CGP Community Stories

Bill Elsey, November 16, 2016

Title

Bill Elsey, November 16, 2016

Subject

Environmentalism
Economic Development
Springfield, NY
Chicago, IL
Politics
Activism
Agriculture
Rare Books
Baseball
Fracking
California
Wildlife and Fisheries Management

Description

Bill Elsey is originally from Chicago, Illinois and has been Springfield Town Supervisor since 2009. In addition, he owns and operates a rare book dealership, Leatherstocking Books. Bill’s career path and involvement in local politics have been interesting and varied journeys. Bill initially graduated from the University of Illinois with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature in 1968. Following his passion for the environment and the outdoors, he and his wife moved from Chicago to California in 1976, where Bill began studying Wildlife and Fisheries Management at San Jose State University in 1978. After three and half years attaining this degree, Bill began working and researching with a wide range of specialized scientists in the mountains, rivers, and coastlines of Southern California. After deciding to leave this job, Bill was introduced to the rare book business through the owner of his local used bookstore who taught him how and where to look for and sell books.

He continued collecting books into the 1990s, when he relocated to Florida for three years. His love of baseball and the quiet, outdoor lifestyle of the Cooperstown area and Otsego Lake enticed him to move to Springfield in 1999. Bill brought his collection of books with him and continued to build upon it until personal tragedy occurred in 2005. Due to an electric short in the kitchen, the Elsey’s home in Springfield burned down on November 15. The entire house, Bill’s collection of books, and a beloved family cat were lost in the fire. Though Bill recalls this as one of the worst experiences of his life, he reflects on the generosity and kindheartedness of those in the book selling and Springfield communities who helped him after the fire. In fact, this is what inspired him to volunteer as an EMT with the Springfield Volunteer Fire Department and eventually to run for town board and then town supervisor. Bill has rebuilt his book collection and uses internet sellers for most of his business.

After a close election against the long seated supervisor, Bill became town supervisor and began working to update the financial and record keeping systems of the town, as well as facilities upgrades in an effort toward energy efficiency. Bill’s time as town supervisor has seen opposition to fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which inspired a law prohibiting heavy industry in the town, making Springfield one of the few towns in New York State to successfully prohibit fracking. The most recent accomplishment in business development occurred just recently, as Farm Credit East, a financial services company for the agricultural industry has chosen Springfield as the location of their new 19,000 square foot office building.

I interviewed Bill in the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s conference room, shortly after the groundbreaking for Farm Credit East and only one day after the anniversary of the 2005 house fire. His recollections focused on his changing career paths, politics, the local economy, his experiences as town supervisor, and some of his childhood in Illinois. Bill enjoys narrating and relating stories. I took care to eliminate some false starts and extraneous “and’s” and “so’s,” as well as added appropriate sentence breaks to improve the flow and readability of the transcript.

