Red Hot Hobby
Bringing vintage fire trucks back to life
By Chuck Darrow

When it comes to their hobby of choice, some people in South Jersey think big – really big. Of course, you really have no other choice when you belong to a relatively small, but intensely dedicated, group who collect and restore antique firetrucks.

Not surprisingly, these enthusiasts tend to be men who have a deep connection to firefighting, often having served as firefighters themselves. Among them is Delran’s George Myers, whose father and uncles were longtime members of Burlington City’s emergency squad. Myers started going on emergency runs for Delran Fire Co. No. 2 as a teenager – sometimes leaving his high school early to go on a call.

The 46-year-old bought his first truck – a 1968 Seagrave owned by the brigade – for $1,200 in 1992. He currently owns six – all Seagraves – one of which he keeps in his home’s garage. The others are housed in locations including Vincentown and Paulsboro.

For Myers, the joy of collecting is in keeping alive a past he treasures.

“I appreciate the older stuff much more than the cookie-cutter production models of today,” he says. “I currently have an archive of paint logs and Seagrave factory photos from about 1928 through 1984. I have most of the factory photos of all the trucks produced at the Seagrave factory in Columbus, Ohio and Clintonville, Wisconsin.”

“These trucks were works of art. There’s not as much an appreciation for that kind of stuff anymore. I realize that when these trucks go, most of them end up going to the scrapyard; when they’re gone, they’re gone forever. Hopefully there’s going to be people like me to carry the torch, so to speak, and preserve some of the really unique pieces of American history.”

For collector John Burzichelli, never having fought a fire himself doesn’t mean the profession isn’t ingrained in his soul.

John Burzichelli owns nine firetrucks, including this rare blue one built in 1949

John Burzichelli owns nine firetrucks, including this rare blue one built in 1949

“My father was a volunteer fireman, so there were many trips with my father and brothers down to the firehouse,” says Burzichelli, a Democratic state assemblyman from Paulsboro who represents the third legislative district.

“Things were different then. Volunteer fire companies were the centers of communities. Paulsboro had two companies, one a unique one: Billingsport, with blue trucks. The other used red trucks, so there was a natural rivalry.”

“Those years I spent around that were a big part of things. And for a little kid to see his father driving a big firetruck, responding to fires and driving in parades, it strikes a lasting impression.”

Cinnaminson’s Ed Pierce finds the most rewarding part of owning a 1971 American LaFrance – which, with its white paint, blue trim and red lettering is somewhat unique – is the reaction of people of all ages when they see it.

“I’ll take this truck out grocery shopping and park it at the supermarket, and people will say, ‘Is that your truck?’ I say, ‘Yeah. Take your kids on it while I’m in the store. They’re not gonna steal it.’ Adults get a kick out of it, too,” adds Pierce, 53. “It’s something they remember from their younger years. That brings enjoyment to me.”

In SJ, Burzichelli, Myers, Pierce and fellow collectors come together under the aegis of two organizations: Cradle of Liberty Antique Fire Apparatus Association in Logan Township and Millville’s Glasstown Antique Fire Brigade. Glasstown boasts about 100 active members, while Cradle of Liberty has about 50.

“It’s very much a community,” says Burzichelli. “And the Delaware Valley is a hotbed.”

To illustrate his point, he refers to a number of warm-weather events at which enthusiasts come together to share their passion with each other and the public – and, of course, show off their trucks.

The biggest such program is the annual Glasstown Antique Fire Brigade Muster and Fire Fighter’s Family Day, which this year is scheduled for Aug. 21. Burzichelli says between 60 and 100 trucks will be on display, depending on weather conditions. It draws hobbyists, along with the merely curious, from across the Mid-Atlantic region.

As far as Cradle of Liberty’s president Keith Kemery is concerned, the appeal of the old-time vehicles is clear.

“I think firetrucks as a whole seem to be a natural draw for people, especially children,” says Kemery, 51, and a retired firefighter.

Last month, Kemery’s group formally dedicated its museum in the old Repaupo Volunteer Fire Company headquarters in Logan Township. The 9,600-square-foot facility currently boasts eight privately owned trucks, including a Seagrave tractor-trailer aerial ladder truck that was used in the movie “Ladder 49” starring John Travolta.

“The actual apparatus that you see in the movie is now privately owned by one of our members,” brags Kemery, who says the repository will soon be loaned an early-1900s horse-drawn steam fire engine for the collection.

That piece comes from the S.M. Vauclain Fire Co. in suburban Philadelphia. For years, says Kemery, it has been stored in a tight corner of the company’s firehouse, where it has been “exposed to diesel exhaust and getting bumped into.” It will be on long-term loan, “where we’ll take care of it.”

Of the remaining trucks that will be housed at the museum, one, a 1968 Chevrolet Brush Fire Truck, is owned by the association. The others are privately owned and on loan.

Because of their size, firetrucks are not the easiest items to collect. “A lot of people would like to have them, but they’re so big they don’t fit in standard-size garages,” says Burzichelli, who adds that they also must be protected from the elements.

“In my case, I had to put a building up as my collection grew,” he says, referring to the facility he constructed just off Paulsboro’s main drag when his original storage space, which housed six trucks, was repurposed.

And it can be an expensive hobby beyond the cost of storage: Burzichelli, who in 2000 co-edited “Ward LaFrance Fire Trucks, 1918-1978 Photo Archive,” estimates the price of a vintage firetruck at between $6,000 and $140,000, depending primarily on condition but also on the rarity of the individual truck.

The most expensive pieces are those manufactured by Ahrens-Fox, which Burzichelli describes as “the Rolls-Royce” of firetrucks. More common – and less-expensive – are those by Mack, Seagrave and LaFrance. Lower-end collectibles are those constructed on “commercial chassis” made by companies such as Ford.

Burzichelli began collecting in 1972 and currently owns nine vintage firetrucks. His most coveted piece is the same truck his dad drove as a volunteer firefighter for Paulsboro’s now-defunct Billingsport Volunteer Fire Company. It was built in 1949 – making it Burzichelli’s oldest truck – and is a rare specimen, because its original color was dark blue rather than the more traditional red.

For Burzichelli, the trucks have value beyond the pleasure he derives from collecting them. As the owner of a TV, film and video production facility in Paulsboro located inside a former movie theater, Burzichelli is often called upon to create rainfall for movies, which he does with his trucks.

Among the films that have availed themselves of the company’s rain-making abilities are “The Sixth Sense” and “Chasing Amy” as well as, says Burzichelli, “a whole lot of commercials you would recognize. If it’s a rain scene shot in or around Philadelphia, there’s a good chance we’re in the background making rain.”

June 2016
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