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Company cements its place in history

By DON HOHLER • Sep 15, 2017 at 9:00 AM

It’s hard for some to believe the Norwalk U.S. 20 bypass is 50 years old.

The 5.7-mile, four-lane divided highway became a reality in 1967. From start to finish, it took two years to build.

Of the 20 A.J. Baltes employees who were in organizational roles when the road was built, just four are still alive. One of them is Bellevue resident Ken Collier, who at the time was wearing many hats in junior management.

“One can tell, the road was well-built,” the 81-year-old said. “The bypass was not the first road A.J. Baltes Inc. built. There was a lot of experience among the 100 employees who worked on the project. The 24-foot wide lanes had a sand and gravel base, material that came from the Clement Fries farm and a second farm located on Halfway Road. The pavement was between  nine and 10 inches of reinforced concrete.”

Collier said he remembers the road being rehabbed and resurfaced twice since it was built.

He was responsible for all of the ordering of material and the paperwork on the job. His job was to keep exact numbers of quantity and cost of materials as well as time spent.

Just how Collier moved into a position of such importance at such an early age is remarkable.

“I was out of high school just a couple years and working at an implement dealership when out of the blue I get a call from Charlie Amato,” Collier said. “I only knew Mr. Amato as being a St. Paul Church member. I was referred to him by Frank Myers, a Norwalk clothier. Both were long-time K of C members. My interview came after Mass two weeks later. It went well and I was hired.”

Collier’s first timekeeping position was for the Fremont by-pass, a two-year job that started in 1956. He followed in the same capacity on I-71 near Lodi for two jobs that took approximately four years and then on to I-75 in the Dayton area for two more years.

“Mike Ebert, a fine basketball player at St. Paul, moved into the timekeeper position when we were still working in Dayton,” Collier said. “I went to a job on I-271 near Beechwood but when a payroll employee in the office passed away, I moved into that slot and did that for two years but upon the sudden death of Mr. Amato, I went back out into the field as the company safety director.”

Collier did a lot of traveling for the firm often working with Gene Esker in pre-job investigation. Two of those jobs were in West Virginia, one near Clarksburg (I-79) and the other outside Morgantown. He was the superintendent on the I-79 job.

“The West Virginia jobs would be one of the last major jobs the company did,” Collier said. “For whatever reason, members of the family wanted their shares of the family assets. There was rumors that the company was broke but that was not the case. The truth was road-building had run its course.”

It was 1975 when Collier started paperwork for an equipment auction, a sale that netted the firm $2 million.

Collier remembers almost every detail during the two years it took to build the Norwalk bypass.

“The project included nine bridges but that was no big deal for our crews,” Collier said. “They knew how to erect them. ... Over another roadway or over a railroad.

“A number of buildings also had to be removed, including a popular nightclub to the west, Reineck’s Tavern. The Albright-Metz Implement dealership was also in the way. The showroom windows were salvaged and used in what was known as the Tool Shed on Baltes property just across the river from what is now Sycamore Hills Golf Club.”

Collier remembers an Operator Engineers Strike during the construction of the bypass. When the union operators walked, non-union employees and salaried supervisors used the earth-moving equipment and down time to construct a 20-acre lake on the Baltes property. The Tool Shed, designed by Urban Livengood, Jr., sits on the northwest side of the lake.

There was one fatality during the construction. A crane boom fell on Albert Cotter as it was being dismantled.

“No question, A.J. wanted the bypass job as it not only show-cased his firm but it was right in his back yard and that was certainly the case because his son, John, once landed his plane on a strip of new concrete before it was open to traffic, much to the chagrin of the Ohio State Patrol,” Collier said.

“Pre-bid investigation of soil on the project showed there was quick sand in some areas and Mr. Baltes made sure other bidders knew there were problem spots. He posted signs in several areas, alerting other bidders that this could be a major problem. Whether or not other companies shied because of the soil will never be known but it certainly did not hurt,” Collier said.

The list of Baltes employees at that time included such well-known Norwalk names as the Freys. Louis, who would later become Norwalk’s Mayor, worked in payroll. His father, Gilbert, was a welder as was his brother, Jim, who was better known for his prowess as a fast-pitch softball pitcher. Another brother, Chuck, was a company surveyor.

The foremen on the Norwalk job also were well-known. Harold Myers from Monroeville was the job foreman. Art Geiger was the paving superintendent. Buck O’Neil and Roy Crawford were the drainage foremen. Bob Dempsey and George DeBolt were the company engineers and estimators. Other names from that era were project manager Mike McIlrath, construction engineer Robert Reichert, company treasurer Bill Rupp and contract administrator Cornelius Ruffing, Jr.

Those men were most responsible for a job costing $5,370,088.

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