Creator

Melissa Nunez

Publisher

Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta

Date

2016-11-16

Rights

Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY

Format

audio/mpeg
27mB
audio/mpeg
27 mB
image/jpeg
214kB

Language

en-US

Type

Sound
Sound
Image

Identifier

16-009

Coverage

Upstate New York
1946-2016
Cooperstown, NY

Interviewer

Melissa Nunez

Interviewee

Bill Elsey

Location

Cooperstown Graduate Program
5838 State Route 80
Cooperstown, NY 13326

Transcription

Cooperstown Graduate Program
Oral History Project Fall 2016

MN = Melissa Nunez
BE = Bill Elsey

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:00]
MN:
This is Melissa Nunez interviewing Bill Elsey for the CGP Community Stories Project in the CGP conference room on November 16, 2016. So, Bill, can you tell me what brought you from Chicago to Cooperstown?
BE:
It’s kind of a circuitous route. My wife and I left Chicago in 1976 and moved to California, and we spent 19 years in California. In 1995 we moved to Florida, and spent about three and a half years in Florida. And frankly, neither of us liked the weather. We came to Cooperstown in 1997 to visit the Hall of Fame, someplace I’d always wanted to go, and we loved this area, and we started looking for a house up here in 1999. And I think we ended up in Springfield because of access to the lake, because Springfield has a landing, and as many people are aware the lake doesn’t have a lot of easy access. So we looked for a house in Springfield, and we bought one in 1999, and we’ve been here ever since. That’s the short answer.
MN:
So you mentioned the lake [Otsego Lake]; what are some activities that you enjoy doing on the lake?
BE:
Well, mostly fishing, but you know, I spend some time on the lake in my canoe, and I have a small pontoon boat that runs on an electric motor that I fish from. I just love being near the lake. I grew up near a lake in Illinois when I was a kid, and did a lot of fishing. So, I feel like because of the kind of unbridled development in the Chicago area that took place mostly after I left, when I moved here, this area is almost like where I grew up forty or fifty years ago. And so I felt like I bought myself some time with nature when I moved here. The area that I lived in in Chicago—we moved out of the city when I was eight years old, and moved to a small town and lived near a lake, on the water, or close enough that I could keep a boat on the water. That area is now part of the whole sprawling megalopolis of Chicago. When I moved there it was smaller than Cooperstown is now. The last time I checked, the population of that town was almost 20,000. That’s a huge change, and there are lots of other towns around it that have grown the same way.
[TRACK 1, 3:01]
MN:
Ok, so, can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to pursue a degree in wildlife and fisheries management?
BE:
I kind of figured out what I wanted to do after I went to college the first time in the 60s. I got a degree in English lit., at the University of Illinois. I graduated at the end of 1968, and over the course of the next several years I figured out what I wanted to do. When we moved to California, I enrolled in San Jose State, partly because it was still very inexpensive to go to college there. I was 32 when I went back to school the second time, and spent three or three and a half years getting another degree because I didn’t have much of a biological background. I had to take a lot of core courses that I had never taken. I didn’t really follow the profession all that closely. I did some on and off consulting work for several years, and then I had a full-time job for about four and half years, which ended in 1993. And I haven’t actually worked in the field since then. I’ve been a book seller since then.
MN:
So, what were some projects you worked on or issues you encountered while you were getting that degree?
BE:
I did a lot of stream sampling, both fish sampling and stream habitat sampling in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California. Trying to remember all the names, the names of some of the rivers—San Lorenzo River, I could go on, but they probably wouldn’t mean a whole lot to anybody listening to this. But I also worked in other places on the California coast— Morro Bay, and I worked in a number of urban streams in San Jose, mostly.
The experiences that I had were really interesting. I mean, there were some times when we were doing backpack electroshocking, which I guess I should explain a little bit. You carry a pack with a 12-volt battery on your back and a couple of probes that you put in the water, and when you turn a switch on it puts high voltage, low amperage electricity in the water, which stuns fish long enough to net them, capture them, measure them, then put them back in the water. And most of the fish, I’d say 95% of the fish, survived that. It’s not fatal very often. But you have to wear waders of course; otherwise you’ll shock yourself because you’re standing in the stream.
There were a number of occasions when my partner and I would be walking down a busy street in San Jose, going from one bridge to another, so we could access a creek, and it was at the time when Ghostbusters had just come out, and we sort of felt like fish busters, ’cause that’s what we looked like. We were walking around like Bill Murray, with the backpack on and everything else, looking for fish instead of ghosts. And urban streams were a challenge, you had a lot of slabs of concrete in the water that you couldn’t see because the water was too murky to see them, and so you never knew when you were going to slide down a piece of concrete if you took another step, or when you were going to step into a shopping cart.
But it was quite rewarding sometimes. I remember one day in particular we turned on our electro shocker literally next to the runways in San Jose airport and captured a 35-pound king salmon. It was pretty strange. So, that was kind of fun. And I did work in some less urbanized streams, but for the most part they were streams that had been affected considerably by human habitation and development.
