Braving the Elements: Stark County's unsung champions keep the county moving

Despite hazardous conditions, the Stark County Road Department works tirelessly to clear and maintain roads

Stark County pol
Gary Schaff plows roads northwest of Dickinson Dec. 19.
Ashley Koffler / The Dickinson Press
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DICKINSON — While many people hunker down and avoid leaving their homes during the area's harsh winter storms, the Stark County Road Department works day and night to make sure those who want to travel can. Stark County Road Superintendent Al Heiser said his crews stay out as long as they can safely perform their jobs.

“Weather permits a lot of it, but normally we plow from sunup to sundown,” Heiser said. “When it snows, we'll plow seven days a week. We don't have a set schedule. We'll plow until the snow is all off. I don't care what day it is. Whether it's Christmas or New Years, it doesn't matter.”

Heiser said one year he spent a half hour at the county shop with his family for Christmas. He added summer months are less grueling with a four-day work week.

“One thing I will not do is go out and try to plow if It's unsafe for the guys, because it's not worth it,” he said. “We try our best. That's all we can do.”

Heiser said sometimes closing the roads doesn’t deter travelers. Some will try to do whatever they can to get through closed and blocked roads, including dragging barricades out of the way. Doing so puts plow operators and emergency workers’ lives at risk, he said.


Leon Kuntz, a long-time employee of the road department, said sometimes the only way to judge whether the plow is still on the road is knowing the shape of the road and the angle that the equipment is at. They also use landmarks to determine where they are. Kuntz said there used to be more telephone poles that he would use to guide him.

Leon Kuntz
Leon Kuntz has worked for the Stark County Road Department for 44 years.
Ashley Koffler / The Dickinson Press

“I kind of miss them because they were landmarks that I went by a lot,” Kuntz said.

Gary Schaff, another equipment operator for the department, said sometimes the weeds at the edge of the road are the only guide they have to go by. When there is a lot of snow on the ground, it’s hard to make out the edges of drifts.

“Yeah, it gets kind of tough out here, when you can't see,” Schaff said. “It's the depth perception. You don't know if there's an inch or if there's a foot.”

Heiser said sometimes it’s too hard to tell where the edge of the road is and operators need another plow to come pull them out of the ditch.

Kuntz said things have changed dramatically since he started working for the road department 44 years ago. He is a lot more comfortable in recent years, since the equipment didn’t always have heaters.

“We had everything on – snow boots and mitts and everything,” Kuntz said. “And back then, we had a bench seat in them, so you'd sit on a bench seat or you could stand.”

He said they finally got equipment with heat in the early 1980s. Now they have heated seats, Heiser said. The equipment has gone from 80 horsepower to 300 horsepower since Kuntz started working for the department. They’re now equipped with sophisticated technology which makes servicing the machines a breeze.


Al Heiser, Stark County Road Superintendent, manages the department's 26 employees.
Ashley Koffler / The Dickinson Press

“If something malfunctions in that thing, within seconds I'll know because I get an email stating what it is and exactly where the machine is at,” Heiser said. “If somebody would be out and go missing, we could go on and find out where the last place he was.”

Kuntz said he began working for the road department with his uncle when he was 19.

“Well, after a couple years, I got married and he kept telling me you should probably go to some kind of school or trade,” Kuntz said. “I looked at him and I said I'm in trade school right now. I said you're teaching me everything that I need to know and I said I like what I'm doing so I'm not going anywhere. At that time I worked for $4.25 and these people were in the oil field making big money. I stayed and I've been here since. I wouldn't have stayed if I didn't like it. It's something I made a life career of.”

Although we’ve been hit with a lot of winter storms this year, Kuntz remembers when it was far worse.

“We had struggles back in the ‘70s,” he said. “We had to have the National Guard come in and push out because we couldn't handle any more. There was so much snow. So they came in and helped and they opened up some of the roads when we couldn't get to them anymore.”

He said he has seen over 100 inches of snow a few times. Those were the worst storms he can remember. He said they can usually hire contractors to help with the workload if needed.

There is usually enough warning for winter storms to allow the road department to properly prepare, Heiser said.

“We make sure everything, number one, is ready to go and fueled up,” he said. “The last big storm we brought all our V-plows out of the backyard.”


Heiser said they’ve already gone through the amount of supplies they would on an average year.

“And we've got all of our snow season ahead of us yet,” Heiser said. “We can get heavy snow in the spring. Our ditches are full. The banks are high. So what's going to happen is normally we can run through average snowfall in three, maybe four days tops. It may take us a lot longer because now we’ve got a trough. So when the wind blows, it blows in and it can't get across to the other side.”

He said unless there is a big thaw, the amount of snow already on the ground will likely slow down snow removal efforts for the rest of the winter. He hopes residents will be patient and plan ahead. If future storms are forecast, Heiser recommends rural residents with medical conditions or appointments plan to stay in Dickinson.

“Sometimes it's tough for us to get out there,” Heiser said.

Sometimes Stark County Road Department employees sleep at the shop on a cot so they're ready to plow as soon as the weather permits. This was the sleeping arrangement at the Richardton shop during a snow storm in December.
Contributed / Al Heiser

Sometimes employees take equipment home with them and sometimes they have employees sleep at the county shop in Richardton. There are some that have walked into the Dickinson shop since they live nearby. Kuntz said he has a tractor that he uses to clear snow to get from home to the shop in Dickinson.

Heiser said the road department works to open school bus routes first. There are 26 employees that manage 1200 miles of paved and gravel roads in Stark County.

“It's basically maintaining the county to keep the county as safe as we can,” Heiser said. “I spend very little time in my office. I'm on the road a lot, checking things, but I'm not a micromanager.”

He said all of his employees are professionals who are great at what they do. They usually work for the department until they retire. Heiser manages the entire staff, but also helps get work done.

“I usually run a loader with a plow and I plow subdivisions,” Heiser said. “I'll get into a machine to load a load here and there to help out a little bit but I love to plow snow.”

He said some days are a challenge, but it’s worth it.

“When I get up in the morning, I feel good about coming to work,” Heiser said. “I mean, I really love my job. I like the people in Stark County. There's a lot of good people in this county.”

Gary Schaff
Gary Schaff widens roads in Stark County.
Ashley Koffler / The Dickinson Press

Ashley Koffler is a Killdeer, North Dakota native and Dickinson State University graduate, with a Bachelor’s Degree in writing, and minors in journalism and psychology. Formerly working in Community Affairs for Roosevelt Custer Regional Council for Development, her reporting focuses on the Dickinson city government, community features, business and agriculture — among others.
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