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Shelter Island treasures treated royally: The Fire Department’s antique vehicles

Larry Lechmanski opened the door and there the four beauties posed, shining, immaculate, waiting for their next public event.

Four Shelter Island Fire Department vehicles, ranging in years from 1929 to 1964, were right at home in the Cobbetts Lane Firehouse, the brick structure built into the side of the hill and known as the Potato House, from the time it was used to store harvested potatoes, once a profitable cash crop for the Island.

It’s fitting the antique trucks live in the Potato House, because they contain within their metal, rubber and glass, important eras in the history of the Department. 

The beautifully restored and maintained vehicles, polished and gleaming, aligned on either side of a middle aisle of the concrete floor — with Marine 10, one of the Department’s fire boats at the rear — are a 1964 Ford “Class A” pumper (meaning it is certified to fight fires), a 1957 Ford Class A pumper, a diminutive 1929 Chevrolet, and a 1931 Mack.

The 1964 Ford ‘Class A’ pumper, a truck that is certified to answer calls and fight fires. (Credit: Adam Bundy)

Maintenance of the vehicles is done, as much as possible, by the firefighters, Mr. Lechmanski said, but at times they have to take them to professionals for work. Department member Hap Bowditch, who is also a member of the Lions Club, has started a program of benefits and dinners that the Lions sponsor to help fund expensive maintenance and upgrades.

The 1964 Ford got a complete makeover in 1999 at Suffolk County BOCES. Mr. Lechmanski’s son Brian was studying there, and students were required to complete a major project. Brian, along with his friend Brian Cook, who was a student of Mr. Lechmanski’s in his shop class at Southampton High School, drove the firetruck to the BOCES campus in Riverhead and over time restored the old warhorse to first class status.

(Credit: Adam Bundy)

Walking around the vehicles became a springboard for stories told by Mr. Lechmanski and Richard Surozenski, who joined the tour. Both men have held every position in the Department over the last half century, from commissioner to chief to rookie volunteer. Mr. Surozenski noted that the 1964 truck was added to the Department after a particularly tragic house fire in the Heights, where an infant on one of the top floors perished.

The fire was so large and intense that he remembered coming out of the movie theater in Greenport and seeing the flames and smoke from across the bay. “The department bought this one after that,” he said, with one hand on the side of the 1964 Ford. “We needed a better truck.” 

In the old days, the pumper trucks could pump — or draft — about 500 gallons a minute from “the bay, a pond or a swimming pool,” Mr.  Lechmanski said. “The truck we have now in the Center Firehouse can pump 2,000 gallons a minute.”

Along the sides of the 1964 Ford are long black hoses that would be attached to the front of the pumper truck to draft water to be used to fight a fire. Along a wall of the firehouse is a display of photographs and trophies brought home from contests held annually by the Southampton Fire Department, testing all the skills firefighters employ.

Shelter Island, and Mr. Lechmanski in particular, have won multiple trophies in the drafting contests. “It’s what we do,” he said. The Island Department is one of the best in Suffolk County at drafting water to save lives and property.

One of the Fords has four-wheel drive, which is convenient, Mr. Lechmanski said. There have been times when a pumper would drive on to a beach, hit the brakes  and start drafting water from the bay, “and would be stuck solid,” Mr. Lechmanski said. With only two-wheel drive for traction, “We’d have to get towed out.”

He was asked if a truck had ever really used a swimming pool to draft water for a fire.

“Sure,” he said, recalling an emergency around this time of year in 1987. “It was April, and two teenagers were behind a garage smoking cigarettes,” he said.

“But they didn’t put them out when they left and started a brush fire.” The garage was fully involved in flames and a car inside was burned almost beyond recognition. “When we got there, I saw the swimming pool nearby and said let’s start drafting water out of that,” Mr. Lechmanski said.

The rapid response and clear thinking saved a house and a barn that would have been turned to ashes because it was filled with “paint cans and a lot of other stuff that could have caught fire quickly and spread,” he said, with the nonchalant tone of the veteran who has pretty much seen it all.

The jewel of the collection is the small, perfectly put-together 1929 Chevrolet. Many Island firefighters “have taken their last ride” in the antique Chevy, Mr. Surozenski said.

One of the jewels of the Department’s collection, the 1929 Chevrolet. (Credit: Adam Bundy)

When a Department member dies, Fire Commissioners go to the family and ask if they would like to use the vehicle as a hearse. One of the Class A Fords has also been used to transport a deceased volunteer to the cemetery.

Progress often eliminates beauty, as seen in the striking wooden decks on the back of the trucks, where firefighters on their way to an emergency would stand, holding on to a bar across the vehicle, and the leather and tin helmets, attack hoses and axes lining the sides. Both men remembered a few firefighters who had interrupted trips. Today, everyone and all equipment is inside for insurance purposes and safety.

Seen up close, or motoring out of the past at the Island’s community parades, and noting the way the vehicles have been restored and constantly maintained, they become enduring symbols of the dedication and pride that fire volunteers have brought to the Island since the Department was formed in 1895.