Mike Cassella started his small yellow Caterpillar tractor and rolled toward a massive pile of split wood off Lansing Road South in Colonie.
It was just after 10 a.m. on Wednesday. A red Ford truck with a deep bed was parked next to the mountain of maple, black walnut, red oak, ash and locust. Cassella plowed into the pile and took a mechanical bite — filling the tractor shovel with a mouthful of firewood.
He drove the tractor over deep black soil scattered with wood chips and sawdust and reached the side of the dump truck. He lifted the container over the bed and dropped the load. Pieces landed on the metal floor of the truck in a staccato burst of clunks.
Firewood season is here, and Cassella has received burn notices from customers who need stock for fireplaces and wood stoves. He kept filling the dump truck with wood — a client on Parkwood Boulevard in Schenectady was expecting two full cords. That meant 12 tractor trips to the woodpile.
The 52-year-old Cassella, dressed in a gray hooded sweatshirt, navy blue work shirt and pants, boots and gloves, worked quickly. After the 10th load had been transferred, he pulled the tractor to the side of the truck and picked up about 30 pieces that had fallen over the side. He tossed them into the lowered shovel and jumped back into the cab, taking another bite out of his collection.
The 11th load landed in the truck. Kirk Hulbert, who works with Cassella in the firewood operation, stood in the bed of the truck and smoothed out the merchandise for even distribution. The 12th load arrived at 10:20.
“That’s it, it’s full,” Cassella said. “How’s it look, Kirk?”
“Pretty good,” answered Hulbert from atop the filled truck.
The Parkwood job would be a double-header. Dave Nowak, a former councilman and purchasing agent for the city of Schenectady, would receive the larger delivery. Nowak’s neighbor, Ron Ferro, was on schedule for a single face cord of wood. That meant two scoops from the tractor into a small black Chevrolet truck.
By 10:30, Cassella was ready for his route. So was Reese Cup — an 8-year-old tan and black beagle who rides in the truck when wood is ready to roll. “She comes with me on every delivery,” Cassella said. “She keeps me company.”
Taking and bringing
Cassella split his first logs as a 12-year-old in 1972 and has been working professionally in tree removal and firewood delivery since 1982. “People pay me to take it away and they pay me to bring it back,” he said.
Last winter was mild, so many trees weathered the season without significant damage.
“I equate the tree business with the funeral business,” Cassella said. “Eventually, they’re all going to go. If we don’t get them this year, we’ll get them next year.”
He charges $275 for each full cord, sometimes more if he must drive the wood a long distance. He said his wood is always seasoned — about half of the 125 cords in the Lansing Road yard are still seasoning and will be delivered next year.
Cassella also said he has developed a reputation for delivering full cords, never any short counts. “If anything, it’s probably over,” he said. “Which is fine.”
At 10:32, Cassella pulled the red diesel truck out of the yard and headed toward Central Avenue, with Hulbert driving the smaller truck. He called Ferro, a friend, on his cellphone and told him the firewood convoy had started. Cassella also asked Ferro to give Nowak the information.
“Tell him I’m on my way,” Cassella said. “I told him I’d be there before noon.”
Cassella made a left turn onto Central Avenue and began the 4.5-mile trip to Schenectady. The truck chugged along, a noticeable roar from the engine, and carried the 4,000 pounds of firewood without a problem.
Cassella’s season is winding down. Snow will soon cover his wood piles and cold temperatures will freeze pieces together. “Sometimes, I’ve covered the wood with a tarp,” he said. “But it’s so much extra work, it’s not worth it.”
Reese Cup sat quietly on the floor of the cab. Cassella petted his partner’s head.
“How are you doing, Reesey?” he asked. “Somebody’s in your seat, I know,” he said.
Ready to deliver
The truck turned right onto Balltown Road. Traffic was light, and Cassella quickly made Union Street. He made a left turn and proceeded toward Parkwood. He was in front of the Nowak and Ferro residences at 10:45, and parked in a space between medians in the center of the boulevard.
Ferro was outside first. Cassella then met Nowak, in the backyard of his home. The plan was simple — Cassella would back his truck down Center Alley, which runs in back of Parkwood, and maneuver up into Nowak’s backyard. First, Nowak would move his large mobile home from the space.
There was a slight problem. A Niagara Mohawk Power Corp. crew was working in the alley.
“We’ll be done in about five minutes,” said one of the linemen.
“We’ll deliver Ron’s wood first,” Cassella said, at 10:53.
He backed the black truck over the Parkwood curb and rolled slowly over grass in between the Nowak and Ferro homes.
“Come on, come on,” said Ferro, standing behind the truck and giving Cassella directions. “Perfect.”
Cassella rolled back a little farther, and hit controls that tilted the truck bed up. With the tailgate propped open, the maple and ash tumbled onto grass near Ferro’s side door at the rear of the house. Stacking would be quick and easy.
At 10:56, Hulbert drove the black truck down Parkwood and returned to Cassella’s headquarters.
By then, the Niagara Mohawk guys had finished. Cassella got into his Ford and drove down Parkwood, made a left onto Rugby Road and went halfway down the block. Center Alley was on the left and Cassella backed into the opening, proceeding slowly.
By 11 a.m., Cassella was at the Nowak property. He maneuvered in reverse gear and managed to get the truck well into the backyard.
“Back it right back to the tree,” Nowak said, reminding Cassella of the large tree just in back of the house.
Ferro helped out again. “Back it up, bud,” he said, as Cassella inched closer to the tree. “That’s good.”
The hydraulic rig in the back of the truck cab lifted the bed and tilted it into a favorable angle. With the rear of the bed propped open, the wood rushed out. Cassella pulled ahead slightly, giving other pieces space to land on the ground.
Cassella accepted a check from Nowak. His work was over at 11:05. Nowak still had a job ahead of him.
“This heats you up two ways,” he said, looking over the combustibles that had covered much of his yard. “Stacking it and burning it.”
“On the Clock” profiles people at work in the Capital Region by spending one hour with them on the job. Nominate a friend or co-worker by contacting Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.