As you probably know, water is always an issue in the West, and I worked with a lot of scientists and learned a lot from people I worked with. I worked with a hydrologist for several years, and I knew nothing about hydrology when I started. I ended up doing stream surveys and it involved stream flow, and stream type, and all sorts of interesting things like that. And I learned a lot from those people. The company I worked for had, in addition to wildlife and fish biologists, botanists. We had a designer who did all our maps, so I was learning something new every day; it was a lot of fun. I still keep in touch with one of those people actually. She just had considerable damage to her home in Hurricane Matthew. She lives in the low country in South Carolina. I think she’s only been back for a couple of days because she had a job in Nashville that she’s been working on, so I’m not sure just how extensive the damage was. But anyway, that’s the sort of friendships you make when you’re working together every day and try to keep in touch with people. Well, we say we’re going to and then we don’t, but every once in a while you keep in touch with somebody.
MN:
That’s great.
BE:
Yeah. Let’s see, what else can I tell you about that job? We used to work long hours in the field. We’d put in 12-14 hour days because, sometimes, you just had to, to get the work done. I did—in addition to electro fishing—we did a lot of gill netting. Which entailed putting nets in the water and leaving them sit for a couple of hours and going back, and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a gill net, but they have floats on the top and weights on the bottom, so you basically have a curtain, and fish swim into it and can’t get out because their gills get stuck, and that—unfortunately, the fish don’t do well, usually. But, some places it’s the only way to sample. If you’re in a lake or a reservoir, you can’t sample any other way. So we did some of that, and that was a lot of work in the summer in California. Most of that work was done in the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley, where it was 95-100 every day. And, you have to wear waders because otherwise you’ll have fish slime pervading your entire [laughter]… all your clothes and your body as well, so you have to wear waders and it’s really warm.
What else can I tell you? I did get to travel a lot. I did a lot of, around California anyway, I did a lot of writing proposals for the company that I worked for, which is one of the reasons I left. I really went there because I wanted to do field work, and after a while, because I had some writing skills, I ended up spending a lot of time in the office working on proposals and writing up reports, and it’s not really what I wanted to do. But it was interesting work. I mean, I got to meet a lot of people. I got to travel around California quite a bit. And I got to go to a few conferences as well. I did at least one conference a year, one in Florida, one in Chicago. Of course, you know, conferences tend to be at airport hotels, so you don’t really go anywhere; you just see the inside of the hotel and the airport, unless you spend enough time to travel.
[TRACK 1, 10:54]
MN:
So, what influenced that shift from wildlife and fisheries management to the rare book selling?
BE:
Well, obviously, I was not a young man when I got my degree. By the time I had four years’ experience, I was 46, 47 years old, and you know, there were a lot of companies that weren’t hiring people that age. It has nothing to do with ages, it has to do with the fact that there were lots of younger people who had just as much experience as I did, and it made sense to hire them. But I think part of it was, again, a little bit of burnout because I wasn’t doing enough fieldwork and I’m not sure that I would have been doing fieldwork if I had gone to work for somebody else. I left the company that I was with because, it wasn’t—the owner of the company, who I still keep in touch with occasionally, at least at the holidays, was a tremendous biologist, but he was not a very good manager. He did not do a good job of managing the company and I could see that it wasn’t going to last much longer, and the truth is, it was gone in another year or two. And I just kind of decided to leave before it went away. And I fell into the book business. I really, literally, was between jobs. Didn’t have a lot to do, had some time on my hands, and I started hanging out in a used bookstore in Mountain View California, where I lived. And the owner of the store, was a guy in his, let’s see, he was probably in his late 20’s when I met him. And he had been selling books most of his life, like a lot of people who get liberal arts degrees, they gravitate toward books, or teaching, or something like that, because there’s nothing else to do. And he gravitated toward selling used books, and, why can’t I think of his name?
Andy. Andy is his name.
Andy was a tremendous bookman; he had this store in downtown Mountain View. And when I say a great bookman, he really knew how to look for books and how to buy them. But again, he wasn’t a very good business man. He didn’t… and frankly, there are lots of jokes about booksellers. One of the best, I think, is the guy who said, “I want to keep selling books till I run out of money.” There’s all sorts of jokes like that. But most people in the book business do not make a lot of money, and maybe don’t even make a living at it. And he was in the same situation. So anyway, he started telling me how to look for books, and we went around to thrift stores and library sales that he went to. I started to get the idea that you could, if you were astute enough, you could buy a book for $1 and sell it for $20, and it wasn’t that impossible to do. Of course this is 1994 we’re talking about now, which is essentially pre-internet. There was one site I believe, where there were a few books listed. But interestingly, books were one of the first things to be sold on the internet, and it was the first place where a couple of sites popped up specifically for books.
So, anyway, when I got into it, I was going out buying books at thrift stores and stacking the boxes, and had them in a storage locker, because at that time you couldn’t sell books unless you did a printed catalog or a book fair. You sort of had to have five or six hundred books to do either one, because it was pointless to do one otherwise. There’s no sense in going to a book fair with twenty books. So, you know, my wife asked me several times, “are you ever going to sell any of those books that you’re buying?” And I said, “Well, yeah if I get enough of them together I’ll do a book fair.” And in September of 1994, I did my first book fair in Sacramento. And it did pretty well; part of it was because I had some pretty good books that I’d collected over the years that I started selling. Because I realized I’ve never been a big collector of books. There are a lot of booksellers who are major collectors as well. I’m just not much of a collector, which is probably a good thing, because sometimes you get a book that you just don’t want to let go of, and it’s hard to sell it. I mean, booksellers also have this saying that everything is for sale for the right price, but I’m not sure that’s true.
