Kevin Wiggins Cover Sheet:
Interviewee:Kevin A. Wiggins
File #:#2, cycle 3
Place of interview:41 Chatfield Drive, Lakeville, Ct.
Date:Oct. 15, 2017
Summary of talk:Family background, Summer Youth Program 1981-1984 on Appalachian Trail, and independent business man.
Kevin A. Wiggins Interview:
This is file #2, cycle 3. Today’s date is October 15, 2017. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Kevin Wiggins. He is going to talk about the Summer Youth Program, Norm Sills, and his business as an independent businessman. But first we’ll start with the genealogical information.
JM: What is your name?
KW: My name is Kevin Altonio Wiggins.
JM: When were you born?
KW: I was born October 14, 1966.
JM: Happy Birthday, belated. Where were you born?
KW: I was born in Hartford, Ct. in St. Francis Hospital.
JM: Your parents’ names?
KW: My mother’s name was Barbara Jean Huntley Wiggins. My father’s name is James Altonio Wiggins, Sr.
JM: Do you have siblings?
KW: I do. I have 9 living siblings.
JM: The ones that I know here are?
KW: Cory Ernest Wiggins, and Kip Mendez Wiggins.
JM: But you have half brothers and sisters.
KW: Yes, I do.
JM: How did you come to this area if you were born in Hartford?
KW: My grandmother lived up here with her second husband.
JM: Her name was?
KW: Her name was Ruth Garnes.
JM: Was her husband Ernest Garnes?
KW: Yes, Ernest Garnes was her husband. He had a garbage business. He was getting older and thinking about retiring. He offered it to my father. My father didn’t want it. But he passed away. So my grandmother had the business and the house and needed help. My mother said yes and my father had not choice! The business was given to Ricky Ralph who was the only employee he had.
JM: He did the Salisbury route?
KW: Yeah, so that is how we got up here.
JM: Your father’s business was car detailing.
KW: Up here, in Hartford he worked in the cleaners.
JM: Were you in the summer Youth Program?
KW: I was.
JM: What age were you when you went in?
KW: 13 in 1981, I was there for four years 1981-1984,
JM: Where did you work?
KW: I worked on the Appalachian Trail.
JM: Who was the supervisor of the whole business that had the Moses stick?
KW: The top guy was Norm Sills. (See file # 35, Norm Sills, also File # 67 cycle 2 John Hicks)
JM: Tell me a little bit about Norm. What did he look like to a 13 year old?
KW: To a 13 year old, his Moses stick was probably a foot taller than he was. If his stick was 6 feet tall and he was 5 foot tall. He just seemed as if he shouldn’t be out in the woods. He looked frail.
JM: He had a lot of knowledge, didn’t he?
KW: He was an extremely smart man.
JM: What was the section that you worked on?
KW: For four years we covered from Macedonia State Park in Kent, Ct. to Mt. Washington, Mass.
JM: That is about 30-40 miles.
KW: It took 4 years to maintain things.
JM: How did you maintain it? What did you do?
KW: The first priority was erosion prevention, to make sure that the rain wouldn’t wash away the trail. We had to do whatever it took to maintain the trail to keep the water going where it needed to go. We did it by using trees, stones, a crazy little step, but it diverted the water to keep the trail from being eroded.
JM: Did you do any branch cutting?
KW: That was second as a priority. First priority was keeping water off the trail; the second priority was to cut the overgrown limbs and branches and whatever else might interfere with a great hike.
JM: I think John Hicks said that it had to be 4 feet wide by 8 feet high.
KW: That was it. There were no power tools used. That was against the rules. Everything had to be done with hand tools.
JM: That takes a lot of effort. Was it a good learning experience?
KW: It was a great leaning experience. The reason is going back to Norm’s physical characteristics, you have a guy who is feeble and he did not look like he should be anywhere in the woods yet he is telling us how to do things we thought were impossible. You have a 130 pound kid paired up with a 120 pound kid and a 150 pound kid and he is asking us to move 250 to300 pound stones. He taught us what he saw as needed to be done. He did not do it: he just told us how to do it. We did it and it worked! It carried through the rest of your adult life. You can always go back and think, “What would Norm do? You helped us make that connection while we were in school. When you are in school, you do not know how to apply it. Norm was one of those guys that I call an “impact person”. He taught us how to apply whether it was mathematics or whatever, there were so many things. He just helped us apply that to the situation at hand and it worked!
