An insightful story about Tony Cacela, former NAVY SEAL, founder of Camelot Tools LLC, and creator of the versatile SITEMASTER tool.
Rolled up against a corner in Tony Cacela’s modest office stands a large poster print of Julien Dupre’s Haymakers 1886, a moving painting that, according to the artist, was deeply inspired by the works of Jean Francois Millet. Every so often, a conversation has been ventured about which wall has enough room to properly feature this wonderful piece. Perhaps we will get a smaller, nicer one to put up?
When we married in 1987, we saw this image as depicting a charming representation of Tony’s early 1960s farm life in Europe, in Evora de Alcobaca, Portugal. The livestock, pastures, olive groves, vineyards, hayfields, hearty vegetable gardens, and gorgeous flowers were tended with steady effort, dedication, and great care. Although his family farm was self-sustaining, there was little money and there were no stores nearby anyway. You took care of what you had.
And of course, tools were lifelines. A broken tool was a very temporary condition, rectified without delay with what was on hand, surgical ingenuity, and plenty of imagination. In the most intricate cases, a revered uncle or perhaps another envied tool-savvy elder would be summoned. It was a privilege to witness and a thrill to participate in any small way in these operations. If excision was the order of the day, little matter. Tools were transformed seamlessly, assuming another form and use.
Long before and during this time, the vitality of the medieval village was evident by its surrounding natural sights, scents, and sounds, all of which bespoke of meaningful labor. The rustling of fabric on a clothesline, squawks, and songs, the lowing of the cows, the bump of a wheelbarrow wheel, the plink of a bucket coming out of a well….Similarly, the clink and clank of the blacksmith’s shop may ring out. If he was hammering away on a given day, Tony and pals may or may not have skipped school to climb to a window to see the wizard will something useful into being –a horseshoe, a latch, and more—out of mere metal strips. Fascinating.
One summer, at the age of 12, Tony was apprenticed to a local carpenter and set to the sad task of hand sanding chair spindles. It was captivating to see the carpenters create fittings, putting together armoires and chairs, revealing the wood grain with stain… but it was decidedly not captivating to hand sand spindles. Let’s just say that his level of dedication to this assigned work prompted a rather short-lived arrangement. Wasn’t there a chicken coop to be repaired? Doesn’t the rake need new dowels? The following summer it was on to the local mason to climb up to the upper floors of a rising structure, bearing buckets of mortar for the bricklayers. Over and over, every day that summer. Safe to say, the physical impact of “the old-fashioned way” was not lost on him.
Although nostalgic for their familiar life, olive trees, and teeming gardens, in 1970 Tony’s parents sacrificed much to make the daunting move to the US and provide better educational opportunities for their three children. Sponsored by his hardworking, salt-of-the-earth aunt and uncle, a seamstress, and a tailor in Ludlow, Massachusetts, his family arrived at an already stocked apartment and jobs waiting. Tony, the oldest at 15, was placed in high school only knowing a few choice words in English. He resolved to rectify that right away and stayed after school where it was quiet enough to study for two hours each day before going to work at Lechmere’s until 10 PM as further support for his family. His mom and dad both worked double shifts at the Spalding factory, where Tony also worked during his summers.
Not long before graduating from high school, Tony’s gym teacher happened to see him staying late studying by himself in the library after school and wondered aloud to him: Why do you work so hard when you’ll probably just go to work in the factory like the rest of them? What’s the point? It was 1974.
That senior year, Tony enlisted in the Navy and thereafter became a U.S. citizen. First assignment? Aboard ship firefighting. Multiple deck levels. Rescue operations at varying degrees of visibility. Ordnance school. He was entrusted with transporting tons of explosives on interstate highways. Diving school. And another opportunity—to try out to be a Navy SEAL.
As his diving school period was not yet complete, Tony was obliged to convince his superior officer to finalize his time early. He flew all night from the Philippines to San Diego, California to barely make the first trials for SEAL class #87 but was immediately discouraged. He was informed that the other SEAL candidates had already completed a prep course of six weeks of pre-training. Wait. Try for the next class, #88. Tony asserted that he’d been doing pre-training on his own and could keep up with anyone. He was given a shot.
