For Travis Keyes, it doesn't get much better than this. He loves his family. He loves the town where he has spent most of his life. He loves getting up every morning and doing his job as the highway superintendent for the town of Salem.
How It Began
Born in Cambridge, N.Y., Travis has pretty much been a resident of Salem his entire life.
“I started school [in Salem] in the sixth grade when I moved back in with my father. I went to Salem Washington Academy and graduated from Arlington Vermont High School in 2001. After that, I attended Sterling College in Craftsbury, Vt. Sterling is the smallest co-ed college in the world. I didn't do well in high school, so I wanted to go where there was some individuality. I studied everything from wildland to forestry, ecology, management and biology. At first, I wanted to be a forester, then a game warden. At the end of two years, I was so homesick I came home and went back to farming.
“I was farming before I went to college. We had two family farms growing up. One on my mother's side — in the neighboring town in Rupert, Vt. — was about 400 acres. We milked 75 cows up until 1998. My father's farm was roughly 350 acres and had 50 cows. We sold out in 1988. That's when the cows went. Then we raised heifers and pigs and baled hay right up to the mid-90s. I'd milk cows, feed calves, spread manure and clean the barn. Normal farm boy stuff. I didn't know any better until I was about 16 because that's what we did. I also helped out at my best friend's dairy farm and I was always there working, doing hay and chopping corn.”
As a teenager, Travis spent a lot of time with the guys on the Salem highway department riding wing and learning the duties.
“I think I started when I was 14. My best friend and I would go up at night and ride with them because they didn't have a wingman. We spent a lot of time in the town Rupert truck. I'd see if I could ride with them.
Fast forward to today.
What enticed Travis to the highway superintendent's spot?
“It was the next logical step. I'm the third generation working for the town. My grandfather worked here after we sold the cows in the late 80s and my father's brother, Uncle Mike, ran for highway superintendent in the mid-90s. He held the position for two years. Before I was elected, I was an MEO for the town of Salem. I started in November of 2011. I'd worked for the town of Hebron for a year prior to that.”
The superintendent's job was “dropped” in Travis' lap about two weeks before his boss was retiring.
“He left the truck keys on the desk and walked out. It was in August and I had to run in November to fulfill his term. That was in 2017. I officially took office in 2018.”
During those first few months, Travis spent hours on the phone with other highway supers asking questions.
“I could muddle my way through payroll and stuff, but I didn't know how to do a lot of things like how to complete vouchers or abstracts for meetings. They helped me during the first two months until I got my feet under me. It was encouraging to hear them say, 'We went through the same thing.'”
Travis recalled how it was when he was sitting at the table as an employee.
“I didn't totally understand the boss's position. I said when I take over as boss, I'm going to sit at the table with the guys every morning. I'm not going to spend much time in that office. There's no need to go to all these meetings. Well, in about three months, I was on the other side of the fence. I spend way more time in the office then I care to mention and I still don't spend enough time there. The most valuable thing any highway superintendent can do is join his local association. Talk to other people and see what they're doing. No sense in reinventing the wheel. Somebody's already tried it. Ask them did it work? Didn't it work? Why didn't it work? What would they change? Our Washington County Highway Association of Superintendents is amazing. We're a tight-knit group. We all participate. They have been my best resource.”
Two years later, he's still asking questions, but now he's more comfortable in his own skin.
Travis and his wife, Holly, a one-on-one aide at Salem Washington Academy, have been married for nine years. They have two boys Austin, 5, and Holden, 8.
When it comes time to vacate the superintendent's chair, Travis chuckles. “I have no intentions of leaving. I'll retire someday. I'd like to get 25 or 30 years in total. I don't see why I can't do that.
All About the Job
Built in the late '60s or early '70s, the department's facilities spread over five acres on Rexleigh Road.
“We have a six-bay steel building with an office and breakroom in the back. There's also a five-bay open pole barn and a five-bay closed pole barn with a salt shed on the end. It's roughly 80 feet long by 42 feet deep. The rest of the building is shop.