JM: It is always surprising when it works. Norm said that often times he would have to move a trail. When he would design a new trail through different property, would you have to go in and work that new section too?
KW: We would. He would negotiate that with the land owner and he would mark out the new trail on his own. Once we got there he would show us the markings and we would start with the clearing of the trail 4 x 8 which is clearing, cutting the brush. Then the second step was to go back and that is where the hard part came in: how do we maintain it. Where do we need to put in these water bars: that was just the way to divert the water to find where it needed to go. That was basically it. Norm did all that preliminary work on his own. He knew what he was talking about because once we go there, we were efficient, he told us what needed to be done and we did it.
JM: Did you put anything on the trail like wood chips or pine needles or was it just dirt?
KW: Mostly dirt
JM: How many would be in your crew?
KW: Each crew of about 18 boys was broken down into groups of three to four. It was generally 4 or 5 groups on average.
JM: That is a lot of kids.
KW: That is a lot of kids.
JM: Who supervised it if Norm was top of the heap? Who supervised the actual hands-on work?
KW: Dave Lindsey. He was a teacher at HVRHS. He was a science teacher there.
JM: The Director at that time of the summer Youth Program was Dave Bayersdorfer? (1982-1999)
KW: I think so. (See file #63 David Bayersdorfer)
JM: Who were some of the kids that you worked with?
KW: They were all local kids.
JM: Naturally, and I probably had them all.
KW: Ken Percy, Chris Johnson, Silas Warner, Tom Orel; It is hard to remember as I worked with so many over the 4 years. Tom Orel became boss. He was one of the senior workers as he had been there 4 or 5 years. He was 2 or 3 years older than me. For 2 years Tom Orel was the peer boss. He was the oldest and had the most experience. There was one teacher from Berkshire School named Mark. I was probably 14 then. He was another science teacher. He came down to help along with Dave Lindsey. There were at least 2 people on the trail if Norm was not there.
JM: Adults as well as kids. When did you go to work and when did you stop? What were your hours?
KW: We worked from 7:30 until 4:00, 5 days a week.
JM: Wow! That would keep you out of mischief. You would be tired when you go home.
KW: It was good.
JM: Do you remember anything specific about learning about hand tools that you have transferred into what you are doing now?
KW: I became a carpenter. I had a direct correlation from the trail to being outside, working with my hands. It proved to me that you can do it. It could happen; you don’t need machinery. It took 10 years in the past but I realized that when I got a chance to work with local carpenters that was the thing I liked. I could use my math using geometry in construction.
JM: Your science would be physics, leverage and fulcrums.
KW: I could take my math and my science and I love music. I was in shape. It seemed to make sense.
JM: You said you boys had a special write-up in the Appalachian Mountain club newsletter. Tell me about that, please.
KW: The first year we were getting it together. My first year I was 13 years old. There were a couple of guys who had been involved with the program before. That was probably 1981. It was tough. We had a couple of really tough sections. There had been some really bad storms with a lot of rain. Sugar Hill in the Falls Village area was a very tough section. We spent all summer working there. That was the beginning of our write-ups. That place got basically washed out. It was very steep, and kind of scary. We came in and took all the scary away. That following summer in 1982 we were going up through that way. That was the first time I started getting noticed. That was a treacherous area. Al lot of people would bypass that and drive to Lakeville. That was an area between Housatonic High School and Salisbury Boys School that nobody wanted to hike. Nobody was there to maintain it. It was a hard work section. It was a really tough area. There were a lot of places where one could get hurt. That was the beginning of us getting on the map as far as the ATC was concerned. We opened up that area to people could walk all the way up and through.
JM: Were your write-ups because of the people who hiked the trail and were impressed or because of work done by the crew?
KW: It was both. If it wasn’t for Norm who cared with a passion, if he didn’t care, then we would not have cared. It started with his passion and then us following through. We didn’t know who was reporting what. Everybody who came through could report in. It took people coming through to say wow we found this area passable.
