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Highway Superintendent Floyd Pratt and the Town of Hebron

Tue December 01, 2020 - National Edition
By Mary Yamin-Garone

Floyd Pratt will be the first to tell you he's had a colorful life — and it all began in Whitehall, N.Y.

Born and raised on a farm, this youngest of nine was born at home in the middle of a blizzard. “My father went and got the doctor, who then delivered me on a tractor. My mother was deaf and they didn't think she could take care of all of us. So, I was put in a home where I stayed until my father came back and got me. He passed away when I was seven, which made it tougher on momma. When I was 12, I went to live with a family on a farm in Vermont.”

That's just for starters.

In 1966, Floyd joined the U.S. Navy at 17. “I was on an aircraft carrier when we ran into a hurricane off of North Carolina. We put the USS Randolph into drydock and I was shipped off to Vietnam a year later. That was my sen-ior trip as they call it (laughing). I got out in 1968 and was with a guard duty on an oil depot called the POL (package, oil, lubricant) dump on land. I returned to the states on the USS Nereus in 1969, which was a sub tender out of Point Loma, Calif. That's where I finished my tour with Uncle Sam.”

Did that experience change him?

“A little. I told the fella who asked me if I wanted to sign up again, 'I don't think so. I'm going back to Vermont.' When I arrived, I was like a pier rigger loading the torpedoes, missiles and submarines with a civilian crane operator. I got to drive the motorboats and the admiral's barge from Point Loma to North Island Naval Air Station. All in all, I can't complain. Uncle Sam didn't treat me too bad. I got home in one piece. Didn't move too far away. Lived on Wells Road right on the border. From where I live in Hebron — I'm 10 miles from where I grew up. Prob-ably 20 miles from where I was born.”

Once back in the states, Floyd started working as an artificial inseminator for dairy cattle for Eastern Artificial Breeder in Ithaca for about five years.

“Then I became a truck driver. I started working for a guy named George Shaw. He's the one who got me into truck driving. He had his own fleet of a half-a-dozen trucks. I bought a truck from him and became an owner/operator. I leased it to Daily Express in Carlisle, Pa. I hauled equipment for them until 1982.

“I left there and bought a 320-acre dairy farm in 1982 with my wife, Patricia. We farmed it until 1986 before selling it in one of those reduction sales. After that, I went to work in a rock quarry driving their tractor trailer. I also drove for Cumberland Farms for over a year. I would go to Boston five nights a week to pick up milk and stuff at the farms. I got bored with that and moved on to a slate company, Camara Slate Products, out of Hampton, N.Y., as a tractor trailer driver.

“I ran for office the first time around 1996. I lost to the guy who was here. At that time, I was working in the quarry, running an excavator digging slate out of the ground. Finally got a foreman's position and did that up until the election in 2003, which I won.”

At the same time, Floyd joined the town's volunteer fire company, eventually becoming the fire chief.

“I'm a 35-year member. I've held all the positions in the company. I served as chief from 1997 to 2010. I was president for two terms up to last year. Now, I'm a captain. I also was an EMT for about 20 years. That job wears on you. It runs you ragged. Even when I was highway guy, I'd grab my medical bag and run to calls. I was probably the first guy in town who was actually a paid fireman and a medical personnel. I'm no longer an EMT. I gave that up and left it to the younger crowd.”

Floyd and his wife, Patricia, have been married for 49 years. “I can't say enough about her. She's one in a million. I've done a lot in my life and my wife's been a big part of it. Patricia's been through thick and thin with me. She deserves a lot of credit for putting up with me.”

Patricia admits her and Floyd are a match made in heaven. “Floyd enjoys his job. He's a people person. I think he does an excellent job. I'm proud of him. Most of all, if he's happy, I'm happy.”

What do they do for fun? The couple makes a yearly trip to Old Orchard, Maine. “Our honeymoon spot is Niagara Falls. We're going back for our 50th next October.”

What does Floyd like to do outside of work?

“Drive my Chevy Corvette. It's a bright red, 2003 convertible with a black interior. I had a 1980 before that. I drive it on sunny days and weekends. This summer's been a good one for that.”

Floyd is a former president of the Washington County Street and Highway Association; former fire chief and EMT; an active fire investigator; and a Shriner.

It's All About the Job

It didn't take Floyd long to discover the many demands of the highway superintendent's job.

“It's not easy, but it's challenging. No two days are the same. You have to be attentive 24 hours a day. Things are happening all the time. The nature of the beast in our business is if you don't see it, you don't worry about it until it breaks. But you have to be proactive and perform preventative maintenance.

“The dollars and cents don't go as far. Everything seems to go up all the time, but they don't go up fast enough on our end. You're not keeping up. You drop back two steps and move forward one. It seems to be like that all the way around. There's never enough money and there's never enough time. Never enough whatever. It's hard to work like that sometimes.”

This year, Floyd and his crew had an even bigger challenge — COVID-19.

“We worked straight through. They told us we were essential and here we are. It didn't affect us at all. All six of us were working. Everyone carries a mask so if we're someplace where we have to go in, we wear one.