It’s an interesting business because it’s probably the purest form of capitalism. You basically use your time and your wits to buy things, and you pretty much have to know what their potential value is, especially if you’re buying from another bookseller. If you’re buying at a thrift store, you can buy a lot of books for a dollar and make money, because you know, eventually you’re going to find something that you can sell for twenty. But if you’re buying books from a bookstore and you find a book for fifty dollars, you need to know that it’s worth one hundred or one-fifty before you buy it. So it’s a lot of retained knowledge. I’m sure you could sell books for a hundred years and never even come close to learning everything. And I’m certainly not an expert in very many areas. I started out selling first edition mysteries, and I’ve gotten away from that for the most part. Mostly I just buy, I try to buy fairly expensive books now, because the internet has made it much easier to sell books, but it’s made it much easier to sell expensive books. Inexpensive books are so common that, I mean, you can sell them, if you want to get 99 cents for a book, but you can’t make much money on it, no matter what you paid for it.
Anyway, I should get back to the beginning of when I didn’t have a venue to sell, other than book fairs and printed catalogues. So, there was a time when I was sending out four or five printed catalogues, on probably a quarterly basis, which was not cheap, obviously. You had to print them. You had to mail them. So there was a lot of expense. And then somewhere along in the late 20th century, it became much easier to sell online, and there were several places where one can list online now that is just for books. And of course Amazon was one of the first places also. Amazon is an interesting venue, you can sell a lot on there, but it’s difficult. It’s probably easier now, but when I first started I listed on Amazon for a while, and it just became so difficult to list there, because of their requirements. Amazon has obviously taken over a lot of business in this country and they’re really good at selling new merchandise, but they’re not very good at selling used merchandise. They just don’t have a grasp of how the book business works. They’re retailers; they’re not book people. And the good sites that I list on, like ABE Books, and a few others, are mostly book people who understand the used book market a lot better. But it gets harder and easier, if that makes any sense, all the time, because you can expose a book to everyone on the planet, essentially, when you list it. So, if it’s a book that everybody wants, it sells pretty quickly if the price is right. But, I used to go to book signings and get books signed, and then I could sell them easily for $30, you know, because the author’s signature was on it. Well, you take the same book now and you go online and there might be a hundred copies of it signed, and if you get five bucks for it, you’re happy. And you can’t make a living that way, so. So that’s kind of where it is, but as I said, expensive books, if they’re really scarce, they’re relatively easy to sell.
[TRACK 1, 19:08]
MN:
So, all of this started in California…
BE:
It did.
MN:
How did you get it started when you moved here?
BE:
Well, first of all, we moved from California to Florida. We took most of the books with us, which was an interesting challenge. We towed a trailer full of books across country. They didn’t all survive the trip very well, but most of them did. And, actually, in the late 90’s, in the South, I did quite a few book fairs, and it was pretty lucrative. That was the time when modern first editions were kind of at their peak in terms of desirability and demand. I think part of it was because the dot com bubble was expanding at that point. You’re too young to remember this, but in the late 20th century there was this huge amount of money that was pumped into dot com startups, and there were companies that went from no value to billions of dollars in value, and as soon as their IPOs [Initial Public Offerings] went on the market. And of course, a few years later, they became worth nothing again, most of them. Some of them survived, but most of them didn’t. I think a lot of those people were young, and they had money, and they were spending money on books. And a lot of them were in places like Florida, and Atlanta, which is where I did a lot of book fairs.
When I moved up here, I moved here in ’99, which is right at the end of that business cycle. In addition to that, most booksellers and most book collectors in this part of the country were more interested in true antiquarian books, which is something I didn’t do at all. So I found book fairs to be very difficult for me to do. I have done a few recently in New York and Boston, which have been better, but smaller book fairs around here have not done well for me, so I just haven’t done that many.
But I brought the books, again, brought most of the books here from Florida, and again, some of them survived and some of them didn’t. I never stopped buying books; I used to travel a lot more to buy. I used to go to places like Syracuse and Rochester and find books. It’s not as easy to find them as it used to be. I used to do a lot more library sales, but I’m getting to the point in my life where I really don’t want to stand in line for two hours to fight a hundred people for books. So I don’t do many of those anymore.
[TRACK 1, 21:43]
I guess I should get to this at this point, because this really affected the book business along with the rest of our lives. Eleven years ago yesterday, we were packed to leave for a book fair in Richmond, Virginia, and at two o’clock in the morning we woke up and our house was on fire, back there in Springfield. We got out with one of our two cats; the other cat didn’t get out of the building. We lost the entire house, except for the basement; we lost the whole house, and virtually all of our books. So over the next couple of years, I rebuilt our stock, with the help of some friends in the book business who gave me bigger discounts than they usually did so I could buy things. The book community is really, really remarkable. I mean, everybody in the business for the most part is…first of all the entire business is based on trust. When you sell a book to another bookseller you send an invoice. You don’t ask for payment up front, you know they’re going to send you a check. I think I’ve been maybe stiffed twice in twenty years. Over twenty years in the book business I’ve probably not been paid for a book twice. And so it’s true of book collectors as well; it’s just all based on trust. Booksellers, the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, the ABAA, has a fund for booksellers for whatever reason, if there’s an emergency, they actually, they don’t loan money to people, they just give them money. So I got some money from them.