“The salt shed holds about 125 tons, which translates into four tractor trailer loads. Our sand pile is next to the barn. We put up about 7,000 yards of sand yearly. In the winter, if the temperature permits, we typically run a sand/salt mix [10 percent salt and 90 percent sand]. The sand comes out of our own pit, just south of the barn, and the salt is on state contract. I've heard stories that it was the biggest barn in the area.”
As the highway department's “chief of staff,” Travis is in charge of keeping up the town's 37 paved lane miles of road and 37 dirt as well as maintaining 5.5 miles of road for Washington County. That translates into five tandem plowing routes and one pickup route.
What's a regular snowstorm like in northeastern New York?
“You get up to plow at 4 o'clock in the morning and by 5 o'clock a mom's stuck beside the road trying to get her kid to daycare. You stop and help her. Then you go up the road a little bit farther and the milk truck is stuck on the hill trying to get to one of the local farms, so you spend a little extra time with him. Then, you could get a call from the town office that the doctor's office parking lot didn't get plowed and they're going to open in a few minutes, so you go over there and help them. You can have a water emergency between all of that. One of the regular plow trucks broke down, so now you be a mechanic and get that back going. Then you can get a phone call that your kid's sick, so you have to go home and get him.”
This superintendent knows the importance of having a good and loyal staff to help him.
“I couldn't do this without them. We're a team, not a one-man show. Every one of us will do anything. I'm proud of that.”
Travis' crew helps serve the town's 4,000 residents. Staff — all MEOs — includes Les Mattison, Eric Rogers, Cory Sussee, Jay Wilson, Rod Woods, Ken Leibig and Ed Miller (part-time).
Most of the time, you can find Travis working right alongside his men — running the equipment, driving the truck, whatever needs to be done.
“I still have an open position due to lack of applicants. I advertised for a month and no one responded. I attribute some of it to everybody getting so much on unemployment. I make $46,900 a year being the boss and the guys make $18.05 an hour. So, if you take home $800 dollars a week gross, you're only bringing home $600. If you get $1,100 at home for not doing anything, are you going to come put up with me and my miserable attitude? I think the work ethic has changed over the last 10 years and, in my opinion, it hasn't changed for the better. Admittedly, we all work safer, smarter and, in some cases, more efficient but 80 percent of the people have lost the word 'work.' They want a paycheck and don't want to do anything for it.”
Under Travis' fastidious eye, the town of Salem's highway department runs on a total operating budget of $750,000 that includes salaries and benefits for employees. It also receives an annual CHIPS allocation of $180,609; $22,383 for PAVE-NY; and $32,851 for Extreme Winter Recovery.
To help with its daily operation, the department uses a squadron of equipment. Keeping the town's machinery up to date is one of Travis' top priorities.
So, how does he budget for new equipment?
“The best way I can. When I took office in 2018, my yearly equipment budget was $12,000. It wasn't my budget so I'm not sure how they came up with that. It was the previous superintendent's. My first summer budget was $54,000. We spent over $20,000 of that on fuel. As a result, I had $34,000 to use on 74 miles of road for six months.
Travis doesn't want to sound like Negative Nancy but “I'd have to save for 15 years to buy a dump truck. Probably 16 by the time I save enough. My newest truck is a 2013. We had some FEMA money from Irene that paid for half of it and we borrowed the rest.
“My oldest frontline truck that works every day is a 1998. My newest is a 2013. Our spare truck is a 1992 single-axle. We're slowly getting things back up to snuff. We're equipment poor. Maybe equipment deprived. It's hard and I definitely understand it because trucks are $240,000 apiece and the best part of their life is the first five to 10 years at the most. These little towns can't afford to let a truck go every five years. I know one superintendent who lost his barn to a fire, so he started out with all new trucks. He trades every five years and getting 80 percent back on his purchase. Essentially, they're buying one complete truck every five years. The bigger departments seem to get five new trucks every year and they don't have one over three years old.
What piece of equipment needs updating the most?
“We definitely need a new truck or two. Our road grader is in rough shape, too. I'm hoping to start the process on the new truck next year for the 2021 budget. As far as the road grader, I'm unsure. Last year, we purchased the big sister to our current grader from the town of Knox and she's been good to us for the money. I think I'll just keep buying sisters to her for as long as I can; start cannibalizing and get all we can out of them.”
