University of Vermont

Don Tobi: Trials and Tribulations of a Jericho Research Forest Caretaker

Staff profile

Don Tobi, Jericho Research Forest caretaker for 24 years
Don Tobi, Jericho Research Forest caretaker for 24 years

Don Tobi (UVM ’83, MS-UVM ’91), has been the facilities maintenance specialist—that’s caretaker—at the Rubenstein School’s Jericho Research Forest since 1989, when then Dean Larry Forcier handpicked Don to take over for former live-in caretaker David Gibson (WFB ’78, FOR '79). The unofficial “job description” called for someone self-sufficient and handy at carpentry, plumbing, electric work, engine repair, and other assorted odd jobs, as well as easy-going and not easily ruffled by occasional disasters. Don fit the bill.

At the time, Don was a recent UVM Plant and Soil Science graduate with almost enough forestry courses under his belt to be a forestry major, who was working as a research technician for former forest pathology Professor Dale Bergdahl while finishing his master’s research in forest entomology with Professor Bruce Parker of Plant and Soil Science.  Already Don had a lot on his plate and decided to pile on more.

For 24 years, he and his family called the Thompson House, the original farmhouse on the Forest, home.  Don maintained the house, out-buildings, vehicles, and grounds and provided security for the Forest, keeping the 365 (which grew to 500 in 1995) acres safe from vandals, ATVs, partiers, garbage-dumpers, and other assorted ne'er-do-wells.

He made sure the Forest was available and prepped for School functions and classes, often teaching some of the field labs himself, as well as for occasional community and local school events.  Don opened the Forest gate off Tarbox Road each morning and then locked it again each night.

“We couldn’t afford a house ourselves,” Don explains, “so it was great that the School allowed us to live there for minimal rent.  I took care of it as though it were my own.”

He and his young family moved into the insulation-less Thompson House in the dead of winter.  The kitchen was a white porcelain sink and little else—no counters or cupboards and a floor of linoleum tacked down with roofing nails. It was do or die. 

Don immediately added 12 inches of insulation to the attic, installed kitchen cabinets and countertops, added a kitchen subfloor and new linoleum, re-plastered falling ceilings, added wallboard to barren closets, and painted walls. Home Sweet Home. Don and his wife raised a large vegetable garden, chickens, and four home-schooled (through 8th grade) children.

The School had little funds to put into the house, so revenue came from timber harvested off the Forest.  Late forestry Lecturer Terry Turner (MS-FOR ’64), always a great source of help, knowledge, and encouragement, assisted Don in marking woodlots on the forest.  Art and Richard Levine, long-time Jericho Research Forest loggers, conscientiously harvested logs to sell, and profits went back into improvement projects at the Forest. In later years, red maple milled from the Forest became a new kitchen floor.

Although the house was equipped with a less-than-trustworthy back-up oil furnace, the main source of heat were two wood stoves that Don kept busy feeding all winter long.

“We’d burn 10 to 12 cords of wood each year,” recalls Don, “and I figured that if I handled each piece of firewood about 10 times from felling the tree, bucking the log, hauling the bolts, splitting them, stacking them in the woodshed, carting them to the front porch, lugging them into the house, then finally tossing them into the woodstove, that’s really 120 cords of wood I handled each year.”

Don laughs as he reports that the furnace very recently called it quits, and UVM replaced it with a brand new one after almost 25 years of struggling to keep the old one going when needed.

Each year, Don chose one major home improvement project to tackle during the winter holidays.  One year, it was abruptly decided for him. In the days leading up to the Christmas holiday, a busy time for Don, a wreath maker, he was enjoying some moments of solitude in the only bathroom in the house, when the toilet crashed through the floor beneath him.

Sure enough, the holiday break found Don toiling away in the bathroom where he discovered not one, NOT two, but FOUR layers of flooring beneath the toilet.  The Skil saw wouldn’t cut it.  He trooped out to the Forest’s shop and headed back to the bathroom with the true modern day woodsman’s tool, the chainsaw.  It did the trick, and days later, the bathroom, with a new plywood subfloor strengthened by sturdy 2x4s, was almost complete.

Don, clad in his brand new wool Christmas vest, spread glue on the floor for the new linoleum. Satisfied with his work, he realized he was trapped in the middle of the bathroom and stepped gingerly toward the exit.  Before he knew it, he was on his back, his new vest stuck to the goo on the floor.  He looked up to see his kids peering in at Dad’s latest caretaking catastrophe, yet no one uttered a word.

In the early days, there was no water well on the Forest.  Water came from a spring that fed a cistern located up the hill across the driveway from the house.  Don’s very first winter on the Forest, the waterline from the cistern to the house froze.  He and Terry constructed a temporary pipeline running from the cistern through a hole into the cellar of the house.  They wrapped the one-inch-diameter pipe with thick insulation and black plastic, and Don dubbed it the “Jericho pipeline.”

From bad to worse, the waterline from the spring to the cistern then froze. Don and Terry cleaned out and “Cloroxed” the fire reservoir and had a water hauling company fill it. In late March or early April, Don saw the water level in the reservoir getting dangerously low.  They needed more water.  He simultaneously heard on the news that the building owned by the water hauler had burned to the ground, trucks and all! What else could go wrong?

Stepping out onto the front porch to a morning tinged with the first thaws of spring, he pondered his next move.  Suddenly, he heard water trickling.  Spring had arrived in the nick of time—the line from the spring to the cistern had thawed! One month later, Larry approved the drilling of the first well on the Forest, paid for with a timber harvest.

Don regrets none of it.  “My kids grew up with an appreciation for the outdoors, living sustainably off the land, and learning you can fix stuff when it breaks,” he acknowledges. His son Jake became a skillful carpenter and an amazing outdoorsman, and his son Harrison Tobi (WFB ’13) worked with Professor Ellen Marsden at the Rubenstein Ecosystem Science Lab and recently presented a research paper at UVM’s Student Research Conference.

In February 2013, Don moved out of the Thompson House and off of the Forest. Before leaving, he and Ralph Tursini (FOR ‘99), coordinator of the Green Forestry Education Initiative at the Forest, tore the back porch off the house and supervised work done in the basement to stabilize the house in readiness for planned renovation work.

Don continues his long-time job as a research technician in Bruce Parker’s UVM entomology lab on Spear Street and his wood procurement forester position at Burlington Electric Department, as well as several consulting forestry jobs each year. He now lives in Underhill, Vermont on ten acres where he plans to garden, raise chickens, maple sugar, and grow fruit and Christmas trees.  He also owns 32 acres in Enosburg, Vermont that, as an avid hunter and fisherman, he manages for wildlife. He still cuts firewood, he laughs, but in his new home he only burns 3 to 4 cords per year!