By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Jim Bayer began his tenure with the Stearns County Highway Department in Belgrade in 1971. At that time, the Belgrade district tended 119 miles of road, about half of which were gravel.
“Now the district covers 312 miles of road and only 30 are gravel,” Bayer said.
His career progressed from maintenance man I to maintenance man II and III and then, in 1992, to foreman. That position, from which he will retire at the end of this year, is now called operational area supervisor.
“In 2009, the highway department cut back to three districts instead of five,” said Bayer. “The four outlying districts combined shops to form two districts in addition to St. Cloud.”
The first three years Bayer was with the department, there was not a lot of snow. “We cut a lot of trees, using handsaws and axes,” he said. “I almost quit to go work with a friend, but decided to stay where I was because I had a young family.”
In 1975, there was a Friday night blizzard that changed things. “Out of the 41 years I’ve been working here, there are maybe three storms that really stick out in my mind,” said Bayer.
Bayer was the wing man that night, running a plow with his boss. There were no radios in the trucks at that time. They were about 20 miles from Belgrade, a run that normally took about one hour.
“It took four hours; by that time we couldn’t see in front of the trucks,” he said. “It was blowing and treacherous. We finally started plowing on Sunday afternoon.”
The two other storms that stand out in Bayer’s experiences were the 1991 Halloween storm, and the entire winter of 1996-1997.
“We were not prepared for the storm on Halloween 1991. None of the gear was on the trucks yet,” he said. “For a storm to come that soon and be that harsh all at one time, with bitter cold following for more than a week afterwards, was surprising.”
There were six inches of compacted snow on roads all over the county that took weeks to remove.
“There were storms steady all season in the winter of 1996-1997. We had to hire two bulldozers and two snowblowers, often working 16 hours a day,” he said. “We also used an 18-foot boom pusher on the front-end loader.”
Summers were not automatically an easy time. There were summers with flooding, such as 1987, when many roads and culverts washed out.
“Several six-inch rainfalls over that summer caused problems,” he said.
It was the complete opposite in 1988 — a drought.
One of the two main factors in the department’s being able to serve the public much better now than 41 years ago include the roads that are built up high enough with good drainage, making Bayer’s job easier throughout the year.
The second is the improvement in the department’s equipment.
“When I started, it was like trying to fight a fire with a garden hose — we just couldn’t do it,” he said. “Now, the equipment is so much better. Trucks hold 12-13 yards of gravel, rather than the 4-5 yards they did before. We have a snow blower and a front-end loader. And the trucks have heaters in them.”
“Other county departments are growing; only the highway department has taken cuts,” Bayer said. “We could do this because of bigger, better equipment and better roads.”
Bayer supervises nine people in two shops — Belgrade and Richmond.
“The hardest thing to leave is the camaraderie of the group,” said Bayer. “We all seem to blend together. I’m really proud of the people I work with; they all take a lot of pride in what we do.”
Bayer will not miss 1 a.m. phone calls to check on the weather. He and his wife, Sue, anticipate gardening, antiquing and riding their Harley together.
“I told my grandchildren that I was going to make a pest of myself,” Bayer said.