JM: For 4 years you got write-ups for the best section.
KW: Every year after that.
JM: That is wonderful. It made you feel very proud of what you had done. Is there anything else you would like to add to this section before we move on?
KW: I would. The one thing I would like to add. We had a lot of guys that we knew they could do it. There were a lot of guys that probably should not have been there. Plus there were girls mixed in with this whole group. The best thing was to see this crazy group of kids put together and work it out. Off the mountain a lot of us weren’t friends because there was such an age range from 13 to18. There was a lot of competition; there was a lot of everything. They just threw it all into the pot; anything you can imagine. We got to do a lot of unusual groupings put together and we persevered.
JM: What a wonderful lesson.
KW: Eventually the whole group persevered because we realized that we needed everybody; we all needed each other. A lot of it was doing the work and forgetting about the danger. First you go in there and you think “I am the strongest kid; I am going to do this, and look what I did.” Then you realize that none of it would have happened without the others. We learned to work together as a team. That was the best thing. We became one big caring team. In the beginning it was just a mess. We got some of the bad kids. Some of these kids were at risk. It was half and half. Some were all headed to prep schools and some kids were not.
JM: From the names you had given me and having had most of them in my classes I can see where there would be quite a difference.
KW: We are all friends to this day. We all have each other’s backs. It would never have happened if not for the groupings on the trail and having to work together.
JM: That is an aspect I had not thought of. What a wonderful outcome.
KW: There would have been a line drawn in the sand right from the beginning otherwise.
JM: You said that you became a carpenter because of the skills that you learned on the Appalachian Trail. How did you get your experience? Did you go to Oliver Wolcott?
KW: I did not. I went to the School of Hard Knocks.
JM: That is a good place to learn.
KW: In the summers during college I started working for Dennis Rooney, a craftsman out of Amenia. He had a wood working shop. I started off when I was 18. I did 2 years with him as a shop apprentice. I wasn’t doing any carpentry; I was sweeping floors, stacking wood, sharpening tools and holding boards, holding this and holding that. I was getting yelled at for holding the wrong way. I loved it. When I got my first construction job after the wood shop, I knew how to use every tool. I could cut anything, I could prep anything, I knew the wood, but I did not know how to do anything else besides that. I needed the next step. I was able to make crown molding, but I did not know how to install it. When I was in the shop, if he needed some crown molding, I would get my order “I need 10 pieces of crown.” I would produce it. I would go to the pile of wood, some of it was crooked. I would straighten it, join it, plane it and rip it and fill the order. Back then most of the moldings were done on a table saw with custom made knives. If you needed to make custom, you could cut the contours. As I said, it was math and physics; I was able to apply what I learned in the classroom. I was useful no matter what job I was on.
For a little example: I was a member of one guy’s crew. The head guy to all of us would get his calculator out if something was complicated. Eventually one day the battery died. Then he went to the second calculator and the battery died. He had a third calculator and he went to use that and the battery died. He did not know what to do. A couple of minutes go by and he is starting to freak out because he can’t do the math longhand. Here comes Kevin on a sheet of plywood and I figured out the rafter for him. From that day on they started calling me “the Math Whiz”. I felt useful. I was still in the bottom row of the crew. A lot of the older guys were looking at me and it was like “This kid knows something.” I was most valuable than they first thought. I understood a lot of things because of science and math. Eventually I got a place to use it.
JM: You had said that in 10 years you went through several different contractors.
KW: In a ten year period I went through almost a dozen contractors. I would learn a different skill with each one. All I wanted to do was extend my resume. That was my goal. How do I learn as much as I can the quickest way? I worked with as many guys as I could.
JM: When you went from one to another, did you have a recommendation or did you just move?
KW: I would put in my 2 weeks’ notice and I would leave. I would always have a job. The advice I got a long time ago was the best time to look for another job is when you have one. No stress, there is no worries that you are not going to make it, how am I going to live? For example I would get on a job: there might be 4 guys, 2 in their 40’s and 2 in their 20’s. They had families and had been there for 10 to 15 years. What can a 20 year old do to take their job? So you learn as much as you can. Sometimes you would stay a little bit longer because you enjoyed their company, but eventually you realized that you had reached the ceiling: time to find the next job. Whatever I had been doing for that time, and then I go to the next guy. Here is a list of what I can do.
