Bridging Generations

For 71 years, this family business has helped shape the Vermont countryside

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

blow_cote0518Standing on his 160-plus ton Kobelco crawler crane is Marc Cote, president of Blow & Cote Inc., a Morrisville contractor with a specialty in covered bridges.

On the morning of March 11, 1992, downtown Montpelier found itself under water, the result of a four-day warm spell complicated by the melting of 10 inches of snow in the city, runoff from snow in the higher elevations, and an ice jam on the Winooski River released by an early daytime high temperature of 51 degrees. Marc Cote, the president of Blow & Cote Inc. in Morrisville, recalls that day well.

By 9 a.m., Governor Howard Dean had declared a state of emergency and evacuations were proceeding. Cote and his workers were on the Bailey Avenue bridge using a crane to break up the ice and dislodge the jam, which had formed just below the bridge. Around 3 p.m., the ice broke loose and began flowing, jammed again, was again knocked loose, releasing mammoth chunks of ice.

“I was standing on the Bailey Avenue bridge when the ice started coming,” Cote says. “The ice was the height of the sidewalk to the bridge. It would hit the bridge, flip vertical, go under the bridge, and flip back. And the bridge was vibrating up and down. The noise of the ice is like sandpaper against sandpaper and rubs back and forth — the most incredible sound I ever heard in my life.”

On that March afternoon, Cote was watching as the ice reached the railroad bridge just upstream, when the force of the flood caused it to snap, plunging one section off its pier into the river. The state hired his company to put it back on its pier.

Blow & Cote works often on new and existing state and municipal bridge projects and is particularly known for its work on covered bridges. “We’ve done, like, 15 covered bridges,” Cote says. “We’ve built two from scratch. One of them was burnt — the one in Irasburg from a Cabbage Night fire, and the other was the Power House covered bridge in Johnson that collapsed into the river from the weight of snow. We were fortunate enough to be the ones that reconstructed those. And the rest are all rehabilitations.”

“Marc and his company are very skilled and resourceful, with Yankee ingenuity,” says Tom McArdle, Montpelier’s public works director. “He has a wealth of knowledge, particularly on bridges, and we’ve been using him for years as a contractor willing to do some of these smaller, necessary, but not big money projects that don’t entice some of the other contractors.”

For example, McArdle says, “We just rehabilitated the Granite Street bridge, a 205-foot-long Baltimore through truss bridge with a wood deck — a 1902 bridge that survived the 1992 flood. Somewhere here in the office is an award the city got for the historic preservation work Blow & Cote did on that.”

Blow & Cote has done a lot of work for both the state and the City of Montpelier in the years since 1947 when Cote’s father, Denis, launched the company to build roads in partnership with his friend Roland Blow. They worked together until 1971, when Denis bought Blow’s share of the company, but kept the name, which they had incorporated in 1957 when the company integrated bridge construction.

Cote worked for his father through high school and joined the Army in 1967, where he served for three years in an engineering battalion building roads for the military. “There were 500 of us with orders to go to Vietnam,” he recalls, “and our orders got changed when we got on the plane at Seattle, Washington. The whole plane went to Thailand.”

He came home in 1970 and entered Vermont Technical College, where he earned an associate’s degree in civil engineering. The August after graduation in 1973, he married Diane Keith, whom he had known since he was in high school.

Cote had joined his father in the business and began to put his own mark on the company. For example, when the shop was built in 1973, he talked his father into putting radiant heat in the floor, which they did using black iron pipes.

The office was being built in 1989 when a fire struck the shop, he says, “so for a time everything was managed out of the office.” That same year, Denis was killed in a car-truck accident, and Cote has run the company since then.

The office is in a separate building next to the shop on Vermont 15 East in Morrisville. “The yard our office is on is on five acres, but a lot of it is not very usable,” says Cote, “because it goes down to the river.” On a level below the shop but still above the river is an equipment yard.

