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How Woodstock Forester Became an Inventor

Gerry Hawkes, of Woodstock, with a device he created to remove trail hazards such as rocks. Hawkes applied for a patent on the invention in 2010, and has been awarded several patents for past inventions, including a bike rack and a flooring system. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Gerry Hawkes, of Woodstock, with a device he created to remove trail hazards such as rocks. Hawkes applied for a patent on the invention in 2010, and has been awarded several patents for past inventions, including a bike rack and a flooring system. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

North Bridgewater — Life for Gerry Hawkes hasn’t turned out quite the way he expected.

Not that he’s complaining. The 63-year-old Vermont native who started out to be a forestry consultant in Woodstock has traveled to faraway places as a consultant for international organizations and seen the modular path system he created put to use each year around the national Christmas tree in Washington, D.C. He has designed bike racks that remain in use literally from coast to coast and is working now to launch a system of wheeled hand tools that he created in response to the devastation he witnessed following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Over time, Hawkes believes his Wheeled Hand Tool System (WHaTS) may improve the lives of people in developing countries in ways that even he has yet to figure out.

Ask Hawkes how he got to where he is today, and he’ll take you back to the early days of the environmental movement and a personal commitment to curb the harmful effects of air pollution. It’s a long and winding road, which Hawkes recently shared with the Valley News. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

Valley News: What was your original plan after you graduated from the University of Maine with a degree in forestry?

Gerry Hawkes: My plan was to come back and help local forest owners manage their working woodlands more sustainably. But during my college days I had a chance to travel across Canada and saw the terrible effects of air pollution and I became extremely concerned about the effect of air pollution on forests. In 1969, I went through Sudbury, Ontario, and that was right near the nickel smelters. As we approached, I could see the trees getting smaller and smaller and more stunted until there weren’t any trees at all or even any vegetation. I never had a clue that air pollution could cause so much damage.

I had planned to go on to graduate school in forest pathology and study air pollution, but the draft for the Vietnam war was going on and I wanted to avoid the draft. So I decided I would join the Peace Corps and go to Southeast Asia.

So I signed up and watched a recruiting film where they showed somebody in the Sahara desert, chickens scooting out of the way. I nudged the guy next to me and said, ‘Glad I’m not going there.’ Guess where I went? I went to Niger, West Africa. Amazing. I ended up doing quite well in the tribal language. I got to the point where I was wearing a turban and sword and living with the nomads. I was in Africa from 1971 to 1973.

When I came back, I started a consulting forestry practice. I was actually dragging and burning brush and cutting firewood just to get clients instantly.

Very few people hire forestry consultants, (but) at that time there were a few absentee landowners who needed help managing their land.

But really I eked out a living by cutting and selling firewood, doing some house lot clearing. I basically had a chain saw and a pickup truck.

Meanwhile, I was really concerned about the way logging was being done, the amount of damage caused to the land.

So I devised aerial cable logging systems. I got free used cable and set up a gravity cable system on my own land and had big bundles of wood and logs sailing down the hill at 60 miles per hour and then trying to stop them at the lower end. It was all quite exciting but not very profitable.

In about 1978 or so I got a call out of the blue from USAID, the United States Agency for International Development. They really wanted me to do a consulting job in West Africa. They handle virtually all U.S. development projects around the world.

I said, ‘I’m not qualified,’ but I kind of needed the work, so finally I agreed to go over to Burkina Faso and help them do a management plan for a forest that was associated with a forestry and natural resources school that USAID was funding. I went over and found that, indeed, I was not qualified. But because I knew I wasn’t qualified I talked to the local people and got their input. I then put on a clean shirt and would present that in a nice format to government officials and they couldn’t believe how well I did. I found out I had a practical ability to work with the people and find out what the real needs and solutions were and then write it up well and make good presentations.

Then I got all kinds of offers for international consulting.

VN: Were these subsequent jobs coming to you through USAID?

GH: Quite a few did. But I also did one consulting job for the World Bank and also one for the United Nations.

I got offered full-time positions with the U.N., one based in Rome, one based in Bhutan for five years, and one in Vietnam. Pay was 15 times what I was making here, but I felt that many of their projects were not well designed and the bureaucracy was stifling. I believe in the U.N.’s mission, but the organization is not correct to accomplish it. So I declined that, although it was awfully tempting. (Laughs.)

I did just enough of it to make life interesting and the income stimulation was great while I was building up my local consulting forestry practice.

But I was still concerned with logging damage, and I ended up getting a DOE grant to develop these aerial cable systems further during the energy crisis. Oh man, that was a nightmare! I don’t ever want to see a grant again. (Laughs.). You had all these bureaucrats involved who didn’t know what was going on, so it did not turn out well. I should never have touched it.

