Just waiting for the Fourth of July: 1855 hand tub restored

The Edgartown Fire Department celebrated the restoration of an old hand tub on Thursday. - Lynn Christoffers

It was only November, but Edgartown Fire Chief Peter Shemeth and the rest of the crew at the fire station were looking forward to July 4, 2017.

The antique 1855 Button Tub the firemen use to shoot a spray of cold water down Main Street during Edgartown’s annual summertime parade is back in business. The firemen’s association raised upwards of $20,000, and the town voted to use Community Preservation Act funds to complete the restoration, which totaled approximately $85,000. Firefly Restoration in Hope, Maine, completed the work, and last Thursday the owner and his wife, Andy and Kathy Swift, brought the hand tub home to the Edgartown Fire Museum.

Selectmen Margaret Serpa and Arthur Smadbeck came by the museum to see the refurbished hand tub, and were clearly pleased with the results. Ms. Serpa credited the firemen’s association for their dedication to the project. “The firemen’s association really moved to restore these engines, and in this case, it’s been a labor of love for you guys,” she told Andrew Kelly, assistant fire chief.

Andrew’s father, retired Capt. Richard Kelly, is the devoted curator of the Edgartown Fire Museum, which he founded in 1997. Between the two of them, they’ve tracked down some of the history behind the hand tub.

“Shiny red fire engines were first parked in the fire department’s garage in 1927,” Andrew Kelly said; “before that it was the reliable man-powered hand tub that pumped the water to put out the town’s fires.” Back in those days, it literally took a village to put out a fire. As the firefighters ran out of steam pumping the rails of the hand tub, townspeople came forward to relieve them.

“In the 1800s, it was a bylaw that you had to keep buckets by your front door in case of a fire,” Andrew Kelly said.

A display at the museum says that the law required “all citizens to have a leather fire bucket outside the front door of the house, ready to be quickly collected by those running to the fire.” Each bucket had the owner’s name on it, and many of them were painted with patriotic scenes.

It takes six firefighters to pump the long bars that run along either side of the tub, which has a hose at the top and a wooden box that holds water. Andrew said it’s been a rite of passage for new firemen to take a turn at pumping the hand tub during the annual parade since 1961. But as the old hand tub became more and more and fragile, they recently had to stop using it in the parade.

The Edgartown Fire Museum is home to the restored hand tub for now, though it belongs to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum. Andrew said it’s likely the hand tub will stay in the fire museum in Edgartown  .

The old hand tub was sent to Firefly Restoration approximately a year ago, and Andrew Kelly said he was a little anxious when he got Andy Swift’s photos during the various stages of restoration, but when he saw the hand tub brought back to life, Andrew said, “It looks a thousand times better than I thought it would.”

The Swifts have been in the fire-engine restoration business for 30 years, with Andy acting as the orchestra leader of a handful of expert craftsmen who do the woodworking, upholstery, machining, painting, and other details that resurrect the engines. Their restoration business is the subject of an upcoming episode of CNBC’s “Jay Leno’s Garage.”

Mr. Swift worked with Bonnie Stacy, chief curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, researching and doing all the detective work that goes into a restoration. As they looked closely at every inch of the hand tub, they were able to draw out the details, Swift explained.

“All the decoration and embellishments we can back up with the early engines we’ve seen,” Mr. Swift said.

His own fascination with the restoration of old engines began when he was a volunteer firefighter in Valdez, Alaska, decades ago.

“He told the fire chief they ought to restore an old engine they had, and the chief had Andy work on it in his spare time,” Ms. Swift explained.

“We’ve had fun the whole time it’s taken us in this direction,” Mr. Swift added. “It’s an honor to reproduce a piece of history, especially for a fireman.”

After 60 years with the Edgartown Fire Department, Captain Kelly deemed the restoration a thing of beauty.

“Oh my God, it’s absolutely beautiful,” he said. And he said the hand tub is going to work spectacularly come July.

“This thing is going to pump water like you wouldn’t believe,” Captain Kelly said.

Chief Shemeth stood near the restored hand tub last Thursday, in awe of what it represents.

“We’ve kept a part of history in the town that we’d never be able to replace,” he said. “We’ve always known it as something else, all scraped and painted. I’ve seen it now for several hours, and I’m still in awe. This is something my grandchildren and their grandchildren will be able to appreciate, and we’re fortunate the town supported it. It’s just unbelievable.”

Visitors are welcome to come see the restored hand tub at the Edgartown Fire Museum anytime, Captain Kelly said.

“I open it up usually in the morning. The museum will be open until Christmas. Stop in and see it,” he said.