I should mention how the house burned down. Our dishwasher, which was made by General Electric, somehow developed a short in the control panel and the kitchen was set on fire by that. It was obviously the worst thing that’d ever happened to me, both from a personal standpoint because of the cat and from a business standpoint. The rest of everything else we could replace. We rebuilt the house on the same location, we replaced all the contents with the insurance money, but the books weren’t well insured. Losing the cat, I don’t think we’ve ever gotten over it. We have lots of cats, we have four cats, and the one we saved from the fire is still around. She’s twelve now. I can show you pictures after the interview. But, anyway, that was an extraordinarily traumatic event. It kind of changed the direction of my life as well, because, I’m getting off of books here, but… Well, let’s see; let me tell you what happened after the fire.
We spent nine months renting a house from the farm next door to us, so we were a quarter of a mile from our old house, which gave us a lot of time to go try to find things that…pictures and that sort of thing that we saved from the house. I don’t recommend it, by the way. I recommend just saying, “It’s gone.” Because it was really traumatic walking through this burned out hulk of a house for months. We couldn’t tear the house down until all the insurance investigators had gone through it. The fire took place in November, and we didn’t start demolition until January. We didn’t start construction on the house until February.
But, the morning of the fire, the Springfield Volunteer Fire Department was on the scene in seven minutes. Oh, I should mention, I had run for county board, and the election was, well, the days fall on the same days this year, so the election was on the eighth. I lost to Keith McCarty, who’s been county representative ever since. Keith was one of the first people on the scene, because he’s been in the fire department for fifty years. And I’m standing in the driveway, basically in a t-shirt and underwear, and Keith came over and said, “You know, you and I are about the same size, if you need clothes come over and get them.” That’s what the town was like after the fire, and everybody in town treated us that way. And frankly, even though I had campaigned for county board, we didn’t know that many people in town, we had not been terribly involved in the town, in town activities. So, after the fire, after we got back into a new house, actually before, I volunteered for the fire department. At the time I was 58 and I went to my first meeting, and I said, “I’m willing to volunteer to do whatever the fire department needs, but I’m not going into burning buildings. I just did that, and I’ve got asthma and I’m not doing it, intentionally.” So, at that point, someone said, “Well, we could always use EMT’s.” So I said, “Okay.” I went and trained to be an EMT for, let’s see, I went to Herkimer County Community College, because it was easier for me, because I could go during the day and not have to be out driving at night. So I did that in the fall of 2006 and I’ve been an EMT ever since.
Then a couple of years later, I decided to run for town board, and then I ran for town supervisor, and I’ve been a town supervisor for seven years now. That’s all because I took a different path after the fire. I don’t think I would’ve ever done that if it hadn’t been for the fire. So it was, in a way, it was very positive for me, and I hope other people as well, I don’t know. I think I’ve done a good job as supervisor, I don’t know. But it certainly got me involved with the town, involved in a lot of other things. In that way, it’s positive. I wouldn’t do it over again for a million dollars; I would never do it again. Not that I haven’t been happy with all the stuff that I’ve done since. I would’ve been very happy to find a different way to get pushed in that direction.
[TRACK 1, 28:27]
MN:
What significant changes have you seen during your time as town supervisor?
BE:
Well, when I started, the previous supervisor had never used a computer. So I converted the town books from double entry ledgers to electronic files. We were using a payroll service, and this is minor stuff, but we were using a payroll service and after about a year or two I decided that I could do the payrolls myself with QuickBooks, and it probably saves the town two or three thousand dollars a year in payroll service fees. Longer term, we’ve upgraded our building; we had all incandescent bulbs in the building when I started and we’ve converted to CFL’s [compact fluorescent light bulbs] and now we’re trying to convert to LED’s. The gym for example, until last year had…I don’t know if you’ve seen these bulbs, they’re bulbs with mobile bases, they’re much larger than standard incandescent bases. The whole building was lit this way when I became supervisor. There were 300 watt incandescent bulbs in every fixture in the building. In addition to producing enormous amounts of heat, they were extremely wasteful…
[START OF TRACK 2, 00:00]
So, we used a couple of programs that NYSEG [New York State Electric and Gas] had that paid 75% for conversion to LED’s. There was not a program like that for the conversion of the gym, so last year the town paid to have, all those, we had, let’s see, 15 mobile bulbs, we replaced those 15 bulbs with, I’m sorry, 12 mobile bulbs, so that was 3600 watts. We replaced those with nine T-12 LED fixtures, which use approximately 40 watts a piece. So, we’re now using 360 watts, instead of 3600. And the light is almost twice as bright as it was before. Our electric bill for that building has dropped probably 50%. I also had digital thermostats installed. The old thermostats, you may never have seen these, but we had analog thermostats, that could only be reset with an allen wrench. And they had a cager on them because this was an elementary school at one time, so they didn’t want the kids to be fooling around with the thermostat, so they had a locked cage on each thermostat. So, basically whatever temperature you set you set the thermostat, that’s where it stayed. We were heating that building to 65 degrees all winter, day and night. We put in digital thermostats that could be programmed, so now it’s 50 degrees at night, when nobody’s in the building, and 62 the rest of the time. It saves a lot of energy, because the furnace used to run 24 hours a day basically. If it got really cold in the winter, it never went off. Those are some of the long-term changes that have helped the town.
