(By Brandon Hansen/Chewelah Independent)
City employee Gary Nussbaum has seen pretty much every road in town, and the changes along them…
A lot can change in 40 years, but a lot can stay the same as well.
When it comes to Chewelah, Gary Nussbaum has seen a lot of that change – working for the city and seeing the growth, the changes and some of the same things during his 40-year tenure and counting with the City of Chewelah.
When Nussbaum started working for the city, John May was a councilperson – and still is – but there has been plenty of change as well. Chewelah was smaller, just a village of 1,600 but had two grocery stores, two hardware stores and four gas stations in city limits, a theatre and a middle school that held classes. The city has since gotten a new Safeway, a new water sewage treatment plant and more residents.
When Nussbaum started 40 years ago, he said there was 19 miles of paved road in town; now that is up to 30.5 miles. He estimates he has helped build eight miles of that road personally, meaning you probably drive everyday on the hard work of Nussbaum.
Road mix has gotten better, and the city has done a lot of chip sealing that now requires less material and lasts longer – which is a good thing considering the rising costs of road repair.
Some things have not changed, but have moved. The Chewelah City Hall used to be at the current Chewelah School District building and coincidentally, the city moved its offices into the old grade school building.
When doing some work in front of city hall, crews have even found the cedar pipe remnants that once constituted as the Chewelah water system.
He has seen the population in the city grow in the city due to the Alcoa plant in Addy, and then the drop back down in class sizes at the high school to approximately what it always used to be when he was growing up.
For Nussbaum, technology has gotten better. When the city had to deal with sewage backups in the past, it usually included five employees running a gas-powered auger in a process that would take two to three hours. With a vac truck, the manpower and time required is greatly reduced.
Other than sewage changes, there were other charming small-town things about the City of Chewelah that Nussbaum experienced while on the crew.
“Four out of the seven city guys used to be on the fire department,” Nussbaum said. “You didn’t really want to be on the back of the garbage truck when the fire siren went off in town because the driver would make it a point of getting back as fast as possible. It was crazy ride.”
Speaking of rides, the city used to have just two pickup trucks… for the entire city.
“If I had to go to the parts store, I’d sometimes have to drive the dump truck there,” he said.
While the city staff has gotten bigger, it’s not as large as everyone thinks and the small town staff has to multi-task to keep things running in Chewelah. It is perhaps a thankless job as many things are behind the scenes, but the town wouldn’t operate without them.
One of those services is snow plowing and in NE Washington, that’s an absolute must. Early mornings and late evenings are the curse of the snow plow driver and the jet stream tends to give us some rough and mild winters.
Nussbaum estimates the coldest winter he ever experienced was in 1981 when there were 30 days of single digit highs and lows in the -20s and -30s. Water leaks hit the city system pretty hard, but you had to use a jackhammer just to get into the frosty ground.
The snowiest winter he said was in 1995-96 where snow blanketed the ground by Halloween and there wasn’t bare ground until St. Patrick’s Day.
“At my property, we had five-and-a-half feet of settled snow,” Nussbaum said. “We were extremely busy and worked every holiday, I think I finished with 270 overtime hours.”
On Thanksgiving, Nussbaum started plowing at 3 a.m., pulled into his home at 7 p.m. for dinner and then went back out to finish up his route.
“We ran out of places to put the snow,” he said.
Perhaps the strangest thing that the city had to tackle was the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980. Call it a snow storm of its own, but the eruption and landslide sent a large plume of ash over Eastern Washington and the city had to find a way landslide sent a large plume of ash over Eastern Washington and the city had to find a way to clean it up.
And Gary was in Hawaii.
“My wife Vickie and I were on our honeymoon,” Gary said. “We were on our way back when it blew and we heard we couldn’t land in Washington.”
While he missed the fun, the city had a sweeper and water truck to wash down affected areas. It included a lot of changing filters from the ash.
“The sweeper was not as nice as it is now,” Nussbaum said. “The three wheel sweeper in the morning had to have the door window open and the heater kept about your left leg warm.”
But for Gary, who has taken a lot of pride into the job and given his all as much as he can – the goal setting and achieving has kept him going. It’s also been enjoyable getting to know everybody in town and working for the place he grew up in.
“I guess it’s time to write new goals,” he said.