BY ALLAN GOLDSTEIN
Local man’s life experience leads him to invent amazing toy
Innovation and an extensive knowledge of machinery came together for Rockland County resident Ernest Autumn Van Den Heuvel when he invented, HandTrux, one of the most popular toys at last year’s ASTRA (American Specialty Toy Retailing Association) Toy Fair.
The HandTrux Backhoe is the first in a series of “sandbox size dirt machines that look and work just like the Big Iron.” Made of plastic these colorful toys are recommended for children four years of age and up.
HandTrux is being rolled out in a number of stores with The Toy Box in Pearl River as the initial local location. “These toys will get kids back outside to play again,” says Van Den Heuvel
In early 2000 he conceived of the idea for HandTrux. The product was so well received that it was immediately inducted into the National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, featured on the CBS TV Early Show and won a toy audition at FAO Schwarz in 2008.
Van Den Heuvel is committed to producing toys that will have a positive impact on a child’s life. “Our toys re-instill creativity and inspiration into youngsters. They are made in the USA, are green and get kids playing out of the house again. The toys are manufactured locally at Anka Tool and Die in Congers.”
A Bardonia native, Van Den Heuvel roots in Rockland run deep and so does his creativity and inclination for inventing toys and putting things together. He lived on a farm in Bardonia with his family until he was six or seven. His family owned a farm stand on Germonds Road, right where BOCES is today.
At 7-years old-one of his favorite television programs was Beany and Cecil. One of the characters always wore a beanie with a propeller. After watching the show, young Van Den Henvel took a baseball cap, a battery and a propeller off a toy plane and created a beanie with an electric propeller.
After attending Spring Valley High School he worked as a motorcycle technician and with helicopters at the then Ramapo Airport. Through most of his adult life, Van Den Heuvel has been a heavy machine operator specifically in the field of excavation.
At the age of 18, Van Den Heuvel survived a harrowing experience that almost proved fatal, and he believes is responsible for his seemingly boundless supply of energy. He and his brother Chris were attempting to climb a high-tension tower in the Orangeburg Reservoir.
At 90 feet in the air, Van Den Heuvel received 50,000 kilovolts of electricity and was electrocuted, but still alive. His brother made him climb down the tower and he was rushed to the burn center at Nyack Hospital.
With burns over 80 percent of his body, Van Den Heuvel was in such critical condition that he received the last rites of the church. The hospital immersed him in a Hubbard Tank to promote healing and prevent infection. He had so little good skin remaining that he became the first person at Nyack Hospital to essentially be kept in a bubble.
What turned the tide was an experimental burn cream the renowned physician Dr. Martha MacGuffie applied on a daily basis. Amazingly he healed quickly and was out of the hospital in 38 days but it would take him two years to get his right hand straight up over my head. To this day he credits Dr. MacGuffie with saving his life.
Van Den Heuvel also has a love for music. Only taking one guitar lesson at age 12, he toured the county as a singer and guitarist with a popular local band, Gabriel, in the 1970s. He actually composed his first song when he was recovering from his injuries at Nyack Hospital.
In the late 1970s Van Den Heuvel served as a stage technician at many of the pier and Central Park concerts for performers including Bruce Springsteen, Carly Simon and AC/DC. From 1983-1986 he had a similar position at CBGBs.
In 1986 he went back full-time into heavy excavation during the day and a life in music at night. He jokes, “I was known as the world’s first rock and roll bull dozer operator.”
From 1990 to 1992 he was the production coordinator at World Stage in Spring Valley, a 1,000 seat venue where he was responsible for 90 shows in two years.
Today he is also part of the group Rough Embrace that includes his cousin Christian Van Den Heuvel and Twisted Sister member Eddie Ojeda. “We have a repertoire of over 60 original hard rock songs and have been featured on local New York City radio stations, several TV shows and in commercials,” he said.
All the while he continued using his mechanical skills to create and patent his inventions the first of which was a safety device for Kawasaki jet skis. The Jett Kick was designed to keep riders on the machine during sudden stops. It was in 1992 that he was inducted into the Who’s Who of American Inventors.
Ernest Autumn Van Den Heuvel is only the latest in a line of remarkable Van Den Heuvels who have helped shape Rockland County. “A lot of my ancestors were the first excavators in this area. The Van Den Heuvel clan helped to cut the first roads in Rockland County and Upper Saddle River,” he said. Another of his relatives helped to found the Spring Valley Water Company
Ernest Autumn Van Den Heuvel is a resident of Pomona and has two adult children a son Mathew Jett and a daughter Lee Marie. His advice for people who want to be successful: “Don’t give up, don’t quit your dream everybody has a gift that can be turned into a lucrative career.”