As far as what’s going on in terms of development in the town, well, we had—this was before I was supervisor—but I don’t know if you’ve heard about the proposed MSG project in Springfield? Madison Square Garden Entertainment was going to purchase about a thousand acres on the east end of town and put in some permanent buildings. But most of what they were going to do was going to be temporary; they were going to do a Coachella type festival once a year for four days. There were a lot of bad feelings on both sides. There were people in town who thought it would be great; there were people in town who thought it would be a disaster. I wasn’t in a position to express a political opinion at the time because I had not been elected. I got elected to the town board just at the end of that process. We don’t have any zoning yet in town. We didn’t have that obviously, so as long as they followed state environmental requirements, we were not going to be able to say they couldn’t do it. It was quite an interesting fight. What eventually happened is, MSG walked away because the money that they had to invest in that project was stolen from them by Bernie Madoff. At least that’s my understanding, is that they lost so much money in that scandal that they just didn’t have the capital to invest in it. That was around 2008 or 2009, somewhere around there. Just around the time that I got on the town board. So, that’s one thing that’s happened.
We also were concerned about fracking [hydraulic fracturing], and five years ago, I think it was, we passed a law prohibiting heavy industry in the town, because at the time we didn’t know if we could prohibit fracking, if we could single out that industry. It turns out we could have. But we were probably the second or third town in the state of New York to prohibit fracking. I don’t know that everybody was happy with it, but you know, we had a public hearing and the only people who came to the public hearing and were in favor of fracking were employees of the company that owned the drilling rights, everybody in town was opposed to it, everybody who came and talked about it anyway. I know there were a few people in town that had leases who were not pleased, but the truth of the matter is, that we probably, at least not in my lifetime, would ever see fracking in Springfield because the Marcellus Shale is too shallow, and the Utica is just not economically feasible right now. Actually, most of the shale drilling isn’t feasible right now for gas, but anyway, those are a couple of things.
In terms of business, we had little, if any, business come to town until just recently. Of course the opera [Glimmerglass Festival] has grown tremendously since I’ve been there. I mean, it’s always been popular, but I think over the last five or six years it has grown considerably. I’ve become a big opera fan in the last three or four years. I went once in a while but I wasn’t really excited about it. I’ve gotten excited about it, so I really enjoy it. I spend a lot of time at the opera in the summer. Two years ago, my favorite show was Candide, [Leonard] Bernstein’s Candide. I went three times. I swore I could’ve seen it, it’s probably like Hamilton, you can probably see it a dozen times and get something different out of it every time, or at least see something you didn’t see before. So, that’s a big deal in town. We have one of the oldest golf courses in the country. In the last few years the management of the golf course has done a tremendous job of bringing people there. There was entertainment this summer every night, every Thursday night at the golf course—a band, you could literally go and listen to the band and not buy anything. There was beer on tap and terrific food. Mount Wellington Market opened up five or six years ago, and they’ve done a lot of business, but they’re only open three months a year. They’re open a little over three months because they depend a lot on business from the opera.
But the biggest thing that’s happened—Farm Credit East. You’ve heard about the project? Ok, well, last spring a local attorney came to the planning board with a proposal by a company called Farm Credit East, which is a financial services company that does work entirely with farmers, commercial fishermen and the forestry industry. They make loans, they do taxes for people, they’re just a general financial service, mostly for the agricultural industry. They are consolidating two of their offices, one in Sangerfield and one in Cobleskill. They chose Springfield, the old Ryerson property, which I’m sure you’ve heard of by now. They bought that property which had been on the market for a long time and had no activity on it at all. They subdivided thirteen of the thirty-nine acres, and on Monday I was actually at the groundbreaking. It broke ground for a nineteen and a half thousand square foot building that’s going to have fifty employees. So, it’s an economic boost for the community. I think a lot of the employees from the other offices will come here, so initially it may not be a lot of local jobs, but it’ll be local business activity. It should support maybe a restaurant in Springfield, or two. I think as it grows and they lose people by attrition, there’ll be local jobs, or people who already work for them will decide not to commute from Sangerfield, for example, and maybe buy a house here. It’s a big deal, and frankly, I had little, if anything to do with it, but it’s still exciting for the town. It was extremely well done. I think they’re going to be really good neighbors, at least I hope so, because it’s right across the road from me. I said, you know, nobody can say “not in my backyard,” because it’s my backyard.
Once the construction is over it should be a pretty quiet operation. A lot of the employees don’t even come to the office on a regular basis, or on a daily basis, because, farmers, especially in the summer, can’t leave their farms to come to an office, so they go to them. So a lot of the employees will just leave from home to go to a farm and talk to their client and then just travel around. It should be very interesting. It’s going to be a year before it opens, though. It’s a big project. They’ve got to build a parking lot, and the building itself, and put in all the swales and everything to minimize runoff to the creek there. Well, state law says there’s not supposed to be any increase in runoff to the creek. They had all that in their original proposal. That was the nice thing about it, we didn’t have to hire an engineer to come in and say “oh, you didn’t do this right.” It was all done very, very well to start with.