Six weeks in was Hell Week. One evolution was…hands bound. Ankles bound. Jump into a 12-foot pool with negative buoyancy. About 30 minutes. Pushed down. Shoved over. If you have to be fished out, you didn’t pass. And on to qualifying speed swims, sit-ups, pull-ups. O2 tolerance tests, nitrogen narcosis tolerance tests, and much more.
All told, an average of twenty percent of each class makes it through. The rest are obliged to “ring the bell” when giving up. Once graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training, or BUD/S training, Tony was no longer required to report to regular physical training, he used this time to serve as a photographer for some of the training. Some of these images were the only ones taken and have been most appreciated by his teammates through the years.
And…in training, and Tony in action, equipment always factors in. All state of the art at the time except for? The trenching hand tool. They were issued WW2-era collapsible short-handled tools that rattled quite a bit. Although the guys were strong, tough, and determined, surprisingly this was not that helpful working with this tool. One doesn’t necessarily have time on their side when they need to dig a trench.
Besides direct operations, Tony also served as an interpretive liaison during their cross-training with the Italian, French, Spanish, and Brazilian forces. These international kinships brought understanding, respect, and camaraderie. And, as one may imagine, the legendary bond among the SEALs was and is deep and strong, forged through profound intensity.
Upon completing his years of service in active duty, Tony enrolled through the GI Bill in the UMASS forestry program, as this beneficial pursuit struck a chord with him. Dr. Patterson conducted Forest Management courses and implemented controlled burns and back burns as part of his program. Naturally, one learned techniques and strategies that Native Americans had known and practiced for ages …the heat of fire opening up differing types of seeds, including the cones of pitch pine, for germination and, generally opening up the canopy for a more healthful, varied ecosystem. Native Americans had long conducted careful burns to their pastures for clearing. Prof Don Madder, a renowned soil scientist at the time, was Tony’s advisor. His influence was keenly valued by a family new to the culture and language and working double shifts. Taking in Madder’s advice, Tony further diversified his coursework from Forestry-- taking a wide panorama of courses from business to astronomy to become familiar with as many worlds of knowledge as possible.
And hand tools? Regularly. Digging in swamps, exposing cross-sectional profiles on hillsides,…digging down into peat bogs in Oakham and Petersham. Measuring seeds and such to extrapolate rainfall, temps, what was growing…Interpolating reports from peat bog timbers…
Except …the hand tools were not suitable. Shovels, picks, and mattocks…made such a mess. Couldn’t get a clean cross-section. They wanted to strike with precision to see the stratification of soils cleanly. They needed to take and weigh samples and burn off organic matter to see what biomass was there. They needed a clean cut to visually measure. Out of what they had, a shovel was the best choice, but it was awkward as it is not a striking tool. A Pulaski required repeat cuts—most imprecise.
Especially in America where everything is possible, Tony was astonished that as far as he could tell, no new manual labor hand tools had been made widely available for such a long time—over 100 years. In farming when there wasn’t proper equipment, they had to make do. But here? Where everything was at hand and new? This is OK for a while, but for sustained work? For specific work?
Besides serving in the Navy Reserves for two years, Tony did construction diving work during a couple of college summers and then worked for the Daughters of the American Revolution State Forest as a park ranger in Goshen, Massachusetts. As a water safety instructor, at times he would help out the lifeguards; otherwise, he was about keeping the peace and orderliness of campers and other visitors and maintaining the grounds. All proceeds to his family.
