Van Houten's Landing Oral History Project 2006
Everett "Smokey" Wanamaker - Where there's smoke there's a fire. Where there's a fire, there's Smokey" - Dr. John Gilchrist
I joined the fire department in 1944 - May 4th. Our next meeting coming up will be exactly May 4 - I'll be in the company 60 years. I joined because my whole family belonged here. In fact I have a picture downstairs that my wife just sent up now that they want me to put up here in the firehouse, that shows all our family from my grandfather all the way down the whole family tree. At one time we had 32 Wanamakers in this company. Even with the 32 Wanamakers, we never ruled the roost. Some people say, "You must have run the company," but we didn't - we didn't get away with what we wanted.
My father was Frank Wanamaker. My uncle was Roy Wanamaker - he was also chief of the fire department. At the same time he was police chief here in Upper Nyack - we used to call him Chief Chief.
And then I had my uncle Bill Wanamaker who was a shoemaker down in Nyack. And of course all his children joined - Bill and Bubby. My Uncle Roy he had one son - he had 3 of his children join, and besides that he had 2 other sons, and they had 2 or 3 members who came in. The history goes straight down.
I have one son that belongs here. He's been in here about 26 years now, and he's also a captain in a New York City fire department, and he's waiting right now - he's hoping within the next 2 or 3 weeks to be promoted to battalion chief in the city.
I joined, and the whole family was here. It was interesting. I joined when I was 16 years old, because it was during the war at the time. They were short on manpower, so they let 16-year-olds come in. I was only in a couple months and the trucks weren't getting out because they were losing men.
So, we had a 1929 Seagrave - it was an old truck with right hand gear shifts on it, brakes and all that stuff. I actually learned how to drive on that truck. After I learned how, I was on the list and I used to drive quite a few times. I was still in high school, but they used to let me out of high school. I had a bicycle, so when the whistle used to blow, I would ride from the Nyack high school down here to drive the truck. So, after I was driving for 6 or 7 months, some lady asked if I had a driver's license, and I said, "No, I don't have a driver's license - I learned how to drive here." They said, "Oh well, you've gotta have a driver's license, so then they had to take me off the list for a while. And so I went and got a driver's license. I've been driving ever since; I'm still driving today.
My father used to tell me stories. My father belonged here 65 years before he died. He used to tell me about the dirt roads. What they used to do - the truck was in the firehouse, but the horses were kept down on Main Street. When the alarm came, the guys would have to come up with the horses. Lots of times the firemen here would get the truck and they'd pull it by hand down Broadway to meet the horses. He said it used to be mud and everything else.
That truck had a tiller on the back of it - you used to steer in the back. He said that was in the days they used to really fight over the tiller. He said sometimes you'd get in the tiller seat, but that didn't mean anything. Somebody'd come along and pull you out -because then you would have to pull that truck down through the mud.
That was long before my time.
Back in the 1800s - 1860, 1870, there used to be two companies in here. There was the ladder truck, and then there was a pumper truck, a horse-driven pumper truck. There were two different companies in the house, and they didn't get along too good together. The one company separated and they left here and they went up and formed the Chelsea Hook and Ladder. That's the other hook and ladder, up on Catherine Street. So that's what happened. That was many, many years ago. It used to be called the Defender Engine Company 'til they went up there and called it Chelsea Hook and Ladder.
The old fire buckets over there - years ago they used to put fires out with them. There were troughs around town with water in them. They'd have to run with their buckets, dip it in, and run to the fire.
Goosetown Against the World
They used to raise geese here in Upper Nyack. There were hardly any houses, just farms then, and they used to raise geese. And the farmers would walk their geese around. Back in, I think it was 1936, they had the Hudson-Fulton convention here and Empire went out to raise money for the parade, and we raised - not me, I wasn't here then - quite a bit of money, and the rest of the department didn't raise hardly anything. And they wanted Empire to turn the money over, and they said, "Well gee, being you people didn't hardly get out and raise anything, we're not turning the money over. We're going to keep it." They said, "If you're going to do that, we're not going to allow you to parade in the parade." We said, "All right, fine." So in the meantime, one of the companies in Nyack invited us to be their guests - and parade in our own parade, so that time they said, "Okay - Goosetown against the world." That's our slogan on the truck yet today - on the front of the truck - Goosetown against the world.