By the late 1980s, I was so alarmed about air pollution, I gave away all of the consulting clients I had built up over 20 years. I started for a couple of years, building ponds and woodland roads, bridges and things like that to earn money and I saved up enough money so I could develop some idea that would help reduce air pollution. My thought was that short distance transportation causes a lot of pollution, so if I could get people to walk or bike more for short distances that would help. So I thought if I could start excavating and making bicycle paths and sidewalks that would be a help.

But I didn’t want to put more pavement down, so I got thinking if I could figure out a way to put a modular surface down to make instant high-quality pedestrian paths, that would be good. I spent more money than I like to think about coming up with wrong ideas to do that.

But I did finally come up with a modular path system that really did work. The only major path system I’ve got in is at the White House, in President’s Park. It goes around the national Christmas tree and winds up the back of the White House and the Jefferson Memorial. That’s been installed since 2003. It’s put down every year around November and taken up sometime in February.

VN: How does someone from Woodstock wind up getting that piece of business?

GH: A woman from Hanover came on and worked for me for several years, helping out with marketing. One of the things she did, she went to a National parks and recreation show in Washington, D.C. She talked to some people from President’s Park who said they had this old plywood path system they used and they’d be interested in our system. It resulted in a sale.

After that, I brought in a management team and they started doing really good marketing and sales. They had to go for the market that was ready to go and that wound up being tent floors for the military.

I also had a whole series of bicycle rack systems that I did. I did the Amtrak Vermonter trains with their bike parking, bike, ski and snowboard systems.

Right now I still have bike rack systems running on the Pacific Surfliner train in California and the Downeaster trains going up to Maine. I was trying to do a lot of different things to encourage more walking and biking.

One of the reasons I got into the bike racks is that when I went to venture capitalists to try to get money to do the path systems they said, ‘You’re just a forester. You don’t know anything about bicycling. We’re not going to put money into some bicycle path scheme.’ So I (decided to) weld up some bicycle racks in my shop.

I came up with nine different ideas of racks that were space saving and seven of the nine turned out to be of no value at all. Two of them turned out to be pretty good ideas. Those started to take off and we were making reasonable sales of those, but they didn’t have the same (commercial) potential as the rapid deployment tent floors. So we shut that down and (I) gave the business to Rutland Industries, because they employed several people with mental and physical disabilities who depended on this work. So I gave them the business and now they’ve changed their name to Vermont Manufacturing Services, but (the bike racks) are still their main product.

VN: What got you started designing a series of wheeled hand tools?

GH: Once I got doing the international consulting, even though I was going as a forester, I would always find a need for better tools. People didn’t have the proper tools. So I ended up doing some appropriate technology consulting, too. In fact, the U.N. assignment I had in the Philippines was an equipment and tools assignment to assess all the equipment and tools used by the Philippines Department of Forestry. I knew what an awful situation most people had in not being able to get good tools.

I never intended to do anything like the Wheeled Hand Tool Systems, but my father at the time of the Haitian earthquake was dying of cancer and I needed to be with him by his bedside.

He was sleeping a lot of the time. I saw the earthquake and I knew I could design leverage tools that would help people dig out better. People were trying to dig out with their bare hands.

So I started designing things on my laptop. When my dad was feeling up to it I could show him what I was working on and it was good for him, too.

I got working on it and it seemed to be coming together. I had a leverage tool and it was awfully rugged and high quality, but it was too expensive. So I decided I had to be able to do multiple things with it to make it cost effective. So I added a post puller to it.

VN: I have to tell you, I’m in love with the post puller.

GH: Well, then you’ve got to try the people mover! They were throwing terribly injured people into wheelbarrows. I said, ‘All I have to do is put a chaise lounge on this frame I’ve got.’ Is this harebrained or what?

But I ordered a chaise lounge and put it on there and it fit perfectly. It is so secure, you cannot tip anybody off of that. It’s comfortable. It balances well. I said, ‘This is not so harebrained after all.’ So I added that to it and about a dozen more things on the drawing board.

VN: Have you made any sales yet?

GH: I have shipped one frame unit and four different attachments to Sierre Leone to a Christian mission. They got two chaise lounges to use as hand ambulances because they run a mission hospital.

That was their main goal, but we put in a couple pry bars so they can try it out in the field pulling up rocks, and a post and shrub puller for clearing fields, and the firewood hauler. I am waiting to see what their experiences are. It may or may not work. You can’t tell for sure until you actually work with people.

Editor’s Note: Gerry Hawkes’ wheeled hand tools can be seen at http://www.wheeledhandtoolsystems.com. Diane Taylor can be reached at 603-727-3221 or dtaylor@vnews.com.