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Superintendent of Highways Steven Wheeler and the Town of Barrington

Sat December 01, 2007 - National Edition
Laurie Mercer

It’s hard to find the town of Barrington on a map, and that’s the way most local residents like it. Located in southern Yates County with the shores of Keuka Lake on one side and the “hill people” living on the other, Barrington has a population of just over 1,000.

Some residents’ contributions to the tax base reflect the “top tier” view of the lake, others residents are Mennonite farmers moving in to rescue and restore old family farms that have fallen on hard times.

But whether the locals travel by SUV, horse and buggy or, more likely, bicycles, Steven Wheeler, the town’s highway superintendent is trying to look out for them by taking care of the roads with an eye on the budget and an enthusiasm for positive performance. For Steve there is an enjoyment in just looking at the countryside surrounding his lifelong home that brings him satisfaction on the job as well.

In his youth, Steve worked for the highway department as a laborer, mowing and patching holes in the road, but he said he never realized that the department would become his life’s work, even though his father was a career person with the DOT in nearby Penn Yan.

One task he remembers well from the early 1980s was painting the old steam-run steamroller that sits in front of the highway department under its own protective shed. The roller is dedicated to the memory of Bill Rapalee (1925-1973), a long-time superintendent who knew every “ditch in town and every person.” Steve worked for Rapalee’s son, Bob, who also was a superintendent.

Whether it’s ditching, laying pipe, fixing holes with hot mix, oiling down the dust in front of rural homes, plowing snow, picking up household rubbish each spring or rebuilding old country roads from the ground up, Steve is likely to take the assigned person from the task and take a turn doing the job himself simply because he likes to. Approximately 90 percent of his time is spent working with heavy equipment.

Part of Steve’s enthusiasm for the job might come from the equipment list, which is modern (see town of Barrington Equipment List.) Or it might be from the support of his five-member town board. Steve’s relationship with the board may be unique in that each year he and the whole board take a trip along each and every one of the town’s roads. After this trip they work together to prioritize needs.

“We all tour the roads together and then come back and decide what we’re going to pave. What roads need oil and stone? That sets up our schedule for the following years, and that’s also how we set up the budget. This way when a resident has a question about the roads, it’s not just one person who is determining what gets done.”

Board members are really involved and even volunteer with the annual highway department-sponsored spring clean up for citizens, and ride wing on the plow during big snowstorms.

Steve said some board members know heavy equipment and construction work, and all provide valuable resources when it comes to finding new solutions to challenges.

“A big goal for us is to have all the school bus routes paved,” said Steve of the 28 mi. of paved roads and 13 mi. of unpaved roads remaining to be done. “The safety of our children is an absolute priority.”

In addition, the Yates County highway department maintains 16 mi. of road within the town of Barrington and New York State maintains nearly 15. The town’s complex topography exerts a powerful influence on the roads.

Steve said, “When I read Superintendent’s Profile, I always take a quick look to see how many miles and how much money they spend.”

The town of Barrington’s own statistics are 56.67 total lane mi. with a total operating budget of $739,462.52 this year. Of this, $90,758.13 is allocated from CHIPS.

A Drainage Divide

Land uses in Barrington are influenced by its underlying geology, which also gives rise to the spectacular views. Layers of sedimentary rock can be found in the topsoil. Surface strata are predominantly shale and sandstone with layers of limestone further down. The shale-based soils are good for supporting vineyards but less favorable to other crops.

The first vineyard in town was planted in 1866. By the 1870s grape growing was spreading around the lake. Once a thriving industry with 85 wineries in the town alone, the local winemaking industry was wiped out by Prohibition. Today, wineries are again returning to grow grapes and attract tourists to Barrington. The town’s first modern winery, McGregor Vineyard Winery, produced its first wines for sale in 1980. Other vineyards and wineries in town include CMC Vineyards, D’ngianni Vineyards, Keuka Overlook Cellars, McGregory Winery and Barrington Cellars Winery.