[TRACK 2, 10:21]
MN:
On that topic, how do you think we can balance economic development with environmental protection?
BE:
Well, I think it’s important to not just have local agriculture, but local value added agriculture. I think we need to have, for example, grain processing, would be something that would be worthwhile around here. And I don’t know where we would put it, or where it would go, but I know that there are organic farmers who grow wheat, for example, and it has to be taken to the Hudson Valley to be milled. And that makes no sense to me. I don’t know how many jobs it would create, but it certainly makes sense to do it here, rather than haul it down there. Although most of that flour probably goes to the New York City market anyway. So, in the long run it doesn’t make that much difference, but it would be a big boon for agriculture here to have that happen. I think we’re on the right track with all the breweries and distilleries, and farmers markets, and the CSAs [community supported agriculture] that people are subscribing to. I haven’t done it myself because I can’t use all that food. I see the amounts of food that people get who have families. I don’t know what to do with that, I guess I should maybe share a CSA with two or three other families. But it is tremendous that people are doing that, they’re getting all this fresh food locally. That was one of the things about the meals at the golf course this year. They brought in a chef and everything that she cooked with except for the meats and fish was local. All the vegetables were local; she was making her own slaw from her own garden. It was really exciting food, everything from chicken wings to blue fin tuna poke [Laughter]. If you’re around in the summer you should come over there some night. They’ve got a good band, the beer is from Cherry Valley, it’s Red Shed Ale. Part of the reason, most of the reason for that is, that one of the managers is a partner in Red Shed, so they serve their own beer there. They’re selling the beer retail, which is nice; a lot of brewers don’t get to do that very often.
MN:
So, going back to your time as town supervisor, what was the election process like for you?
BE:
That was interesting. I ran against Tom Armstrong, who had been in office for nine terms. I disagreed with him on a lot of things. I never questioned his dedication and concern for the town because I think he had the town’s best interest in mind, but I felt like it was time to bring the town into the 21st century, that there were a lot of things that could be done better. I went door to door for a long time that year, because I knew it was not going to be easy to win. Small towns like this tend to vote for the same person for many, many years. Most of the people who serve as town supervisors have deep roots. I think Tom has something like 60 or 70 relatives in town, and when you have that big of a base, it’s hard to win. I did everything that I could think of to get as many votes as possible. I believe that the margin was fourteen votes and we had almost 500 people turn up for that election. Which is a lot for Springfield, for an off-year election. It was pretty remarkable how many people voted. I will say this: I had support from people who— long-term residents, or people who were born in town—who liked Tom, who had supported Tom for a long time. But they just felt that it was time for a change. Change has been a big topic in elections in the last ten years or twenty years. This was 2009, it was the year after Obama’s election, I guess that’s one of the reasons I got more involved with politics again, because of Obama’s running for president. It’s no secret in town that I’m a Democrat. It is a predominantly Republican town. Not as much as a lot of people think it is, because there are a lot of independents as well as Republicans and Democrats. If you add up the Democrats and the people who don’t have a party affiliation that would probably outweigh some Republicans. Probably, I don’t know for sure; I don’t remember the exact figures right now. I haven’t had opposition for the last three terms so I haven’t really done a lot of campaigning. But anyway, it was very interesting, and Tom was very gracious about it. On election night, there was only about a 12 vote margin, we hadn’t had the absentee ballots come in yet. He said, “Well congratulations.” I said, “Well we really should wait for the absentees.” He says, “There’s not going to be enough absentees to make a difference.” It turned out actually the margin wasn’t twelve votes. I think the absentees were actually the margin that I won by.
I’m sure you know that if you have more than one residence in New York State you can register to vote anywhere, whether it’s a summer home or not. And I had a number of people in town who are New York City residents, but have houses here, and they all voted for me by absentee ballot. They were family members of people who were supporting me, and they made sure that they voted. That helped a lot. But I did a lot of that. I went around and said, “Do you have anybody else in town who votes?” and “well yeah, we have…” so I said, “Get them to vote.” I actually, after the 2004 election, went to one of DFA’s boot camps. Do you know about Democracy for America? Well, it was Howard Dean’s organization. After he lost the primary back in 2004, his brother, Jim, kind of took over the organization, so it’s still around. But they do a lot of training for both candidates and campaign managers. They had a boot camp out in Cazenovia, which I went to. Basically you stayed in a dorm in Cazenovia and went to three days of training on how to organize a campaign, and how to determine who might vote for you and who might not, and who were the people who were never going to vote for you, and concentrate on the people who might vote for you; and also more or less ignore the people who were going to vote for you anyway. Hillary [Rodham Clinton] may have done too much of this thing. [Laughter] I mean, there is something to that, because with the methodology that a lot of campaign managers use now, if you’ve got somebody who has always voted Democratic, for example, and is never going to vote for a Republican, you don’t even send them any material. You just say, “Oh that person’s going to vote for me,” I don’t have to worry about it. And if they don’t show up, even if they don’t not vote for you, they don’t have to not vote for you, all they have to do is not show up, and all of a sudden the margin’s gone. I think that happened in a few blue states, I really do.
MN:
That’s unfortunate.

