He calls it one of the most tedious parts of his job — and yet, he recognizes that it was an improvement for the residents.
When he started working for the village, only 45 residents had “city” water. Most had wells in their back yards. That began to change when Climax Manufacturing Company, once the area's largest employer, needed a reliable source of water for their wooden and paper box manufacturing. The company installed lines to carry water from the Climax reservoir. When the village eventually decided to develop their own drinking water source, they began by splitting the lines from the Climax system. One of Mark's first major projects was expanding the water system to the rest of the residents and installing 81 curb stops.
That might have been his first project as superintendent, but it wasn't his last. Approximately 14 years ago, a few members of the community revisited an idea from 1981 to create a park. Volunteers and the local fire department donated materials and their time. Mark's job was to maintain the grounds, the pavilion and an area he nicknamed the “Shady Rest.” He makes repairs to the toys as needed and keeps the Shady Rest clean and functional. With the help of a local resident, he installed electric and water to the pavilion.
Because of his involvement with this project, he has become the unofficial “go-to guy” for residents wishing to reserve the pavilion for private events, a task his wife helps him with. He also keeps the trails he forged a few years ago clear of brush and fallen trees.
Mark sometimes had part-time summer help, but mostly it was just him, a Ford F250 with a plow for snow removal, a mower, a Bobcat with a bucket and a snow blower, a skid steer loader and his personal tractor.
When he took the job, he was told not to plow snow unless they received six inches or more because the belief was that the best approach would be to let it pack down and call in a motorgrader to have it removed when the weather cleared up. It didn't take him long to realize that the motorgrader caused a significant amount of damage to the roads. This approach also meant that during heavy snows, without four-wheel-drive, residents couldn't go anywhere until the weather cleared and the motorgrader had cleaned up.
Today, the village of Castorland takes a more contemporary approach to snow removal. Mark's pickup is equipped with a snowplow and a sander, which can handle most snow events, especially considering that he has only a little over two lane miles to clear. In the event of a major snowfall, neighboring municipalities pitch in.
Because his resources and manpower are limited, he's been relying on help from neighboring towns and communities for years. “We've been practicing shared services long before Gov. Cuomo came up with the idea,” he said.
The villages of Croghan and Castorland have a mutual aid agreement, helping each other as needed.
“This is how I am able to manage vacations and illnesses,” Mark said. “If I am unable to carry out my daily obligations, the village of Croghan steps up. We do not have to worry about any legal issues that might arise because we have a formal mutual aid agreement.”
It's traditional in a predominantly agricultural area for farmers to help one another and share equipment. “If it's good enough for the local farmers, it should be good enough for us,” Mark quipped.
Village of Castorland
Castorland is a small rural village in northwestern Lewis County that overlooks the Black River, which provided an important method of transportation in the early days. Castor, or caster, is French for beaver, indicating the abundance of the aquatic mammal in the area.
Known today as a quiet residential community with several young families, Castorland was once intended to be a bustling center for commerce and business. However, despite the arrival of the railroad in the 1870s, the building of a canal and improved roads for transportation of goods, the village never grew to meet expectations.
Macomb, McCormick and William Constable had purchased 4 million acres (at a cost of 8 cents an acre) near the Black River in the northwestern part of the state of New York, where the counties of Lewis and Jefferson are now located. In 1792, the Constables sold the land to Pierre Chassanis, a Frenchman seeking refuge from the Revolution, for $1.25 per acre. Chassanis hoped to found a colony for other French emigrants, but ran into legal difficulties.
The land was divided into 100-acre lots to be sold to prospective settlers by Castorland Company, with Chassanis retaining 200,000 acres on the borders of Lake Ontario and the Black River for himself.
The French colonists who had arrived struggled against bad weather and difficult conditions, losing a large number of domestic animals to hunger during the winter of 1795. Nevertheless, they built a mill, a forge and a canal.
In 1796, the French company sent a new manager, Rudolph Tillier, who brought special “jetons de presence,” commemorative silver coins minted in 1796, to celebrate the settlement. With the inscription “A Franco-Americana Colonia,” these tokens featured game and maple trees, both of which were plentiful in the area.
Incurring heavy expenses for agricultural tools and implements, animals and provisions, Tillier established 20 Parisian families on the banks of the river, but it was an enterprise destined for inevitable failure. Development ceased when French citizens were banned from owning property in 1898; many returned to France.
After selling lots to approximately 100 families, Castorland Co., headquartered in Paris, failed to attract enough settlers and businesses and went bankrupt. The land was sold to American colonists, who were more accustomed to the lifestyle and climate of the country.
By the 1870s, better transportation led to the rise of the lumber industry and Castorland soon featured a mattress factory, furniture factory, two general stores, a few hotels and the Climax Manufacturing Co.
Caught in Time
Through the mid-1800s and much of the 1900s, the village prospered. Agriculture, lumber and manufacturing provided a stable income and a pleasant lifestyle for residents. Although most of the manufacturing has left the area, the families remaining in Castorland continue to raise their families and enjoy the quiet, peaceful lifestyle the village provides.
Still about the same size it was 150 years ago, with about 100 homes, Castorland, located in the town of Denmark (which has two incorporated villages: Castorland and Copenhagen), might not seem to have changed much. Residents still battle tough winters. One of the worst in recent history is remembered by Mark as his worst day on the job.
A storm in 1998 brought record-breaking amounts of ice to the North Country, taking down thousands of trees and knocking out power for weeks. For days, Mark worked nearly around the clock, trying to restore services to the area. Warmer temperatures brought new problems, because the rapid thaw resulted in widespread flooding.