In fact, we just got a new truck - back in 2000 our truck was going on 4 years old. We had just formed a fire district - I think it was about 5 years ago now. See, the villages used to supply all the trucks - like Upper Nyack took care of just Empire; Nyack took care of 6 trucks down there, and South Nyack took care of that one truck. So they ended up forming a district and now it's all one department, and they split the cost of running it up equally. So we got our new truck 3, 4 years ago. We didn't set too good with the district, 'cause we'd always give them a hard time. We didn't know if the district was going to allow us to put "Goosetown Against the World" on the truck. But they did. It's still there.
Of course, with the shipyard down here, we always had good relations with them. And now, being as our truck is away, we've got all the ladders off down there. They're going to redo our ladders for us - sand them down, varnish them. We had to take the ladders down there, so we gotta wait for the truck to come back to put them on, one at a time. Hope they'll have them done. Yeah, we always had good relationships with the shipyard.
We had a couple of boat fires, but they were minor. Well, I say minor, but many years ago, back in the early 1900s, they had a boat fire down there, and one of the firemen - they went down on the boat and they thought they had the fire out, so they got on the boat and they started checking it, and all of a sudden, the boat blew up, and the fellow was killed - a fellow called Gomer Morgan. But that was quite a few years ago. That's the only real bad incident that I heard down there.
We did have a fire one time in a house on Ellen Street - they had a chair fire. The person tried to put it out himself, and then they tried to pull it out on the porch and it got stuck in the doorway. When it got stuck in the doorway it broke out in flames. I remember because we were here setting up for a Christmas party for the kids, and the guy came running up the street and he said his house was on fire. We pulled down the street, and we got there and the whole porch was on fire. Outside of that we've had some minor fires down there, but nothing major that I can think of.
Well, of course years ago the worst fires were mattress fires - the smoke and stuff. But now today you have all kinds of chemicals, and furniture made of all kinds of plastics. You've got to wear what we call Scott air tank packs - the masks and tanks. It's a very, very strict rule here that you cannot go into any kind of fire without a mask on - even car fires. You've got to have the masks and tanks on, because of the different types of materials made today that are noxious. And of course you have many kinds of tank trucks driving through town with chemicals - which we didn't have years ago. You went to a house fire, you were mainly concerned with, I'd say the worst was mattress smoke.
One of the biggest fires they've had since I've been in was the Grand Union in Nyack- that was a pretty big and bad fire. And we had Jewett estate in Upper Nyack - that was very bad. The Grand Union was in the 1951 - I can tell you that because I had just become an officer here in the company. That was my first fire as an officer. That was a very bad fire.
But the Jewett fire that was probably somewhere around the 50s, mid-50s, and that was a pretty bad fire. I remember the people in there said they had a rabbit on the third floor, and they wanted me to get the rabbit - a special pet they had. I went up the fire escapes to get the rabbit, and I got inside and was holding the rabbit cage, pulling and yanking on it, and I just couldn't get it. The fire broke out in the windows below me, and I had to get out. So I went down the stairs. Come to find out, they had the rabbit cage wired to the radiator. That was why I couldn't get it. Of course they lost the rabbit.
He had some very valuable pictures of his ancestors and stuff - they offered $1,000 right there if anybody would go in and get the pictures. But we couldn't - it was just too hot. They probably wouldn't have been any good anyway with all that heat.