When it comes to equipment, Travis is quick to admit that technology can be good and bad.
“It's nice to be able to look at the John Deere link at the payloader and see the engine temperature; how fast it's going down the road; everything about it. In some aspects, it makes it easy to keep track of equipment, maintenance and what you should do to it. The downside is we live in one of the harshest environments that you can put equipment into with salt and calcium and warm and hot/hot and cold and corrosion. When technology doesn't work, the machine doesn't work. A lot of times, it's above us, since we don't have a laptop or the proper programming to track down some of those problems.”
The highway department participates in shared services with many other Washington County towns.
“The town of Kingsbury helps us put new shoulders on blacktops every year. We also work with the towns of Jackson and White Creek on a regular basis: trucking, help with culverts, whatever's needed. Five towns in southern Washington County, including Salem, Jackson, White Creek, Cambridge and Argyle, have all purchased a four-ton hot box to be used as a shared service.”
Like most highway superintendents these days, Travis finds doing more with less to be the most challenging part of his job.
“It's a challenge trying to make the money work, especially when it comes to budgetary restrictions and state and federal regulations. The budgets don't go up much. Not enough to even notice. They [the town board] make it look good but when it comes right down to the nuts and bolts of the money, it doesn't really change.”
According to Travis, “We're not here to generate revenue. We're here to provide a service and it takes money to provide that service. Here in New York, you have to pay prevailing wage on certain things. Many times, some of the systems the state has in place that we must follow cost the town more than if we purchased it in a store.”
If he could look into the future, what would this highway superintendent see in his crystal ball?
“We still have at least a dozen large culverts that need to be updated. I plan on continuing to be aggressive on the dirt road maintenance and upkeep. I'm hopeful that our new hot box purchase will allow us to more efficiently maintain the blacktop roads we already have. I have the people. Now, I have to find the money to do it.”
About the Town of Salem
In 1761, Joshua Conkey and James Turner of Pelham, Mass., having passed through this wilderness as Rangers during the French and Indian War, chose this area to be homestead. They and a third pioneer from Pelham, Hamilton McCollister, built simple log cabins and started to clear the land. Turner built the first cabin on the west side of north Main Street, and a plaque on the large brick building near the corner commemorates that event. By 1764, the two original pioneers had obtained a large land grant — officially named the Turner Patent. That year, Conkey, Turner and McCollister brought their families and other Pelham families to live in this place they called White Creek, named for the creek that ran through it.
To pay for the land broker services, the New Englanders had to give half of the 50,000-acre patent to Albany land officials, Oliver Delancey and James DuBois. These two men in turn sold the other half of the patent to Dr. Thomas Clark and his Scottish Presbyterian followers a year later, and 200 Scottish Presbyterian Church immigrants led by Clark came to settle in Salem. They insisted on calling this place New Perth in remembrance of Perth, Scotland. In 1774, New Perth became the official name by act of New York State legislation.
Both groups of settlers lived among each other but set up their own separate Presbyterian Churches, later popularly known as the New England Brick Church and the Scotch/Irish Presbyterian White Church. Simple log cabin homes were soon abandoned for more substantial wooden framed and brick homes styled after New England and English architecture. Some of our earliest standing homes built in 1790 are scattered around the town, including the hamlet of Shushan. Salem soon became the most populated Charlotte County settlement north of Albany. In 1784, the name of the county was changed to Washington County in honor of George Washington.
Having escaped religious prosecution in England, Clark's congregation built the first log meeting house where they worshipped and had a school on South Main Street. This was the first church built in Charlotte County. From this first church and school grew the idea for formal education, resulting in the creation of Washington Academy in 1780, and later in 1791 became the sixth incorporated academy in New York State, Now a public school, Salem Washington Academy prides itself on tradition and the high academic standards set by its organizers 240 years ago.