Dealing with the residents of Castorland was often easier than battling the weather. Most issues were handled one-on-one; only a few rare situations couldn't be resolved without input from the Board.
More often, a reasonable explanation sufficed to resolve issues. For example, one resident complained about the number of dogs running loose in the village and pushed Mark to do something about it.
“We finally informed him that in order to enforce a leash law, we would have to establish a leash law, which did not currently exist,” he said. “If we did that, we would have to hire a dog warden to enforce the leash law and if we were going to do that, we would have to start establishing dog license fees to cover the costs. Once word of that got around, it was the end of the discussion.”
Mark himself carries on several Castorland traditions. In addition to hunting with his Golden Setter, Penny, he enjoys camping in the Tug Hill area and tapping maple trees each spring. This year he made 35 gallons of maple syrup.
The DPW has yet to acquire computers and still operates out of the same facility built in 1950, but the village isn't stuck in time. Mark has often been ahead of the curve when it comes to implementing improvements. For example, when one of the four mayors he worked for during his tenure asked him to document his time, Mark reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a form he'd been using. The mayor told him it was more than sufficient.
Bigger changes have taken place in recent years. In 2014, the village installed a new $2.9 million sewage treatment plant. The previous plant had been built in a low-lying area with poor drainage. It was prone to flooding when the neighboring rivers breached their banks. A major project for a municipality the size of Castorland, it was primarily paid for by grants and government agencies, with the village covering the $93,000 balance.
“Sometime in the foreseeable future,” Mark expects the village to replace or repair its 300-gallon water tank, which has outlasted its life expectancy, and he hopes to acquire more attachments for the Bobcat. But he's used to working with limited resources.
Because the village doesn't own any excavating equipment, when digging is necessary, they reach out to contractors to do the job.
“Over the years, we've used a variety of different contractors when the need for excavating arises,” Mark said. “A few years ago, I needed some excavating during the dead of winter and had trouble getting anyone. John Marolf with Cedarcrest Construction came to our aid without hesitation. After that, we decided that we should give as much of our business as we can to the company that responded during the worst circumstances.”
Nor does Castorland have any road maintenance equipment. That never bothered Mark, who said, “We only maintain 2.2 lane miles and we rarely, if ever, are involved in building new roads.”
One more thing did change: Mark retired in January, after 35 years on the job. Noting that he has had very little to complain about the job over the years, he said he won't miss the abundance of bureaucratic paperwork, including surveys, federal EPA reports and discharge reports for the sewage treatment plant — although he confesses to passing some of it off to his wife, who teaches at the Utica, N.Y., middle school. Nor is he sorry to put behind him the ongoing training necessary to maintain his licensing to run the water and sewage treatment plants.
Instead, he looks forward to spending time with his children, twins Ken — a chemical engineer in Carthage, N.Y. — and Kelly — an OB/GYN in Meadeville, Pa., and his first grandchild, Kelly's daughter, June, born in 2016.
Mark has left big shoes to fill. While superintendent, he made himself available to residents almost 24 hours a day.
“It doesn't seem to matter what time of day or night it is,” his wife said. “The residents know that they can always contact him at our residence either by phone or simply stopping by with whatever question or concern they have. It might be something simple, such as what day is garbage being picked up this week due to a holiday, or something more serious, such as sewage is backing up in a basement. Naturally, regardless of what Mark might have had planned for that day, he unequivocally will tend to the residents' needs to ensure their safety before going on with his personal plans.”
His reliability was legendary. In fact, the locals could practically set their watches by his routine. When his sister-in-law had young children, she could gauge how much time she had left to get the kids ready for the school bus by when Mark walked by her house on his way to work.
“Every day, like clockwork, Mark would report to work at nearly the exact same time,” Linda said. He had no idea until years later, when it came up at a family gathering, that he was a clock for some residents.
Not only was he on time, he was always on the job. He rarely took a sick day, Linda said, but if he had to, it was only after the daily chores were done.
Over the years, Mark took on several tasks that weren't part of the job description. One of those duties is putting up the American flags every year just before Memorial Day and removing them shortly after Veteran's Day, depending on the weather.
Thirty years ago, several American Legion members would meet in what was called the Community Hall to hang the flags, Linda said. A few years after Mark became superintendent, those members had all passed away or been moved into assisted living facilities. No one was left to hang the flags. “It's not a huge undertaking, but, nevertheless, Mark has assumed this task and does so with the highest admiration.”
He put his patriotic stamp on the village in another way by accidentally establishing The Tractor Parade, now an annual village tradition.
“A number of years ago, I saw an old Farmall 230 tractor that reminded me of a tractor that we had when I was a kid,” Mark said. “I made up my mind to buy the tractor on the Fourth of July and I decided to drive the tractor back home through the village. On a whim, I stuck an American flag in the grill.”
It turned into a “thing,” he said. For the past five years, there has been a gathering of antique and modern farm tractors of various sizes at the DPW on July 4 for a parade.
“The [second] year two other local residents decided to drive their tractors through the village on the Fourth of July,” Marks said.
The year after that there were six, the following year there were 12 and the year after that there were 23. On the fifth anniversary of “The Tractor Parade,” more than 100 people showed up to watch.
The parade route goes up and down Main Street, culminating at the Crossroads Tavern for refreshments. The grand finale is back in Castorland, where residents enjoy a picnic and bonfire.
“This event has become a delightful memorial parade in honor of a beloved fireman and other local icons, which residents look forward to every year,” Linda said.