Other equipment, including an enormous 110-ton crawler crane, is stored in a sand pit on the farm across the street. “We barter the farmer for the use of the land,” he says. A short truck ride away is what Cote has named Coop Storage after the group of large commercial chicken coops on the site. Looming over the site is a 160-ton Kobelco crawler crane with a 200-foot boom.

It’s clear that Cote loves working with all this equipment. It’s impossible to turn around in his office building without encountering a model, toy, or rendering of some kind of heavy equipment. Among the largest — set off by a glass partition across the entire 12-foot width of his office and reaching in about 4 feet — are two immense models: a 1:50 scale model of a Bucyrus-Erie 8750 electric walking dragline and a 1:97 scale model of the “Big Muskie,” a Bucyrus-Erie dragline coal-mining bucket that was the largest earthmoving machine ever made. Tip-to-tip, longer than 1.5 football fields, it stood nearly 22 stories high with a 330-foot boom, weighed 13,500 metric tons (27 million pounds), and had a bucket that held 220 cubic yards (the size of a 12-car garage). “It was the only one of its kind,” Cote says. “It walked like a duck.” The bucket, all that remains of the original, is at an Ohio tourist site.

Blow & Cote considers itself a general contracting company offering multiple services that include steel and concrete bridge construction; excavation for bridges, roads, and culverts; crane service; material and equipment hauling; pile driving; and rehabilitation and construction of covered bridges. Just about anything that can be done with big machinery is available, including liquid manure hauling and dredging manure pits for farmers. All its equipment-rental costs include an operator. The company has between 10 and 20 employees, depending on the workload, Cote says.

Most of the company’s projects are done for the state Agency of Transportation, and municipalities and private clients in Vermont.

One of the private clients is DuBois & King, whose president, Jeff Tucker, praises his work and importance to the area. “Marc is so talented,” Tucker says, “and the work that Blow & Cote does here in Vermont is really topnotch.”

Tucker recalls a recent project his company was doing in early 2017. “We were reconstructing this historic granite block wall on the Winooski River in Montpelier right next to this major development we’re getting ready to do this year. We were having a tough time getting down to bedrock, and it was Marc who got called in. As a contractor, he was able to devise a way to support and isolate the soil from the river and get down to bedrock while keeping the flow in the river separate and keeping the people safe. “I’ve learned a lot from Marc over the years,”

Things slow down between Thanksgiving and the middle of April or first of May. “Right now we’re waiting for mud season to get done,” says Cote. “I’ll get in here a quarter to 7 in the morning and leave here at 5:30 or quarter to 6 at night. I order stuff for the jobs, get stuff delivered to the jobs — equipment, all the things you need to keep two to three jobs going.

“We do contract work — municipal work. Usually municipal work might be just the hourly usage of a piece of equipment, but some of the municipalities have projects we bid on as well. Every town has a culvert that has to be replaced, and all of those are getting replaced with concrete box culverts, because they want the natural bottoms with ‘resting pools’ for the fish.”

He and Diane live in Elmore where he relaxes by working on his mini-farm. “For my quiet time,” he says; “I mow hay, rake hay, and ted hay, and put hay in the barn. I feed horses; sell hay, beef cows. And I like to cut wood with a chainsaw. That’s my relaxation, to get out of the office and go outside and do physical labor. Diane, a housewife, helps him in the field.”

Their only son, Nathan, has joined the business and is expected to carry on the family tradition, although two of Nathan’s three sisters are married to “construction guys,” says Cote. “One does a multitude of things including building houses, and the other is a timber-frame builder. Our other daughter’s husband is full-time National Guard.”

The idea of family business is important to Cote. He suspects people would be surprised to know how many old family businesses like his there are. “They’ve heard our name forever, but don’t put two and two together,” he says, and mentions two other area contractors with old lines of succession.

Back in the office after a tour, he pulls out a scrapbook with newspaper clips on the 1992 flood that his mother had put together. “My mother was good at this,” he says. •