Capt. Nicky Fullin and Lt. Darren Welch can’t help but smile when they talk about retrieving a shiny red piece of Tisbury Fire Department history.
A 1947 LaFrance pumper returned Wednesday night as the 6:45 M/V Nantucket ferry pulled into Vineyard Haven at 7:30 pm. to a waiting crowd. The truck received an escort from the terminal accompanied by another Tisbury fire truck and police vehicles.
The truck, purchased brand-new by military veterans in 1947, has been the apple of Tisbury’s eye for several years, and in a deal with the firefighters’ association at the Cotuit-Osterville-Marstons Mills (COMM) Fire Department, the homecoming was made possible.
“I’m excited because it’s a pretty cool piece of history, be it the town’s history or the country’s history,” Lt. Welch said of the Legion Pumper crew that the truck once carried to Island fires. “It was established by veterans. It’s been manned by veterans up until 1978. This is the last one they bought and manned.”
The unit of Legionnaires was first established after World War I. Several men returned to Tisbury after serving in the war and established the American Legion Pumper crew, a firefighting unit to complement the town fire department and allow them to continue to serve their country.
Fast-forward to the end of World War II when another group of men returned from war and continued the tradition. They bought a 1947 LaFrance Pumper, a state-of-the-art fire truck for its time, and the third truck purchased for firefighting by veterans, Tisbury Chief John Schilling told The Times.
“Tisbury was pretty progressive in picking that truck,” Chief Schilling said. “At the time, that model was historic in the development of fire trucks. It’s a snub-nosed design, enclosed cab with two rear-facing seats for a four-person cab.”
It had a front-mounted suction valve to pull water from hydrants to battle fires, he said. And Tisbury was among the first communities to have it, thanks to those military veterans.
That’s why the truck, while it was in service in Tisbury, always carried the American Legion seal, as well as the town name. Up until 1978, the Legion truck, always Engine 3 by town bylaw, only had veterans on board. But while that tradition ended, Engine 3 still carries the American Legion seal, and many of the firefighters are descendants of past pumper crews. Today they take care of cutting the grass at the American Legion hall, and prepare the cemetery with flags for holidays like Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
A bell that was on the very first truck purchased, which makes it nearly 100 years old, still rides proudly on the front of Engine 3.
Capt. Fullin’s father served on the Legion Pumper crew. “He was on that truck,” Capt. Fullin said. “I knew all the guys who were on it. I grew up with them.”
There are a lot of those stories in the department — fathers and grandfathers who are part of the proud heritage of the Legion Pumper crew.
“We still have one member who served on that truck who is still alive,” Lt. Welch said. “I can’t wait for him to see it.”
That man is Fred Thifault, a former selectman, businessman, masonry contractor, and a longtime DPW commissioner. Mr. Thifault is hospitalized at the moment, his wife told The Times.
The $8,000 purchase of the 1947 pumper truck is being paid for by the firefighters association, and the truck will be used for parades and special events, Chief Schilling said. A GoFundMe page has been set up to defray the costs of the purchase, maintenance, and a place to house the truck, he said: “We’re not using any tax dollars.”
Next month, Lt. Welch and Capt. Fullin hope to have their “new” addition make its debut putting out bonfires at Owen Park on Aug. 6 and Aug. 20.
“We’ve always wanted to get an antique for our department,” Capt. Fullin said.
A tale of two trucks
The way the purchase came about is a tale that began with a visit to the Island by another fire department.
COMM Fire Chief Michael Winn visited the Vineyard two years ago and took a tour of the Tisbury fire station. On the wall are photographs of town fire trucks from generations of firefighters, including the 1947 LaFrance. Chief Schilling asked Chief Winn if there was any way his department could persuade the COMM association, which had purchased the LaFrance in 1978 for parades and musters, to sell the truck back to its original owner.
It didn’t take much arm twisting.
“It’s so unique and so admirable, I said, ‘Jeez, I’ll do everything in my power to see that it comes back to you,’” Chief Winn recalled in a conversation with The Times.
As fate would have it, COMM got a call around that same time from a collector of antique vehicles in Agawam. The man had a fire engine that he bought from a Cape Cod museum, a 1930 Model A pumper that was originally purchased by the COMM department. Robert O’Melia, the head of the COMM fire association, went with the chief to see the 1930 truck.
“I went out and I drove a 1930 fire engine,” Mr. O’Melia said. “I’m thinking, This is unbelievable. I was talking to my father in heaven, saying, ‘I hope you’re looking down on me. This is great.’”
The truck had its beginnings at COMM, was sold to Mashpee when that town started a fire department in 1950, and went from Mashpee to a museum to the Agawam collector. “This is an heirloom, a one-of-a-kind, the third piece ever bought,” COMM Chief Winn said. “To get this back, it’s unbelievable.”
The association and the antique dealer have since struck a deal, but the man’s wife recently died and there are some estate hurdles to clear before the deal can be finalized. Again, no tax dollars are being used in the transaction, and the chief declined to provide the sale price. With their deal in place, they could part with the 1947 LaFrance.
“We’re happy it can go back home so it can be a symbol of pride and heritage for the American Legion,” Chief Winn said. “I was lucky to be able to assist with that.”
Tisbury gets its truck; COMM gets theirs back, too.
“I was very excited for them. They want this truck because it’s theirs. We would have waited five years to manage a way for them to get it,” Mr. O’Melia said. “Every time I talk to Darren [Welch], I hear the excitement in his voice. It’s so awesome.”
Lt. Welch and Capt. Fullin traveled over to Woods Hole to greet the 1947 LaFrance. The plan was to town it to the ferry on a flatbed, even though it still runs fine, but a last minute snafu forced them to drive it to the docks and it missed its ride on the Island Home, Chief Schilling said.
For Lt. Welch and Capt. Fullin, this is personal. Both have family members who have served on the Tisbury Fire Department. Mr. Fullin’s father served on the 1947 LaFrance.
“It’s in very good shape,” Mr. Welch said. “COMM has done an outstanding job maintaining it.”
Now that it’s back, the Tisbury name, the American Legion symbol, and “Engine 3” will be returned to its rightful spot on the 1947 LaFrance.
“We’re happy to be bringing it home to the Vineyard,” Chief Schilling said.