Greenport volunteers restore 82-year-old fire truck

For the past 2 1/2 years, four Greenport Fire Department members have led the effort to restore the company's 1933 fire truck. Bob Jester (from left), John Grilli, George Capon and Charlie Hydell took it for its first test drive last month. (Credit: Grant Parpan)
For the past 2 1/2 years, four Greenport Fire Department members have led the effort to restore the company’s 1933 fire truck. (From left) Bob Jester, John Grilli, George Capon and Charlie Hydell took it for its first test drive last month. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Bob Jester still remembers the delight he felt as a young boy when he’d see his father, Walter, turn the corner while driving the Greenport Fire Department’s 1933 Mack truck.

Some youngsters might have felt the same last week when the beautiful red truck passed by in Southold Town’s Memorial Day parade.

More than 60 years after the pumper was retired from service — and two decades since the last effort to refurbish it — Mr. Jester and three fellow fire department volunteers have spent the past 2 1/2 years restoring the truck to its current, nearly complete, state.

“Raccoons lived in it and holes had rusted through the seat,” Mr. Jester said, recalling the pumper’s condition when the project started in 2013.

“Some people looked at us like we were nuts,” said John Grilli, who did most of the mechanical work. “Now they say, ‘It’s a beauty.’ ”

The driving force behind the restoration, the men will tell you, has been 86-year-old George Capon, a 67-year department member who can still recall when the truck saw regular action.

Mr. Capon admits that when they started the project, he told the other members a little fib, hoping it might speed things along.

“I said my doctor told me I only had five years to live,” he joked.

They more than beat his deadline.

George Capon (left) and John Grilli in the truck during the Southold Town Memorial Day parade last week. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)
George Capon (left) and John Grilli in the truck during the Southold Town Memorial Day parade last week. (Credit: Katharine Schroeder)

While the most recent restoration effort officially began two years ago, it’s been a labor of love for Mr. Jester since 1965. That was the year Mr. Jester, then 18, approached the Greenport Village Board, $618 in his bank account, and asked to purchase the abandoned pumper. Then-mayor Arthur Levine told him the village hoped to instead display the truck at a park along Main Street.

“I just about cried,” Mr. Jester said as he remembered the truck being towed from the firehouse to the park.

Still, he never lost sight of the pumper. Fifteen years later, as a young man with a wife and five children, he once again approached the village. This time around, they sold him the truck for just $10.

Mr. Jester said his restoration efforts moved slowly over the next decade. He eventually gifted it to another fire department member, Jamie Mills, who vowed to keep it in Greenport.

Mr. Mills completed the truck’s restoration and, in 1990, the pumper was selected to represent 1933 in the FDNY’s 125th anniversary parade in New York City.

After several years, though, the old truck was mostly forgotten again. Eventually, the barn where it was stored collapsed and it fell rapidly into disrepair.

Mr. Jester, who can recite the truck’s history off the top of his head, didn’t want that to be the end of its story.

The first fire the truck ever responded to was at St. Agnes R.C. Church on Front Street. By 1950, it had responded to more than 350 calls. Mr. Capon recalled finding the truck completely covered in ice after responding to a winter fire at Brigham’s Shipyard that occurred soon after he joined the department.

(Credit: Grant Parpan)
(Credit: Grant Parpan)

Mr. Grilli said the fire department still has old photos of the pumper and even a 16mm film of it in action.

When the latest restoration effort began, the team convinced fellow Greenport Fire Department volunteers to take ownership of the truck and store it in the garage at the Third Street Firehouse. Another option would have been to let the Village of Greenport take possession of it.

“But I feared that one day down the line someone in the village might decide to sell it,” Mr. Jester said. “I know that with the fire department there is no way to ever get more than half the members to agree to do any one thing, so it would be safe with us.”

About two dozen department members volunteered to help with the rebuild in 2013, but that number slowly dwindled to four: Mr. Capon, Mr. Jester, Mr. Grilli and Charlie Hydell, who did the woodwork.

They had help from friends and family along the way and many businesses also stepped up, though they declined to name any for this article to avoid leaving anyone out. (Soon, they plan to compile a list of all who helped so they can be publicly thanked at a later date.)

“We kept [the project] very quiet,” Mr. Jester said. “With something like this, there’s always a great chance of failure.”

To ensure the restoration’s success, they worked deep into the night and on weekends after this year’s cold winter passed — and once Mr. Capon returned from Florida to crack the whip.

The final piece of the puzzle for getting the truck back on the road was rebuilding the transmission and freeing the clutch. About a week before it made its public debut at the Memorial Day parade, where Mr. Grilli could be spotted driving it down Main Road in Southold with Mr. Capon on board, they took it for its first test drive around Front Street.

“Everyone was giving us the thumbs up,” Mr. Capon said.

Virtually all the truck’s parts, and certainly its look, are authentic to 1933. Mr. Jester and Mr. Capon said the cost of the restoration has been about $25,000, and they estimate similar projects have been outsourced in other departments for upward of $250,000.

The project has been a big hit with community members who have seen the truck restored to its former glory.

Ken Korsh of East Marion said he first learned about it through Mr. Capon and was impressed by what he saw.

“It’s really a nice-looking truck and a terrific story,” he said.

The group’s work isn’t quite finished, however. The fire department is attempting to raise $3,000 through a bike raffle to pay for the new tires they’ve ordered. And this summer, the men hope to get the truck’s water pump and fuel gauge working again.

They also plan to work with a local funeral home to retrofit the bed of the truck to carry caskets for fire department funerals. They say the emotions they have about the truck now are nothing compared to what they’ll feel when that happens.

“That will definitely be rough,” said Mr. Grilli, the truck’s driver.

Of course, they hope that drive to the cemetery won’t occur for some time.

Right now, they’re just happy to have saved the 82-year-old truck from heading to another funeral — its own.

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