We have a lot of good times here - and some bad times. Sometimes you go to fires and guys get hurt. We lost one of our members in 9/11 - Welles. We had a memorial service here for Welles. He rescued 19 people. Then he got killed. He belonged here in the company, and his father belongs here, and his sister belongs here. She's one of the only women we have in the fire company here. They had a memorial down at the church, and then we had a big reception here for him. They put a plaque out on the front of the firehouse in his memory and they have a light on the plaque, plus we have a plaque on the back of the firehouse in his memory. That was one of the saddest times we ever had. They put him on the honor roll up in Albany. He's the only non-New York City fireman on the honor roll. So we went up with the truck and the fellows went up in uniform. That was quite a day.
But as far as social times go, we've always been pretty good here. We have times when there are never any problems. The guys get together real good. We sell the Christmas trees, and then we have a combination fund-raiser and Christmas party. We have what you call the Christmas Stocking Stuffer. We give away $15,000, $10,000 first prize and a couple of $1,000 and a couple of $500. But that's to raise money and also of course a social function. We make money, but we have Christmas parties for the kids. We have Halloween parties.
When we have a parade we usually have a block dance party out front. We have a parade about every 2 years. That's a chief's parade and inspection. In fact, we have one coming up this year on October 2nd. It's a chief's inspection, so we'll have a big party here then. Then in July we have a pig roast, and we have another of those raffles and they give away $5,000.
Tomorrow they're giving the deputy chief a surprise 40th birthday party here, at the firehouse tomorrow. I don't know what they're going to do with all the stuff down here, but anyway… We have quite a few social functions down here.
Today we're getting very, very low on manpower again - just like it was when the war was. I guess with the kids today going to college, there's too much other stuff for them to do. And the people moving into the county and into the town, they're just not - it's not their thing. Years ago we used to train right here at the firehouse - we'd have skill drills, like Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights, we had drills right here.
But now you go to the fire training center over in Pomona. You have to take special courses to join the fire department today. Fellows that are working all day long, they don't feel like going to school 2 or 3 hours at night, and they gotta go 2 or 3 nights a week before they can be accepted into the department. OSHA demands that. So it's a hard thing to get anybody to join.
The biggest problem you have today is these pagers. That tone gives alert and then the whistle blows. At the fire building they'll announce it - where the fire is. We have so many automatic alarms today, people have them in their houses and stores, and phones. It's just a shame; a lot of people hear the automatic alarm and they lay there. They wait until somebody gets on the scene and say, "There's smoke - we see smoke in the building." Then they get out of bed and go. Not all of them - myself, the whistle blows, and I'm out.
We're having trouble during the daytime now. If we have an alarm, there's nobody around. It's unfortunate; a lot of times the truck don't even go out during the day - unless they come on and say there's some kind of a fire. Then we have guys that work around this side of the county - they'll come over and go. They'll get out, but they may be late. Lots of times we're out quick - you never know.
Our goose here, we used to have that goose hanging downstairs in the back by the bar, but we have Orangetown company down in South Nyack, and they have a big orange for their emblem, or whatever you call it. Every once in a while our guys would go down, to some sort of party and end up stealing their orange. Then Orangetown came up here and they kept stealing our goose - we had it mounted on the wall - we had bolts went right through the wall, and they still came up and stole it. So then their firehouse burnt down. At that time we had their orange and they had our goose. We thought the goose got burned up, but when they had the new firehouse built and they had it dedicated, we went down and we presented the orange back to them and said, "Now this is permanent, now you're gonna keep it - now can you leave our goose alone?" So here's our goose, and they got their orange back, and they got a nice new firehouse.
(Looking at a framed photograph) That's all the Wannamakers - my grandfather at the top. Then, down here, that's my father. That's my Uncle Roy and my Uncle Bill. This is another one of his sons here - Percy. He belongs here, but he died at a young age. This is all my father's side, all the way down to me - my son.
When did the first Wannamaker join?
Well, it's 1880.
Recorded at the Empire Hook & Ladder No. 1
April 21. 2004
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