Upon graduating from UMass Amherst, Tony took an inside sales job at a lumber company. He then moved to outside sales with Sequoia Supply for 2-3 years. Then, on to Unit Structures, a glue-laminated systems company, for sales management, where his business courses became more focused. Tony moved up to central Massachusetts as they needed a rep for the New England states. He navigated engineering solutions and negotiations for eight years, winning such large multistory projects as the LLBean post and beam addition in Freeport, Maine against stiff competition. He moved on to win such projects as the Middlebury College Fine Arts Center, Johnson State College gymnasium and pool facility, and the Cornish Windsor Bridge (rebuilt the covered bridge) from churches to auto showrooms. In all cases, he tucked into his back pocket—Do the homework. Do the legwork. Be creative. Stay focused. Stick with it. Move forward.
On the home front, in ‘94, ‘96, and ‘98 we were greeted by sons! Hiking buddies! Soccer! More soccer! Practice! Homework! Cross Country running. Food! More food! Great conversation. Manhunt! Music! Art! Projects! Joys! Disappointments! Travel! Learning! We traveled together cross country to soak up and experience firsthand the wonders of our National and State Parks during several summers. Such pals. Wonderful humans. All the things. Even more dimension to life for us, opening up endless channels of every source of energy, adventure, and hopes and dreams. And ultimately, all we are and do is one positively concerted force.
Tony became more and more of a maker. When the boys were young we smile to remember him seeking the advice of an elder leatherworker in our area to learn some pointers. Why? To replace the “plasticky” belts that came with new kids’ pants at the time. Those would not do. He got right to work and fashioned some fine leather belts for our boys. They wore them for years—looking good while “holding up.”
True to his nature, over the years Tony has made such creations as leather sheaths with surgically precise stitching for the knives he had made with luxurious mahogany handles, pencil-sketched animals and pastoral scenes for and with the boys, spears out of steel, his custom archery cabinet, a vaulted ceiling sunroom addition, a sturdy, monolithic English shave horse, period correct with wooden dowels, out of an owner’s gift of a hand-hewn beam from their early 1700s barn historic restoration project, (he also made a beautiful wooden tray out of this wood for the owner). He has fixed neighbors’ garage doors, snow blowers, and chainsaws, created a small waterfall next to his carefully structured stone outdoor fireplace, created a haven of our home, especially during protracted storms, and modified, created, and transformed dozens of tools for specific tasks.
As someone whose natural habitat is outdoors building and creating, Tony resolved to start a contracting business in hardscaping. His physical skills and experience in design, engineering work, and business all informed his success. He garnered a hoisting license as well as a construction supervisor license in his state of Massachusetts. Operating his own equipment, doing all design work, hand sketching perspective drawings, estimating, and laboring alongside his workers on every job earned him top reviews –but again bumped him up against the disappointing availability of good hand tools. Hydraulic equipment can’t be used in every place, so it came down to manual work at some point with every job. A mattock was a back breaker and a lighter-weight hoe wasn’t up to dealing with rocky New England soil –it bent easily with little use. Much time and energy were wasted, costing everyone in different ways.
Now was the time. Having studied the art and science of forging (of course!), Tony spent five winters and any stretches of time he could spare during his contracting seasons designing and fashioning in the end 22 various handmade, hand-forged prototypes of his version of an at once most efficient, versatile, and lightweight hand excavation tool. All were “put to the sword” in testing. It was also a family affair. When his parents, affectionately called by our boys “Vovo Ana” and “Vovo Lau,” came to visit, well into their 80s now, they loved the feel of getting back into the soil, pitching in with planting a garden in early June to relocating bushes or moving sod for a larger planting area. Upon seeing Tony’s top choice new hand tool this time, Vovo Ana stepped right forward to prompt a 3 ft. strip of sod to peel away from one side of the house like the easy rind of a clementine. No stranger to hand tools for over 70 years, she remarked how easy and natural this tool felt and worked in hand. One didn’t need to stoop down as much, as the handle is set a bit forward in its collar. The castellated teeth on the main blade made for an easy, sharp, clean initial breach. The depth and surface area of the main blade worked and moved more debris at a time for efficiency. The weight was ideal. It was made for any sized person. SITEMASTER was identified.