A series of very steep gullies, known as gorges in this part of the Finger Lakes, define the steep western slopes above Keuka Lake inhabited by seasonal residents whose homes represent about half of the town’s inventory.

Most of the gullies have small streams that drain from other areas in town, which is located at the drainage divide of two watersheds. The western half of the town drains into Keuka Lake. Big Stream drains the southeastern half of town and flows east, draining into Seneca Lake. Keuka Lake also drains into Seneca Lake via the Keuka Outlet, which flows from Penn Yan into Seneca Lake at Dresden.

Ultimately all 11 of the Finger Lakes drain to the Atlantic Ocean via the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.

It’s hard to think of the Atlantic Ocean ultimately having something to do with drainage in Barrington; the town’s highest altitude, at Barrington Hill, is 1,674 ft. above sea level. In a privately owned glen, there is even a substantial waterfall.

In 1865 a mineral spring was discovered in the southern part of the county, leading to the development of a well-established spa, with hotels, called Crystal Valley Springs (see Talking About Sulfur Water.) All the buildings have disappeared, but a taste from a running tap at the springs reveals refrigerator-cold water, that still reeks of sulfur.

Because of all the natural water sources in Barrington, improving drainage is a big part of Steve’s work. It is not unusual to have a natural spring bubble up through the roadways.

“When I first came to the job in 1997, we had a lot of problems with cross over pipes. Poor drainage, undersize pipes, getting flooded out,” said Steve. “We decided to go through the whole town and count all the pipes and rate them. Once they were rated we would begin to replace them as the budget allowed.”

Steve and his crew discovered a lot of pipes that would earn a “minus-10.” He explained, “A lot of our roads are very old and they are small. When my predecessors started expanding the roads, they just added a piece to the drainage pipes, and that’s where our failures were happening. Instead of replacing the pipe with wider pipe, they just added on to them. Besides being undersized, many of them had rotted out. We do everything with a 50-years storm in mind.”

“We have 265 pipes on our list and we have replaced 135 of them in the past 10 years, along with 259 driveway pipes.” Steve said he looks to the expertise of the DEC’s Soil & Water Conservation people to come in and help the town size the pipe needed for each location.

Special Road Needs and the Mennonites

The Mennonites are good neighbors, but they also are farmers who use steel wheels on their farm equipment.

“When I first took over we had a lot of problems, but mainly it was a lack of communication. From the highway department’s perspective, the steel wheels the Mennonites prefer on their tractors also crack the roads’ surface, and problems develop from there. We’ve had to explain how the steel wheel cracks the road surface and lets water down in.”

While many Mennonite fields have dirt roads that form their own transportation routes, many times farm equipment takes to the highways and crosses other roads

“Some Mennonite farmers use rubber pads on their wheels for use on the main roads, which is correct,” said Steve. “We’ve also given them construction cones so when they are going to work a field and have to put their rubber mats across, they can let other traffic know to anticipate a bump.”

Some Mennonites drive cars, some drive horses and buggies, and many ride old-fashioned bicycles. Thus Steve is especially interested in building wide-shouldered roads.

“After church,” Joy Perry, highway superintendent secretary and lifelong resident explained, “there is a line of horses and buggies and bicycles going down Route 230, with the traffic backed up a bit behind.”

Joy also is town clerk and therefore well aware of all the new residents in Barrington. The population of summer residents on the lake remains constant because there is no vacant land left, but Mennonites often have large families and continue to move in and prosper in the community.

One enterprise Mennonite (and Amish) communities have been very successful with is the running of The Windmill, a popular weekend flea market in Barrington. The Windmill is a part of Steve’s territory, and during peak weekends up to 10,000 visitors travel the roads around it. Again, the varied modes of transportation cause traffic backups and present challenges for Steve and his crew.

Summer Homes, Winter Snows

“Our hills keep us on our toes,” said Steve. “We have two flat roads and everything else is up and down.”