“We're not on lockdown so much because we're out in the open. The residents are getting fed up with it. The sad part is you don't know anyone who has it or had it, so it's hard to prove the point. It's the same way with the townspeople. We still go to board meetings. We use the firehouse, so we can spread out. You get your six feet and all that. Here's the stuff to wash your hands. Here's a mask if you ain't got one. So, you come in, put your mask on and here we are and life is somewhat normal. People here are getting tired of it. What are you going to do? Stay away from everybody forever? Hopefully, we'll go back to normal someday soon.”

The town of Hebron highway department consists of a small garage with six bays. Built in the 1960s, “the bays measure about 100 by 40. It's not wide enough or big enough, so we have to leave our plows out so the big trucks can get in. We have to leave our tools out along with our backhoe and payloader. They're stored in our other shed in the winter. We've been talking about building a new facility with cold storage, but nothing's been done, yet. There's also a 50 by 20 shed, my office and a breakroom. Everything's in the same building.”

The department also has a 40 by 12 by 16 salt shed that holds roughly 75 to 100 tons.

“We get a refill once a month in the winter. We do a salt/sand mix. I put salt in my little one-ton truck on the bad spots. Sometimes, we have to put a few buckets on pure salt to get it to melt.

“This past winter wasn't bad. The only thing wrong with it was we didn't get enough snow. We had lots of rain. Last winter, we had one or two storms that gave us three or four inches. Six maybe tops. More of a nuisance. Even if it's an inch, you still have to do something. It cost as much to do that as it would if we got a foot. That's the sad part. You're still going through the same motions. Sometimes you got out once a day and sometimes twice because the way the storms are. Normally, we don't get a lot out of the west for accumulation. Typically, it comes from the east like a nor'easter off the coast. As far as the western stuff, if it's warm, it comes up from the south and you get all that rain. Surprisingly, there hasn't been much flooding.”

As the department's “head honcho,” Floyd is responsible for maintaining the town's 68.19 lane miles, of which 38.19 are gravel and 30 are paved. “In the winter, a normal full loop of our routes takes four hours.

Five crew members help Floyd serve the town's 1,809 residents. They include William Kraeling (deputy), Jason Wells, John C. Ptacete Jr., Michael Swezey and Dennis Campbell.

“My crew does a good job. I'd be nothing without them. They work well together. My deputy's been here eight years and the rest are between three and five. The newest guy's been here several months. He came in after another fella retired.”

Under Floyd's watchful eye, the town of Hebron's highway department runs on a total operating budget of $760,870. It also receives an annual CHIPS allocation of $166,000; $37,891 for PAVE-NY; and $32,000 for Extreme Winter Recovery.

“That's great, but I wish they'd give us more. We're only paving a mile-and-a-half a year. They were going to do away with the Extreme Winter Recovery, but thank God for the Highway Association. We were down there for Advocacy Day beating our brains. The county and highway superintendents do a good job. They understand. If they're from up here, they know what we're up against. It seems like it's an endless game of dollars and cents. There's never enough. That's the sad part of the job. We don't seem to get enough funding to make a reality of anything.”

To get the job done, the department depends on a modest fleet of equipment that consists of:

• two International 7600 dump trucks (2004)

• International S2500 single-axle D-3 (1985)

• Ford F350 dump truck (2006)

• John Deere 310G tractor/backhoe (2006)

• Galion 850-B road grader (2002)

• Alkota Model 320AX4 power washer

• Eager Beaver chipper (1989)

• Honda calcium pump (2009)

• International dump truck (2011)

• John Deere 624K wheel loader (2011)

• F250 pickup (2013)

• Waldon road broom (1984)

• International Work Star tandem dump truck (2014)

• International Work Star tandem-axle dump truck (2018)

• International 7600 single-axle dump truck (2007)

• New Holland TS6110 tractor with cab and 4-wheel drive (2014)

• Ford F350 1-ton dump truck (2019)

With today's high price tags, how does Floyd budget for new equipment? “We usually buy outright off of state bid or a bid. Our last purchase was for $235,000. The board hasn't financed anything since I've been here. Being able to pay for all our equipment is a plus. We've been conservative enough, so we still have money in the bank.

“Our town supervisor has done a good job as far as the budget goes. When I first took office, our taxes would swing pretty, hard even in the county. It would go from 10 cents on a thousand then all of a sudden, bang, you have a 20 percent increase. It would fall off the following year, but they've kept it at a few percentages each year, so we're gaining a little.”

In spite of that, Floyd still has a “wish list.”

“I'd like to get a wheel excavator for drainage and a ditch digger. We rent the ditch digger every two years, but it would be nice to have one to keep around. As for the wheel excavator, it's hard to do it with a bucket. You don't get the right taper or ditch line. It doesn't work well or keep it well. The back half falls back in and fills the ditch back up”

This time of year, Floyd and his crew are replacing culverts because “we're trying to make the roads better, especially if we pave. We try to redo them ahead of schedule [a year prior to]. We'll pave more this fall if we have money left. I've been holding off to see where we stand. I rolled some paving over from last year to redo a mile. We did 2.25 miles of paving this spring. You have to plan on the ones that are several miles long because you won't do it in one year. We're also cutting brush and constantly mowing.”