Any religious rivalries the New Englanders and the Scotch/Irish congregations might have had were put to rest at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Dr. John Williams, who came to Salem in 1774 to help fight a small pox epidemic, was commissioned a colonel in 1775. He organized the White Creek Militia and later the Charlotte County Militia Regiment to fight in the war. In 1786, he was made a brigadier general of the Washington County Militia and became one of the most influential men in local, state and federal government of the 1700s.
Fearing for their lives from the British invasion, the Salem pioneers, in July 1777, joined in building a fort made by tearing down the old Scotch/Irish log church and placing the logs in a redoubt around the unfinished New England Presbyterian Church on East Broadway. They chose to call this fortification Fort Salem — a place a peace. This is the first known use of the name Salem for which the town is now named. The two pioneer groups were further brought closer when a letter from General Schuyler ordered them to abandon their homes in the advance of General John Burgoyne's army. By August 15, 1777, Schuyler had ordered elements of the Charlotte County Militia to meet Burgoyne's German mercenary forces at the Battle of Bennington.
On Sept. 13, 1777, General Gates, who by now had replaced Schuyler, ordered the militia to march to the Hudson River to act as a blocking force to Burgoyne's army at Saratoga. About Sept. 20, 1777, while the town was abandoned and Fort Salem without soldiers, Tories and Indians burned the fort to the ground. Small elements of the militia, like John Barnes' Rangers and Joshua Conkey's rangers, patrolled the wilderness looking for the enemy throughout the war. Today, 105 documented Revolutionary War soldiers lie buried in Salem's Old Burying Ground.
After the Revolutionary War ended, the county name of Charlotte, the name of the wife of King George III, was changed to Washington in 1784. A year later, the New York State legislature approved the town of Salem name. In 1787, new state rules for town organizations were adopted — the head of the town now officially assigned the title of supervisor. The town minutes of 1787 also showed that working committees were created to help run the town business — the Commissioner of Highways being one of the most important appointments.
Modern transportation came to Salem in 1852 when hundreds of Irish immigrants were employed in railroad jobs on the Troy to Rutland line, and the passenger train fast became the way to travel. A huge roundhouse, repair shops and buildings dominated the center of the Salem village. In 1867, the Delaware and Hudson Railroad took over the Troy and Rutland Railroad.
The town was now a hub of activity. In late 1862, Salem men answered Lincoln's call for volunteers for the Civil War, and the 123rd Regiment, NYSV was organized in the village. The 10 towns of the county combined to send a 1,000-man regiment to fight in most of the major battles of the war. Colonel Alexander McDougall, commander of the NYSV 123rd Regiment and Brigadier General David Russell of the Sixth Corps were killed in the war. By the war's end in 1865, only 500 of the original 123rd Regiment had survived. The 20th century was just around the corner. It would be just as eventful.
WWI, the Depression and WWII dominated the 20th century. Defending the country during this time were hundreds of men and women from Salem. During WWII, 305 men and women served in the military. Sergeant Francis Clark returned from the war a hero, receiving numerous medals, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. Salem's patriotism has never faltered and in the later wars of the 20th and 21st centuries, Salem men and women continued to serve.
Society changed as a result of the Great Depression, world wars and politics — especially the role of women. Salem women were not left out. For many years, Maria Audubon, the granddaughter of John James Audubon, lived in the yellow brick house on East Broadway, where she, in 1879, edited and published her grandfather's birding diaries. Ethel Magee, Class of 1890, left Salem to act on the Chicago stage and then became a star in silent movies. Going by the stage name of Jane Gale, she made 74 silent films before marrying and retiring in 1913. Former East Greenwich citizen, Susan B. Anthony, fought for woman's voting rights in 1920. In 1931, the village entertained Eleanor Roosevelt, noted for promoting woman's rights and social consciousness during the Depression years. And in 1943, illustrator Norman Rockwell, noted for his graphic depictions of the American way of life, featured local area women in his artwork. Seventeen Salem women served in the armed forces in WWII, much like Dinah Dick Conkey, who followed her husband Joshua and served with the Charlotte County Militia as baker during the Revolutionary War.
Today, Salem continues to be a rural community, steeped in history and a way of life that reflects its heritage.
(History courtesy of William A. Cormier, Deputy Historian) P