by Leonard Shapiro

Peter Hitchen always did have a penchant for moving dirt with those sturdy Tonka trucks and bulldozers as a little boy, perhaps a portent of things to come for a man who now makes his living with the same old playthings, only bigger.

Hitchen, who’s Middleburg businesses, Tilton Enterprises and Big Ass Cans, are based on Hamilton St., also has had a lifelong love affair with boats. In the early years of his business, he supplemented his Tilton income by signing up as a Coast Guard-licensed captain or mate on fishing boats based in places like Venezuela and Costa Rica.  More on that later.

 

Hitchen’s late father, also Peter, was a well-known Maryland horseman who worked as an executive for the F.O. Day Company in Rockville, a paving and excavating firm. When his son graduated from Washington College in Chestertown, Md. with a degree in history, he joined his father’s firm, initially working as a heavy machine operator.

Ever since he could reach the brake and accelerator pedals as a young teenager, he had handled and even repaired all manner of tractors and other machinery at his mother’s Leesburg family farm. At F.O. Day, he worked his way up to assistant project manager before deciding that “if I was going to work that hard, I’d rather work for myself.”

In 1997, he started Tilton, named for his late mother, Nancy Tilton Orme. Peter had also done his share of riding growing up, and was a frequent competitor at horse shows all around the Middleburg area—Upperville, Foxcroft, Warrenton and Philomont, among others. He always remembered that “the rings were always kind of junky. There were puddles, the ground was uneven and approaches to the jumps were not great.”

And so, his initial goal with his new company was to offer his services as a renovator of riding rings, at horse shows or private training facilities on local farms. 

“I created my own method of grading them so they’d drain properly and not wash out,” he said. “I just kind of figured it out. I did about 95 percent of the work myself. I’d rent the machinery—a bulldozer, roller and a track loader—and just went to work.”

Three years later, a nasty economic downturn put his business in some jeopardy, but Hitchen’s lifelong love of boats came to the rescue. His father had taken him on a fishing trip out of Ocean City when Peter was 10, and the sight of a magnificent blue marlin exploding out of the water made a huge impression on the boy. The marlin had been hooked, and so had Peter Hitchen.

The first summer he could legally drive he made it down to Lewes, Delaware on the Eastern Shore and got a job working on a head boat. That eventually led to stints as a mate and as a boat captain, and that’s how he supplemented his Tilton income and, pardon the expression, managed to stay financially afloat.

The business has grown exponentially over the years and Hitchen and his crews now do all manner of excavating, grading, pond building and land clearing. Two years ago, he started a second company he called Big Ass Cans, which handles those huge, roll-off construction dumpsters. He started out with 16 and now has 62 at construction sites, farms or private homes.

They’re all painted purple, because the company also donates some of its revenue to cancer research. His mother died from cancer and purple symbolizes cancer survival.  His company sends between $250 to $500 a month to various childhood cancer research organizations based on how many dumpsters are being rented out.

And why the slightly risqué “Big Ass Cans”?

Hitchen was on a quail-hunting trip in Oklahoma with some buddies a few years ago and one of them, Alex Vogel, the husband of state senator Jill Vogel, came up with that terribly apt description for the oversized dumpsters. Two days later, they were all having lunch in a restaurant when Hitchen looked up on the ceiling and noticed they were being cooled by “Big Ass Fans.”

“It had a jackass logo on it so I figured that was a good sign,” Hitchen said.

Those dumpsters came in quite handy this past winter, when Hitchen was contracted by the Town of Middleburg to remove 40 inches of snow that fell on the village during the Blizzard of 2016. Within three days, and an around-the-clock effort, the entire town was out from under and back in business. 

“I love working in this community,” Hitchen said. “So far we’ve survived two recessions. You don’t grow up somewhere and get away with doing crummy work. I couldn’t do it without all my guys. I’ve got a great bunch of people working for me. And I love to see people happy.”  

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