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ADA’s Herb Armstrong retires, sort of

Herb Armstrong takes some measurements during the resurfacing of Front Street. The former city engineer and owner of ADA Engineering has retired after a 53-year career.     -  City of Poulsbo
Herb Armstrong takes some measurements during the resurfacing of Front Street. The former city engineer and owner of ADA Engineering has retired after a 53-year career.
— image credit: City of Poulsbo

POULSBO — If you don’t know Herb Armstrong, you can count on this: If you live in Poulsbo, he’s had a lasting effect on your life.

Armstrong or his associates likely determined the boundaries and wrote the legal description of your property. You park on Anderson Parkway and walk the docks in Poulsbo thanks to Armstrong’s engineering. Formerly waterfront buildings along Front Street are on firmer foundations because of Armstrong’s engineering prowess. Home construction, utility installation and street construction for entire neighborhoods were made possible by his engineering and surveying work.

Community life has been enhanced by Armstrong and his wife, Elda, as well: they are active in the Poulsbo Lions Christmas food basket program, donate vegetables from their farm weekly to Fishline Food Bank, help produce a children’s fishing derby annually, and donate the tree for the annual Viking Avenue Christmas tree-lighting ceremony.

Now Armstrong is retired, if you can call it that: oyster farming in Sequim, Christmas-tree farming in Kingston, selling vegetables at a veggie stand on weekends. And, according to the season, duck hunting, elk hunting, fly fishing and hiking.

Whew.

Armstrong — the “A” in ADA Engineering — closed the engineering side of the firm and sold the surveying side to ADA partners Mike Dunphy and Tim Cartwright, who formed DC Surveying. His building, 371 NW Lindvig Way, Poulsbo, is for sale.

Armstrong’s retirement ends a surveying and engineering career dating to 1960; the company’s files hold records of surveys, boundary line adjustments and the like dating to the mid-1950s. The Armstrongs are giving the City of Poulsbo engineering drawings from the past 50 years, and have donated equipment and old maps to the Poulsbo Historical Society.

In 1960, Armstrong, armed with a civil engineering degree from WSU and two years of experience as an Army engineer, joined Roats Engineering.

Poulsbo was definitely a small town then, Armstrong said. In fact, it was a town —the Town of Poulsbo, population 1,100 or 1,200; it wouldn’t become the City of Poulsbo until 1965. Front Street was part of State Highway 21. Businesses on the west side of Front Street were waterfront; Anderson Parkway didn’t exist.

“The side of the buildings facing the bay were on pilings,” Armstrong said. “You could tell when it was an extreme high tide because it flooded their basements.”

In 1962, Mayor Frank Raab hired Armstrong on retainer as town engineer. By 1964, Armstrong joined George Roats as partner in the firm.

As the city expanded, so did the company’s workload and technology. In addition to planimeters, tape measures, theodolites, surveying prisms and other tools of the trade, the company bought a Clary DE-60 computer in 1965 to help with computations. Armstrong said the company was the first engineering and surveying firm in Kitsap County to own a computer.

“We used it to create records and do computations,” said Pete DeGroot, retired partner and the “D” in ADA. “It cost $24,000 and did 100th of what a desktop computer does today.” But it was hot technological stuff at the time, described by the manufacturer as “designed for general purpose, scientific, engineering, commercial, online, and real-time uses.”

According to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., “It was called an electronic computing calculator and was built into a 'beautiful desk.'” A Clary DE-60 was featured in an Oct. 21, 1961 episode of “Perry Mason” — “the Case of the Meddling Medium” — and is on display at the Computer History Museum and at the Smithsonian Institution.

The use of the Clary DE-60 was a harbinger of things to come. ADA Engineering expanded its area of service to Bainbridge, South Jefferson County and Port Townsend. DeGroot, who with Armstrong bought Roats Engineering and renamed it ADA, estimates the company conducted more than 12,000 surveys. At its peak, the company employed 28 or 29 employees. Among the ADA alums: Randy Casteel, Kitsap County public works director; Gunnar Fredriksson, traffic engineer for the City of Bremerton; Robert McGinness, a commissioner for the Port of Waterman; and those partners in DC Surveying: Dunphy, a surveyor since 1975; and Cartwright, who joined ADA 15 years ago.

