Building a home for history
Don Billings, who retired as a captain with the Oak Bluffs Fire Department in 1988, knows firsthand that being a volunteer firefighter on Martha's Vineyard is a revered tradition and responsibility, often passed from one generation to the next. Even so, when he got the idea to bring Oak Bluffs's first fire engine home, a 1929 Maxim pumper, he was surprised by the outpouring of support he received from businesses, Vineyarders, and three generations of Island firefighters.
The process began last May. Mr. Billings recounted, "Anton deBettencourt, a former chief, came back from a fire chief's convention in Western Massachusetts with a picture he had taken of our engine which was on display at the convention. As soon as I saw it I said, 'That's our truck.'"
His plan was to bring the truck that had first been driven by his uncle, and then by his father and then by him, back to Oak Bluffs, and to build a substation to house it at the Oak Bluffs firehouse at the intersection of Barnes and County roads. "My uncle, John Billings, drove the horse-drawn pumper before the Maxim arrived in 1929," Mr. Billings said.
Photos by Lynn Christoffers
By October, the Maxim pumper was back on Martha's Vineyard, and just as winter's first snow swirled in a couple of weeks ago, the roof and walls of the 24- by 28-foot building were up. The new structure will include early firefighting memorabilia, creating a museum-like setting, appropriate because the Maxim represents a link between the horse-drawn pumpers of the 19th and early 20th centuries and the development of the internal combustion engine.
Before the Maxim, firefighters pulled long-handled hose wagons from the station house to the fire behind the horse drawn pumper. "In those days, firefighters were paid per fire. I have records showing this one was paid 68 cents, that one got $1.25. But you weren't on the payroll until you put your hands on the wagon handles and began pulling it to the fire," he said.
When the Maxim was replaced in 1957, it was sold off-Island. I think it went to a college in New Hampshire where it was on display for years. Then Robert DiPoli of Medford bought it and restored it. He had it for 22 years," Mr. Billings explained.
When contacted, Mr. DiPoli immediately understood the significance. "He had offers for more than $30,000, three times what he sold it to us for," Mr. Billings said, adding the generous former owner also paid to transport the engine to Woods Hole in October. "Old fire engines are popular now. We could never have afforded the price but he said no to the money. He told me 'This fire truck needs to go home.'"
Between the first glimmer of a plan in May and the Maxim rolling off the ferry in October, Mr. Billings became a fundraiser and a developer of sorts, raising money to purchase the engine and to build the museum/substation and to get approval from the town to build on town property at the firehouse. He also formed the Town of Oak Bluffs Restoration Fund and a committee that includes Chief Peter Forend, Captain James Maseda, and retired captains William Norton, Ralph Norton, David Billings, and Steve Amaral. "We needed a workable plan and not just take an idea to the town. So we developed that first. They liked the idea and the museum is not costing taxpayers a cent," he said.
Mr. Billings was overwhelmed by the community response. "These are tough times," he said. "I can't get over it. We've been careful not to interfere with donations normally made to other organizations."
Mr. Billings credits Kyle Gatchell, volunteer fire fighter Gary BenDavid and his construction crew for providing plans and guidance through the permitting process, then building the structure on a foundation excavated and prepared by Engine Co. No.1's Russell and Daniel Rogers.
Raymond Moreis of Engine Co. No.1 will paint the shingled museum and Willy deBettencourt of Engine Co. No. 2 will care-take the finished museum, which will be open by late spring, according to Mr. Billings's estimate.
In addition to labor donated and checks written by Islanders, Mr. Billings points to Island businesses that have shown up for the project, such as H.N Hinckley & Sons, Falmouth Lumber, Cottle's Lumber, Goodale's, and David Knauf Construction Co. Farm Neck Golf Club contributed to construction of a period replica door planned for the museum, Mr. Billings said.
While continuing to fundraise to complete the job, Mr. Billings is also restoring memorabilia for the museum such as brass hose nozzles and other equipment used to fight fires 80 years ago. "People have been calling with items. Last week, I got an old fire helmet," he said. "The Oak Bluffs water department gave me an antique hydrant that'll have a place in front of the museum."
Mr. Billings and his firefighting colleagues are recreating a piece of the past, so that when parade-goers see the ancient Maxim lumbering along in the Fourth of July parade next year, they will know they are seeing not just a quaint antique but an icon of Island dedication to community and service.
Tax-deductible donations may be made to the Town of Oak Bluffs Fire Dept. Restoration Fund c/o Donald Billings P.O. Box 143 Oak Bluffs, MA 02557.
Jack Shea is a freelance writer for The Martha's Vineyard Times.