Tony had several prototypes of SITEMASTER professionally rendered, as specified, with heat-treated carbon steel, by a local engineering and manufacturing firm, using them himself and among his own workers for a year before taking the daunting steps of applying for a patent, starting a brand new business, and searching out the best US manufacturer for this tool. Very exciting. What a game-changer! Tough enough for heavy-duty work but light enough to handle with dexterity for specific strokes. And how much easier it will be on the joints, muscles, and ligaments of those in sustained manual labor? How sparing of the critical time of our hardest workers out there! Those who selflessly suffer without complaint, thinking it’s just part of the job. To do something about that was and is a joy.
His sense of urgency to make this tool available to the firefighting community was spurred by frequent news coverage showing wildland firefighters' constant, heartrending exhaustion. One specific drone image showed a crew contingent absolutely spent, seemingly scattered on the ground in exhaustion, their hand tools strewn nearby. Tony felt in his bones that his SITEMASTER belonged with these firefighters, seeing that they were using the very same older designed heavier hand tools (about 6 lb) he had been given to use in the 1970s digging in soil stratifications. Indeed, these tools have been around for over 100 years. For the saving in weight alone, a 4.5 lb tough SITEMASTER could significantly shave down their cumulative expenditure of exertion. And, as most traditional hand tools are task-specific: used in one or two directions, the versatility of SITEMASTER’s 360 ease of rotation and use provides quick options from more angles for greater efficiency. Seamless. Crewmembers may also be able to hand carry fewer tools as SITEMASTER can cover more tasks. Their gear is already heavy and often these firefighters are climbing hilly terrain with their tools. We all know that less weight here is safer, as injuries—or worse—are more likely to happen the more the worker’s energy is drained.
First stop. On-the-job testing. On to the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) of Massachusetts—when Tony introduced his professional SITEMASTER to local fire wardens with the DCR, they were thrilled to test them out and did so with their hard work: trenching, clearing, and all ways of managing varied terrain during all four seasons, including breaching ice and hard-packed snow.
When he checked back with them throughout the seasons for feedback:
“I love this thing.”
“This is the first-hand tool I go to for about every task.”
“I use this tool every single day for something.”
“This tool is much easier to work with.”
“This tool saves a lot of time and aggravation”
And so, Camelot Tools was named to hearken to the noble, romantic ideals we hold, and we charged ahead. Lauren on admin and Tony on tools. Now, with several distributors throughout the country and one in Western Canada, SITEMASTER is widely available. We are federal vendors and hold state contracts. Great stuff: when Tony’s truck shows up at sites where this tool is well used, he is welcomed as a part of the team.
We all work for each other. There is nothing like the camaraderie engendered during hard work toward a common benefit. Whether heroically cutting a fire line to save lives and property, skillfully building and maintaining beautiful, carefully planned trails for all of us to get out in nature and enjoy, desperately digging through rubble to find the injured in the aftermath of a disaster, clearing a path of debris after a storm’s destruction, moving earth for any common good --or even creating something to facilitate this hard work even better. Humans are at their best doing their part. Putting in the work.
In 2016, Tony was nominated to the AAAS-Lemelson Foundation’s Invention Ambassadors Program for “an invention that stands to benefit humanity.” Over these recent years, firefighters, other emergency responders, and trail builders alike have reached for SITEMASTER to save time and energy for a job well done.
We are pleased and proud of Tony’s initiatives harnessing his own considerable knowledge, experience, and understanding of the art and physics of careful, informed design, modern materials, and modern manufacturing capabilities to optimize the use of a worker’s energy. He focuses on the nontraditional point of view of the worker first, not the ease of manufacturing first, and is made for this pursuit. And more tools are on the horizon. The Camelot Fire Rake is on its way!
And…at the end of the day, our poster belongs perfectly well where it is, as poignantly expressive as ever and always accessible, beautifully fitting next to Tony’s desk and his first couple of prototypes.
by Lauren Cacela, Camelot Tools LLC
Purchase a SITEMASTER here.
Published March 2023