Hitchcock Woods’ chief caretaker grew up playing and going horseback riding in the forest where he now works near downtown Aiken.
But even though those experiences created pleasant childhood memories, Bennett Tucker never imagined that they would be the building blocks for the foundation of a future career.
Instead, he looked elsewhere to find his life’s calling.
Tucker went to Erskine College and studied business administration.
In addition, he became a volunteer firefighter in Due West, where the school is located.
By the time his senior year rolled around, Tucker was planning to become an officer with the Aiken Department of Public Safety.
He had serviced fire hydrants for Public Safety during the summer, and he also had been allowed to respond to fires in Aiken because he had the necessary training.
“I had done my interviews, and I had done my testing,” Tucker said.
But then a phone call caused him to change his mind in early 2006.
“It was Tim Simmons,” Tucker said. “He left me a voicemail message, and I’ll never forget it. He said, ‘I know you know that Gary Berger is resigning. We (the Hitchcock Woods Foundation) just had a board meeting this afternoon, and I was asked by the board to give you a call and ask you if you would be interested in becoming our next forest manager.”
The job invitation surprised Tucker, but it didn’t take him long to decide to accept it.
“I couldn’t believe it because it was like a dream job,” he said. “I love Hitchcock Woods as a forest, and I love working outdoors. They also offered me a very comparable salary to what I would have been starting out at as a young public safety officer, so that was appealing.”
In addition, the members of the Hitchcock Woods Foundation’s board of trustees were enthusiastic about Tucker’s desire to continue his involvement with Public Safety and serve as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Aiken.
“That also was part of the appeal, and I told them, ‘Yes,’” Tucker said.
His official title is Woods Superintendent, and his office is one of the nation's largest urban forests.
Tucker’s duties include overseeing timber management and a prescribed burning program, which improves Hitchcock Woods' ecological health and reduces the risk of wildfire.
Assisted by Woods Technicians Mike Grabowski and Frank Morelli, Tucker maintains 70 miles of trails, fixes damaged bridges, repairs jumps used by Aiken Hounds foxhunters and installs contraptions in beaver dams that prevent the structures from interfering too much with the flow of water through the forest.
Leading educational activities and many other tasks also keep Tucker busy.
“Every day is different,” he said. “I enjoy the changing of the seasons, and I like having a hand in the process of restoring the longleaf pine ecosystem.”
In addition, there is another reason why Tucker’s job satisfaction is high.
Hitchcock Woods, which covers approximately 2,100 acres, “is a large resource, but we have a small staff, and people in Aiken notice how hard we work,” he said. “When I run into people around town, they say, ‘Hey Bennett, Hitchcock Woods looks great,’ and, ‘You all do a great job.’ That’s rewarding to hear.”
Tucker is especially proud of the recent effort to reintroduce red-cockaded woodpeckers to Hitchcock Woods.
The birds disappeared from the forest in the late 1960s or early 1970s.
“The red-cockaded woodpecker is a keystone species of the longleaf pine ecosystem and is federally endangered,” Tucker said. “The last 30 years have been spent restoring Hitchcock Woods back to the way it was 100-plus years ago, and that’s been so successful that we’ve been able to bring back the red-cockaded woodpeckers and they’re staying put. We’ve currently got 36 of the birds out here, and we had 14 young this nesting season, which is great.”
Tucker, 36, was born in an Augusta hospital to Aiken residents Bill Tucker, an attorney, and his wife, Sandra.
“My mom and dad were living in a house on Florence Street back then, and then they moved to a bigger house on Pin Oak Drive,” Tucker said.
Pin Oak is in the Kalmia Hills neighborhood, which is close to Hitchcock Woods.
Tucker took riding lessons at a nearby stable, and many of them took place in the forest. He also competed in the Aiken Horse Show, which is held in Hitchcock Woods.
“I even went foxhunting as a junior with the Aiken Hounds,” Tucker said.
But it was his parents, most of all, that helped him get to know Hitchcock Woods so well.
“They would be invited to the Aiken Hounds picnic at the Tea Cottage, and we would go,” he said. “We also went hiking as a family.”
Tucker’s mother served on the Hitchcock Woods Board of Trustees for more than 20 years. Because she was involved in various projects in the forest, Tucker got to ride around in a Jeep. He remembers helping put up new signs so visitors could navigate the trails more easily.
Tucker also got to know Woodsman Namon Corley and later Berger.
“I thought it was really cool when I saw Namon driving a tractor,” Tucker said.
He also noticed the types of work being done in Hitchcock Woods by volunteers and employees.
“I started to become an amateur naturalist and just learned through observation,” Tucker said. “I saw how they would repair the trails after heavy rains, and I watched them when they were doing prescribed burns.”
There also were stints as a summer intern in the forest that increased Tucker’s appreciation of Hitchcock Woods, its plants and its animals.
“Hitchcock Woods is an amazing resource,” he said. “It’s available to everyone, every day of the year, for dog walking, horseback riding, carriage driving, running and hiking. Aiken was named the Best Small Town in the South (by Southern Living magazine) last year, and I think a lot of that had to do with Hitchcock Woods.”
Tucker doesn’t foresee leaving his position with the forest anytime soon, but admits that he has a strong interest in farming as a profession.
“If I hadn’t come back to Aiken, I probably would be working on the family farm in Illinois,” he said. “My uncle runs it. He grows corn and soybeans.
“I love to go there and help out,” Tucker continued. “Forestry and farming are pretty similar. It’s all about being a good steward of the land. Part of my heart is up there on the prairie.”
But a bigger part is with his wife, Lindsay, and their two children, Nathan, 3, and Laurel, who was born last year.
“My wife’s family is in Aiken, and my immediate family is in Aiken. So are most of our friends," Tucker said. "I kind of grew up around the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, and they’ve taken good care of me. I also realize how special Hitchcock Woods is to Aiken. Their history is so entwined and so deep.”
In 1939, the family of the avid Winter Colony sportswoman Louise Hitchcock established the Hitchcock Foundation following her death and donated mostly undeveloped land to be protected and preserved.
The Hitchcock Foundation later became the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, which has overseen the purchase and donation of additional property for the forest.
“You can’t think of Aiken without thinking of Hitchcock Woods,” Tucker said. “I’ve noticed that even people who don’t get out to enjoy the forest on a regular basis like knowing that it’s here.”
In 2018, Tucker was one of the Aiken Standard’s Young Professionals 2 Follow.
He is the vice president of the Aiken Forestry Association and a member of the Aiken Land Conservancy’s Advisory Council.
In addition to serving as a volunteer firefighter for the City of Aiken, Tucker is a member of Public Safety’s Technical Rescue Team.