Two retirees repaint their towns’ historical markers, with two different responses

— Photo by Laura Shore

Keeping history fresh: John Haluska of Guilderland — who often speaks at town board meetings, urging the board to act to clean up several abandoned properties — is repainting all of the historical markers in the town, like this one, marking the Inn of Jacob Crounse, which Laura Shore co-owns, on Route 146 outside of Altamont. 

ALBANY COUNTY  — Two local retirees, each working separately, have taken it upon themselves to repaint old historical markers in their towns — Berne and Guilderland. Their efforts have evoked different responses.

The state started its historic marker program in 1926, for the sesquicentennial of the Revolutionary War, and then, after placing over 2,800 markers, ended the program in 1966. Municipalities, individuals, and organizations were then left to maintain the markers. Albany County has about 160 markers.  

The Enterprise’s editor received a letter this week from the president of the Berne Historical Society, praising the “sign-saving hero” whose identity, Sandra Kisselback writes, will be revealed at the Sept. 26 annual meeting of the historical society.

That person, Kisselback said, painted the historical markers in Westerlo with his wife. He approached Kisselback and said, “I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes, but I wouldn’t mind fixing these up.”

She is extremely pleased about the signs’ makeovers, she said. She wrote, in her letter to the editor, “You can see, as you drive about town, markers that pop at you in a brand-new light.”

Berne Supervisor Kevin Crosier said, “I know who the person is. In a small town, that’s hard to keep a secret.” He declined to name the painter, but continued, “Those acts of generosity of their own time are what really make communities great.”

Crosier also said, “Just think if we could get everyone in the town to just spend an hour” noticing something that needs improving and then taking the initiative to make it better.

Also excited about the newly painted signs is Berne Town Historian Ralph Miller, who said, “I think it’s great. They look wonderful.”

Miller noted that there has been talk about repainting the markers in recent years: “The Boy Scouts were going to do it and I was going to pay for the paint” — out of Miller’s own pocket — “and then they didn’t do it, and then someone else was going to do it,” but that none of those ideas had come to pass.

“They’re back to their beautiful blue-and-yellow,” he said, adding, “I’m going to be just as surprised as you are to find out who’s doing it.”

Guilderland resident and retiree John Haluska has, similarly, taken it upon himself to paint all of the historical markers, which he observed to be faded and in need of sprucing up. Mr. Haluska, though, unlike the still-unnamed Berne hero, did not ask anyone for permission.

The Guilderland Town Historian, Alice Begley, first learned that Haluska had already painted 22 markers when she saw a photo of him posing before a half-painted sign in the Sept. 8 Enterprise.

Begley has been, said Town Supervisor Peter Barber, in charge of an ongoing process of repainting signs, as needed; signs are picked up by the highway department, Barber said, and taken back to the department’s shop for sandblasting, followed by repainting with paints provided by the state, in the correct colors.

“I appreciate what Mr. Haluska has been doing, in terms of being a good citizen and trying to beautify the town,” Barber said. But the town has a process it observes for taking care of town property. “It would be best to coordinate,” he said, “and make sure that we’re all on the same page.”

He gave the hypothetical example of a bench in Tawasentha Park and said that he would not like to see residents decide that it should be stained a different color, and take it upon themselves to suddenly do that work, since the town does have plans for maintaining its property.

Barber noted that the state had previously maintained the markers, but stopped “about 10 years ago,” and passed that responsibility on to the towns.

The Enterprise had, earlier, quoted Haluska as saying that he uses Midnight Blue and Buttercup Yellow paints that he buys at Robinson’s Hardware.

Barber said, “I’m sure the paint at Robinson’s Hardware is high-quality paint, but I’m not sure it’s the same paint that the state uses. I’m pretty sure the color the state uses is gold, not Buttercup Yellow.”

Barber said he wasn’t sure, but thought that the state probably used paint that was known to stand up well over time, in the elements.

The signs have been Begley’s responsibility for years, Barber said. She wrote a pamphlet called “Historic Markers in the Town of Guilderland” in 1994, showing an image of each sign and relating the story behind it.

“He may have repainted signs,” Barber said of Haluska, “that may recently have been repainted.”

Barber planned to have Brian Wilson, who runs the highway department’s sign shop, call Haluska and “chat with him” about his process and the type of paint he used.

Then again, Barber said, “It could be that what he’s been doing has been fine.”

On Wednesday, Haluska said that he had had a friendly conversation with the town supervisor and agreed, tentatively, to finish the signs that the town did not have time to do. Barber suggested that he keep in communication with Brian Wilson of the Highway Department.

Haluska noted that Wilson has taken down and is now working on the sign in front of the town hall, and said that he hopes that he will also do the one in front of the Stewart’s in Altamont, which he said is in terrible disrepair. “That one needs sandblasting,” he said.

Haluska also noted that he had learned from Barber that Begley is planning an updated edition of her pamphlet on the markers, and said that he is happy about anything that makes the signs stand out or brings them to people’s attention.

Haluska hopes that, when all of the markers have been repainted and when Begley’s new edition is out, maybe the town can have a “celebration of the signs of Guilderland.”

Reached by phone, Wilson said that he has been involved with repainting the historical markers for almost 20 years, “when I get a chance.”

The sign shop, Wilson said, creates signs for all of the towns in Albany County except Colonie and Bethlehem, as a shared service.

His process involves, Wilson said, bringing a sign back to the shop, sandblasting it, putting on “usually two coats” of primer, then adding “the D.O.T. [Department of Transportation] blue and yellow.”

After talking with The Enterprise once, Wilson called back to say that he had just gone  out specifically to take a look at the signs Haluska had painted.  

Wilson said of Haluska, “You know something? He’s doing a heck of a job. The colors aren’t the same as the D.O.T. blue and yellow, but the signs look beautiful.”

Asked if he thought Haluska’s signs would last in the winter weather, Wilson said, “Well, we’ll see,” but added, “I think they’ll last.”

Wilson said, “God bless him,” referring to Haluska’s initiative, in terms of doing this during retirement and out of his own pocket.

Wilson did, though, wonder about liability, since Haluska does not work for the town. “What if, God forbid, he got hit by a car?” he asked.

There’s one thing he would have done differently. “I probably would have asked somebody at Town Hall, before I got started,” Wilson said.

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