He said consideration for the roads by the high-end lake real estate is the same for the subsistent farmers and fledgling vineyards. “There are people who grew up here and know what to expect year round on our roads, and there are people who just come for summer. We treat all the roads the same. We’ve had a program to hot top many miles by the lake, and we only have a half mile left.”

Even far-flung farmhouses get special consideration in terms of applications of oil in front of the homestead to keep down the summer dust.

Come winter, Steve uses a three to one rock salt combination with black cinders from Dresden added to the mixture. The Barrington highway department has been looking at the science on treated salt, but Steve said that for now, he’s got a good mixture for his road conditions.

“It isn’t that we get enormous snowfalls (60 inches annually is average in Yates County), but we do get drifting because of the high altitudes,” said Steve of his winter occupational challenge. Some of the snow on the hilltops never even reaches the valley floor.

Steve said, “I don’t know what it is about it, but I do love to plow snow.”

The town has six plowing routes; each one takes approximately three hours. Work on the snow routes with a ten wheeler begins at 2:30 a.m. when Steve checks to compare road conditions with other towns. Crews need to be on the road plowing by 3:30 a.m. to be ahead of the school buses.

The town of Barrington uses a written complaint form for citizens so that any dissatisfaction with services is sent to the right town department.

“It’s funny,” said Steve of the highway complaints, “years ago the complaint was when certain roads weren’t open. Now we get the complaint that we are out there too much.”

Town Highway Barn Burned to the Ground

Steve’s favorite part of the job may be snowplowing, but his least favorite day also is etched in his memory. On Sept. 11, 2003, in the early morning hours, the town’s pickup truck, which was parked inside the highway barn, caught on fire. Investigation indicated that the wiring harness shorted and started the blaze. In addition to the freestanding building, located near the garage, they lost a ten-wheeler, a pickup, a Rex Machine, a new loader, a hydro machine, parts inventory, records, sanders and all the tools.

That winter they managed to get along by working from a cover-all building, but best of all was the assistance of the neighboring towns, such as Milo, where they could service the trucks. Eventually insurance monies were used to purchase the shop they use today. Neighboring Starkey, Torrey and Benton also are working partners for various highway projects, including the shared service program where towns can take advantage of specialized equipment that they all share on an as-needed basis.

The highway department was rebuilt in 2004.

Each Person Has a Special Talent

Steve, who just built a new home near the highway department, is father to daughters Alisha (age 20) and Angelique (age 15) and son Michael (age 7). He’s been president of the Yates County Superintendent’s Association for the past seven years. An avid hunting safety instructor for 15 years, he enjoys hunting, riding his four-wheeler and dining at the Branding Iron, owned by Jeff and Abby Townley, where, he says, the “food and atmosphere are both great and also where my two daughters work.”

It was probably his three years in the Marine Corps that led to his appreciation of the productivity and cost savings produced through good teamwork.

“You probably hear this all the time,” he said, “But I’ve got a great crew.” The list includes Steven Carruthers, Don Baker, Jason Trank, Frederick Cratsley and David Garrett III.

“Each person has a special talent, from Carruthers’s ability to fabricate special needs, such as a tool to remove brake drums or additions to the frame for the water truck. Baker’s job includes routine maintenance on all vehicles, including oil changes and service according to mileage and hours of use.”

“Cratsley,” Steve said, “is a natural born leader, while Trank does most of the trucking.” Garrett was just hired this year to mow, but already one resident has complimented Wheeler on Garrett’s enthusiasm for the job.

As one crewmember summed it up, “As workers it’s nice to climb into equipment that is comfortable to work in, and it pays off in the effort we put in on a daily basis.”

Any job too complicated for the town highway crew goes to Martin Tones Garage. Steve said, “When we call, he always drops everything to help us out.”

Steve credits Joy Perry with keeping him on track while taking care of billings, time cards, orders and contact with residents. He laughingly refers to her as his “left-handed, right-hand man.”