JM: When did you decide that you wanted to work by yourself or did it just come naturally?
KW: I decided that I wanted to work for myself after 25 years of being in business. I worked for some great contactors with great stories. One day I ran into an old friend of mine, John Hughes. We went to Salisbury Boys School together. He is from Canaan, Ct. I ran into him at the gas station in Lakeville, Ct. He asked me if I was still painting. How was the painting going? He only remembered me painting as a freshman and sophomore in high school. We all painted at some point in the summers. That was when I realized I needed to stop building houses for people who did not live here full time. I live here in the community but I wasn’t working with the community. That was a turning point for me. That was a big, big turning point for me. I stopped building houses and it hurt. It financially hurt.
JM: It would because you were not getting a steady income.
KW: I was not. I started over and that is why I got into car detailing and coaching basketball. I had the carpentry. I had to expand a little bit and I helped my little brother paint. I had to expand to try to keep money coming in to make this transition. I had to get my name out there.
JM: You do not advertise do you?
KW: I do not. It is all word of mouth for now. I am changing.
JM: Do you think you will start advertising?
KW: I am. We’ll see where that goes. Once I start advertising I will need help.
JM: I noticed with Cory that it used to be Cory’s Painting. Now it is Wiggins Painting. I do not know why he changed it, whether he thought it had more cache or not I don’t know.
JM: You do the coaching because you like to. Are you a volunteer?
KW: I don’t get paid. It costs me money.
JM: That is usually what volunteering does.
KW: I love it. I coach boys’ basketball from 5th grade to high school. I do this at Hotchkiss during the school year, once a week on Sunday mornings.
JM: Do you think in your carpentry that you have a specialty?
KW: My specialty is carpentry. I consider myself an old time carpenter.
JM: Do you use power tools?
KW: I do. I started without power tools. When I said an old time carpenter, when I first got into the business we did everything from insulation to the roof. You needed to know how it all went together, the whole house. The carpenter need to have at least the knowledge so if he hired somebody else, he knew how it should be done: all the way through from cellar to roof. I consider myself an old fashioned carpenter. I have been asked which I prefer finished carpentering or framing. I say what is the difference? The framing is more important.
JM: But the finish is more precise.
KW: No, it should not be. The framing is your backbone. I was always taught that. When they passed the torch, I was part of that apprenticeship. There are a lot of carpenters today that didn’t have that chance to be taught. They did not have it passed down. The framing is your house. The trim is the lipstick. If you do not care about the framing, then your house can shift and move, shift and settle. The framing has to be precise. That makes the trim work easier.
JM: Then you have to know about stress and load bearing beams.
KW: Yes, exactly
JM: Geographically what area do you cover?
KW: Mostly Litchfield County, and Region #1 Sometimes I am in Cornwall, Sometimes I am in Canaan.
JM: Do you work 6 days a week?
KW: I do. And coach on Sundays.
JM: When do you get to the car detailing?
KW: I usually try to do the detailing the first of the week, Sunday afternoon after basketball, or Monday or Tuesday and the occasional Saturday: whenever we can fit it in.
JM: Is there anything else you would like to add to this part before we close?
KW: Not too much, we have covered it all.
JM: If you had it to do over again, would you have gone to a technical school like Oliver Wolcott for carpentry? Or do you think the way you learned in the school of hard knocks was a better way?
KW: Here’s the thing. If I had to do it again and I knew that I wanted to be a carpenter, I definitely would have gone to a technical school. When I was at that age, I was playing hockey. I was told I could play pro. I had a lot of things going on that I really loved. I was a prodigy on the piano and taking classical violin with Mr. Bill Meder. I was playing music and I thought there was an avenue for that, too. I had too many avenues. I was pretty good at all of them. I didn’t have that one thing to focus on. The school of hard knocks was coming; it was inevitable. I did not have my mind made up. Like just keeps going so basically I had to make a decision.
JM: Thank you Kevin so very much.
KW: You are welcome.
Property of the Oral History Project: The Salisbury Association at the Scoville Memorial Library, Salisbury, Ct. 06068