BE:
Well, unfortunate or not, it’s what happened. I’m not sure I want to put too much political opinion into this. But, you know, it’s no secret that I’m a Democrat. I don’t think anybody thinks I voted for [Donald J.] Trump, so. What I really appreciate about Springfield, and this goes all the way back to the fire, is that we all try to work for the best possible outcome for the town, regardless of what our political affiliations are. I have one Democrat on the board and three Republicans, and I do my best to have unanimous votes whenever we vote on something controversial, and most of the time it works out that way. I mean, I don’t want people not to express their opinions, but I try to get them to express their opinions in the discussions leading up to the vote, if I can do that. And people have been very good about doing that. I get along with everybody on the board most of the time. Anytime you’re in a group with five people, and you see them every week or every month you’re going to have arguments with them occasionally. It’s been good; it’s been a good experience. There are times when I really don’t want to do it anymore. When the weather’s like this, it’s one of them, because I’m going to be 70 next year. I would like to have more time for myself, but I don’t know. I can’t seem to get anybody to run. I want somebody that I think is going to do a good job. I’ve asked people to run, and they say, “Are you crazy? I don’t want your job.” So that’s kind of where it’s at right now. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that.
[TRACK 2, 20:19]
MN:
What would be your next step if you were to back away from being town supervisor?
BE:
I don’t know exactly. I am really thinking about becoming more politically active. Not as a candidate, but just more politically active. This election has…It really disturbs me, partly because I see an enormous threat right now to the country from Trump. And I know that’s not an opinion that’s shared by everybody, but I might as well express it.
I was never much of an activist when I was the right age to be an activist—in the 60s when everybody else was. And I’ve always a little bit regretted it. I’ve never been arrested, for example. And I don’t think being arrested and civil disobedience is anything to be ashamed of. I don’t consider anybody who’s arrested in a nonviolent protest to be a criminal, because it’s part of what America is supposed to be about. I don’t agree with violent protest, but I can see there are places right now where I would probably be, if I didn’t have to be here. I could see myself going to North Dakota, for example. Or I could see myself going to, I don’t know, maybe even Chicago, since it’s really my home city, and getting involved in protest. I know that these protests can turn violent at any time; I hope they don’t.
I was in Chicago in ’68, even though I didn’t go to the convention [Democratic National Convention], I was there. I saw what happened to people who had no political affiliation or interest at all. I worked with a guy in 1968, who went to Grant Park during the convention and he happened to be there the night that Mayor [Richard J.] Daley ordered the cops to clear the park at eleven o’clock. By the way, there had never been a curfew at the park before the convention. He came to work the next day with cuts and bruises all over his face and I said, “What happened?” And he said, “I couldn’t run fast enough. I got four blocks away from the park and the cops were still chasing me.” This guy, he was probably just there to see what was going on, maybe meet girls, because he was in his twenties, or late teens, early twenties. I’m sure there are people who would say, “Well he shouldn’t have been there.” Well, he probably shouldn’t have been, but on the other hand, if he left when the cops said to leave, he shouldn’t get beat up four blocks away. There’s no reason for that either. He wasn’t somebody who was throwing rocks at people, or anything like that. I understand that the police don’t want to get hurt either.
I should tell you a little bit about my growing up in Chicago. I haven’t done that. It’s only two weeks since the Cubs won the World Series, but so much has happened since that, I’ve kind of forgotten about it. By the way, I waited so many years; I traded for a win last week. Anyway, when I was a kid in Chicago, as I told you earlier, we moved out of the city when I was eight. That certainly wasn’t my last time in the city, because my mother died when I was thirteen, and my dad remarried, and we moved back into the city, and I spent the next twelve years, basically, living around Chicago. Not so much out in the country, but in the suburbs and in the city itself. But anyway, my dad was a beer vendor at all the sports venues in Chicago. So when I was five or six years old, on a weekday, my mother and I would go with him to the ballpark, to Wrigley Field, at ten o’clock in the morning, and we’d go in through the vendors’ entrance. He would go down to get ready to sell beer that day, which was a thankless job, believe me, especially in that ballpark because there was never anybody there during the day. We’d go sit in the grandstand somewhere, and nobody ever checked tickets because they were just happy to see a couple of seats that weren’t empty. So I saw a lot of baseball, a lot of batting practice when I was a kid, and I’ve been a Cubs fan ever since. I think my first recollection of going to a game was Ernie Banks’ first season with the Cubs. Do you know who Ernie Banks is? You’ve got to go to the Hall of Fame. Have you been to the Hall of Fame yet?
MN:
I have.
BE:
Ok. Well, look at the flags. Ernie Banks was inducted in, I think ‘76 or ’77, but he was one of those players, who were much more common in those days, who played his entire career with one ball club. He played for the Cubs from 1953. He was the first African American to play for the Cubs. And I think that was one of the beauties of being my age at that time. I never even thought about him being African American. It just didn’t occur to me that he was different from all the other ball players, because I was only six years old; I hadn’t been taught that stuff yet. He was my hero as a kid. I guess, probably still my favorite player. He played for the Cubs from 1953 through 1971, never won anything, except he was Most Valuable Player in the National League two years in a row, for a last place team. That’s how good he was. He had such enormous numbers in 1958 and ‘59; he was voted MVP despite the fact that the Cubs lost almost 100 games both years. I don’t know if I told you this, I may have, but an interesting fact about this year’s Cubs is that their centerfielder, I can’t even remember his name. Anyway, when their centerfielder led off the game in the first game of the World Series this year, he was the first African American to play for the Cubs in a World Series, because the last time they were in the World Series was two years before Jackie Robinson. Dexter Fowler. That is a very strange thing to think about, that the Cubs went from segregation of Major League baseball, it took them 71 years to get to the World Series again. I mean, in many ways the world has changed a lot, but in many ways it hasn’t. It’s still amazing to me, that we’re where we are. I just don’t get it. I really don’t. I also never thought I’d see a person of color as president of the United States in my lifetime. I never imagined that either. That was probably… in terms of public policy, that was maybe the greatest moment of my life, was seeing Obama elected and inaugurated— just astonishing to me that that happened in my lifetime. As I said, I wasn’t much of an activist. I knew people who were. I roomed with an African American guy who was old enough to have been on Freedom Rides in the 50s and knew Dr. [Martin Luther] King and Jesse Jackson. So, I don’t know if it was… I just never thought about it that much. I never thought about demonstrating. I don’t know why. I was old enough. I mean, I wasn’t old enough to be involved in the Civil Rights Movement so much, because I turned eighteen in 1965, so most of that part, at least the legislative part of it was over by that time. I don’t know. I was like [Aaron] Burr; I was keeping my head down. [Laughter]
I’ve been listening to Hamilton in the car for the last week. I’m thinking about those guys a lot. And how much better they were than what we have now, in many ways, at least some of them anyway. It’s kind of scary actually. But, on the other hand, most of them were slave holders.
MN:
That’s true.
BE:
Not everybody. I guess my real hero from Hamilton is John Laurens, who I didn’t know anything about before. He was a South Carolinian who died in the war, but he was one of the few southern signers of the Declaration who were adamantly opposed to slavery. He wasn’t able to do anything about it, unfortunately. But he tried really hard. He actually did put a black regiment together during the Revolution. Which was something pretty amazing in the Revolution. You’ve probably seen the movie, Glory, with Denzel [Washington]. It’s just so stupid, drives me nuts.
[TRACK 2, 29:32]
MN:
Well, I think we are just about out of time.
BE:
Are we?
MN:
Unfortunately, yeah.
BE:
We can go on talking.
MN:
That would not be bad, I would enjoy that.
BE:
Okay, Okay.
MN:
Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
BE:
Okay, I really enjoyed it. Peyton was right, you can’t shut me up.
MN:
Well, it has been a pleasure, thank you.
BE:
Good, good.


Duration

30:00 - Part 1
29:59 - Part 2

Bit Rate/Frequency

128kbps

Time Summary

10:54 - Rare Book Selling
21:43 - House Fire
28:27 - Career, Town Supervisor
10:21 - Economic Development, Environmentalism

Files

Citation

Melissa Nunez, “Bill Elsey, November 16, 2016,” CGP Community Stories, accessed July 19, 2018, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/264.