“A lot of what we do is based on public safety,” concluded Steve. “We do everything — snowplowing and paving — to take care of the school bus routes first.”

Children, after all, represent the future of the town. In neighboring Dundee and Penn Yan there are plenty of people who do not know where Barrington is, and for plenty of Barrington residents, that’s just the way they want it to be.

About the Town of Barrington

Barrington is located in an area deeply scarred by a series of continental glaciers that receded approximately 11,000 years ago. The deep valley left behind filled with water forming the eleven Finger Lakes. Barrington is located on the eastern shore of Keuka Lake.

The town is approximately a 6-sq.-mi. by 6-sq.-mi. covering 23,940 acres that represent a combination of farming and commercial woodlands.

Until a time about 200 years ago, Native Americans — the Seneca Nation — used this area as a hunting ground, leaving many artifacts behind. During the Revolutionary War era, especially the Sullivan campaign of 1779, many Seneca villages were destroyed while veterans of the war frequently moved to the Finger Lakes to start life anew.

A debate between New York State and Massachusetts over ownership of what is now western New York led to one of the longest, straightest and most historic roads around. Debate about the two states’ colonial-era charters was finally settled in 1786 when the states agreed to survey a line from an agreed-upon point on the Pennsylvania boundary north to the Lake Ontario shore. Surveyed in 1788, the line came to be known as the “Pre-Emption Line.”

Although it was agreed that the whole land area in dispute would be administered by New York State, Massachusetts would hold the “pre-emptive” right to areas west of this line. This meant Massachusetts had the right of first purchase from the Senecas. When later surveys indicated that the line was incorrectly drawn, a new Pre-Emption Line was surveyed in 1793.

However, the old Pre-Emption Line remains in use today in Barrington as Pre-Emption Road, which is a boundary between the towns of Barrington and Starkey.

Another famous pioneer road helped shape the course of the town’s early history. The Bath Road, linking Bath with Geneva at the head of Seneca Lake, was built in the late 1790s and provided settlers with the first route to the area. The town’s steep hills keep many people from settling here.

By the 1820s a good network of local farming roads were in place.

In 1822 the town, named after Great Barrington, Mass., by settlers from that area, was formally organized. In 1826 the present day municipal boundaries finally took shape.

By the 1870s grape growing was well established in Barrington along with apples and raspberries. By 1900, about 85 small vineyards operated in Barrington alone. Locally manufactured baskets held the grapes that were shipped from one of three lakefront landings by steamboats. Two basket factories in town produced one and a half million baskets annually during the 1890s.

In addition to agriculture, industries included a cooperage, sawmill, grist and feed mill, distillery, blacksmith and other small industries. At that time Barrington had twice as many residents as it has today.

Historians say the Great Depression hit rural areas like Barrington very hard. By the end of the 1930s many farms lay idle. The county seized others for non-payment of taxes. However, around that time the development of more paved roads and increased use of automobiles gave the area a second life with recreation and tourists. Modest lakeside cottages built at that time are increasingly being bulldozed today to make room for much larger summer homes, and more summer people are beginning to live here year round.

By 1960 the wine and grape industry began to enjoy a boom again. French-American hybrids, introduced in the 1950s and 1960s, and vinifera plantings began to replace grapes raised for the less sophisticated grape juice. The second grape growing heydays continued until the mid-1980s when an over supply of grapes caused one-third of the acreage in the Finger Lakes to be abandoned.

Today, grape growing, wineries, and tourists are coming on strong. The Farm Winery Act, signed into law in 1976, allows local wine makers to sell all of their wines at their winery, rather than reselling to a middleman.

So it’s back to the future in Barrington when the town’s first new winery sold its first wines in 1980. Since that time, several more wineries have opened, welcoming tourists to sample a beverage that comes from the hills of historic Barrington.

We can all “drink to that.”

For more information, send an e-mail to [email protected] P

This story also appears on Superintendent's Profile.

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