Come fall and winter, the department will pave another road and finish out their CHIPS. “That will be it for paving this year. We just keep replacing culverts as needed. Some of them fail; some don't, but we're looking at them all the time. We also cut brush, plow snow and work on the summer equipment.”

When asked, Floyd is quick to admit he was most surprised by the intensity of the job. “It's not easy. Each day is different.”

Floyd also is known to do battle with the beavers. “They're a pain. They plug the culverts. Next thing you know, you're playing beaver patrol. A trapper comes, traps them and sends them to the happy beaver trapping ground. They don't give up. They're there every day. If we had workers like them in America, we'd have it made.”

The most difficult part of the job?

“Waking up in the wee small hours of the morning. Two o'clock in the morning and we're going out plowing snow. A nice icy morning when you have trouble getting to work. Other than that, I don't have any problems. I don't have any bad days. Knock on wood.”

Favorite/least favorite?

“Letting someone go. That type of a situation would be my displeasure. I've been through a lot of help. Some say I'm working them too hard, but I don't know. The crew I have now is super-duper. They use this job as a stepping stone. They go from here to the state or county. What hurt Hebron for years was that we didn't have a retirement plan. We've had it for several years now. That's kept my turnover rate down.”

Most rewarding?

“Seeing a project to fruition. We try to do one or two big projects per year.”

In his 18 years as highway super, has Floyd changed anything?

“We've gone to single operator. When I started, there were dual operators in some of the trucks. They were in the process of setting trucks up for single operation. We finally got to tandems just for the money value and to cut down on labor.”

Like most highway superintendents, Floyd makes a yearly pilgrimage to Cornell Local Roads Program in Ithaca.

“Been going as long as I've been here. Got my 15-year certificate last year. It's been a great experience. I've learned a lot just by talking to people. You have a different camaraderie with the other superintendents. They have the same headaches as you. The guy who runs it — David Orr — does a great job. He's young, ready to go and right on top of what's going on with COVID-19. My wife likes to go. She shops while I go to school.”

When it comes time to call it quits next year, how does Floyd want to be remembered?

“For helping people.”

About the Town

Hebron is a town in Washington County. It's part of the Glens Falls Metropolitan Statistical Area. The town population was 1,773 at the 2000 census. It's named after the same-named community in Connecticut.

Hebron's beautiful hills and valleys are part of the slate valley of the Upper Taconic Mountains and part of the Great Appalachian Valley. Thus, many of the main hills, valleys, creeks and roads run diagonally across Hebron in keeping with the general outlay of the Appalachians.

The nexus of the Champlain and Hudson Valleys is located here. The taller peaks of the Taconics are on the Vermont side of the border and begin to dwindle comparatively into foothills in Hebron. Hebron can be described as the foothills between the Adirondack Mountains of New York, and the Taconic and Green Mountains of Vermont.

According to the United States Census Bureau, the town has a total area of 56.4 sq. mi, of which, 56.2 sq. mi. of it is land and 0.2 sq. mi. of it is water.

The east town line of Hebron is the Vermont border, and the beginning of New England proper. The town of Salem is adjacent to the south. The towns of Argyle, Hartford and Granville (famous for its colored slate) make up the remaining border on western and northern edges.

NY Route 22 is a north-south highway through the eastern part of the town, running roughly parallel to the Vermont border. Route 30 connects Salem to Hartford through the western part of Hebron. Route 31, the longest road through Hebron, cuts across diagonally from Route 30 connecting West Hebron to West Pawlet, Vermont.

Hebron is at the threshold between two major watersheds whose waters travel great distances in opposite directions, only to rejoin in the Atlantic Ocean. The two branches of Black Creek join in West Hebron just west of the village's main street, and after the waterfall in the West Branch of Black Creek (which is just before Patterson Road).

Settled in the late 18th century, Hebron was first known as the District of Black Creek. The British Crown granted parcels of land in the area, called “patents,” to soldiers who served in the French and Indian War (1754-1763) (the North American front of the Seven Years' War). Most of the grants were to members of the Highland Scotch 77th Regiment. Many of the parcels were transferred from officers and soldiers to speculators, who sold them to New England and Scotch-Irish settlers. Some of the patents that form the town are Lintot, Blundell and Sheriff. Origi-nals of these patents are held by the National Archives.

The town of Hebron was formed March 23, 1786, and named after Hebron, Conn. Its namesake is the biblical Hebron, the largest city in the present-day West Bank, south of Jerusalem.

The town developed as an agricultural community, which it still is today. By 1864, it was the chief potato-producing area of Washington County. Potatoes have been superseded by dairy farming. In recent decades, farms have been consolidated into larger operations. While the town has numerous residents, whose families have been in the area for three generations, it also has new part-time residents who have second homes here. Others have retired here for the beauty of the area. P

This story also appears on Superintendent's Profile.

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