County Engineer Jon Brand said he’s known numerous former ADA employees that worked for the county.

“If you come down to the county, we’ve probably got half a dozen or more who came up through ADA,” Brand said. “I think any of our employees who come up through private business bring a real valuable work ethic into the county work force. They know the value of working efficiently and being a producer. Even though I never worked for Herb, I’m sure that’s how he was.”

Casteel, the county public works director, worked for ADA when it was Roats Engineering, from 1975 to 1984. “Herb worked on a lot of municipal projects — sewer, roads, water. He was the engineer for a number of water districts, as well as the City of Poulsbo and City of Winslow.

“It was a great place to work and I couldn’t ask for a better person to work for than Herb. I was freshly out of college and he mentored me.”

Casteel helped engineer the Anderson Parkway project and the connection of the city and county wastewater lines in Lemolo. He left ADA to join the county as a utility engineer; he became public works director six years later.

Armstrong remembers some of the more challenging projects.

No. 1. The construction of Anderson Parkway in 1975-76, created from materials dredged from the bay. From the dredge area emerged a marina for transient moorage and what is now Muriel Iverson Williams Waterfront Park. Armstrong, Councilman Clyde Caldart, and an architect lobbied in Olympia for $1 million in gas tax money for construction of the transient moorage and park.

“It took four tries before we finally got it,” Armstrong said.

No. 2. The reconstruction of Front Street — from Martha & Mary to Fjord Drive — and installation of new utilities in 1989. Digging up the road in the center of town, Armstrong found old Model T bodies and the remnants of a service station.

The job was completed in 2.5 months over winter. For the sake of downtown’s economy, the job had to be done in a way that people could still access businesses on Front Street. “We had to prove you could still go to lunch in Poulsbo” during the project, he said.

No. 3. In 1999, ADA Engineering oversaw the resurfacing of streets and installation of new sidewalks in downtown Port Townsend, and finished the job in time for the filming of the Ethan Hawke/Max von Sydow movie, “Snow Falling on Cedars.”

No. 4. In 2011, ADA engineered the repair of the Fjord Drive slide area. The project required the construction of retaining walls using soil nails.  Other major projects include engineering a 27-mile waterline from the Olympic Mountains to Port Townsend; and the engineering for a powerhouse and four generators for Rocky Brook Electric, which was built with private funds and sold electricity to Seattle City Light.

Armstrong said “working with all the great people” is his best memory of the ADA years, particularly the 10 mayors he served as engineer.

“They were concerned about their community. They wanted it to be a great place,” he said.

Armstrong said Frank Raab was “the nicest mayor we ever had. He let everybody say their piece at council meetings,” with the result that “his council meetings went forever.”

Armstrong appreciated Mayor Clyde Caldart’s intellect. “He could write a letter that would send government officials scurrying for their dictionaries,” he said. “Clyde had a way with words.” Incidentally, Caldart’s wife, Cora, was the first employee of the old Roats Engineering firm in 1957.

Some of the council members he remembers as “outstanding”: George Knudsen, Bob Burns, Joe Engman the “Oyster Man,” Pete Peterson, and Connie Lord. “She looks into a project, does her research, and knows what’s going on,” he said.

Armstrong grew up in Bly, Ore., graduated from high school in Pomeroy in Garfield County, and spent time with his grandparents in Miller Bay, where his great-grandparents settled in 1916. He and Elda met at WSU, where she earned a degree in home economics with five minors. She was ADA’s office manager from 1986 till the business closed.

Their three children are accomplished in their careers and as athletes; each has run the Boston Marathon at least twice. Son Mike is an emergency room doctor at Harrison Medical Center. Daughter Ann is a physical therapist who was once rated 14th of America’s women runners. Son Greg is a civil engineer for the state Transportation Improvement Board.

While he’s looking forward to retirement, Armstrong said he’s going to miss ADA. “I’ve enjoyed so much working for the city and with everybody in North Kitsap,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to give it up.”

 

 

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