Long-time members of many rural towns will remember that fires were once fought when the bell rang. Most communities supported a fire station, staffed by volunteers.
When a fire broke out, someone phoned a neighbor nearest the station and that person ran to the firehouse and pulled on a handle, rope, cable or other connection and caused a very loud bell to clang. As the bell clanged, firefighters grabbed gear and ran to the station for information on where to take the truck and equipment. With luck, they’d arrive before the fire was out-of-hand and spreading.
Repaupo Volunteer Fire Station #1 was no different. Its fire bell was installed when the station was built in the 1940s. That bell is still in place, ready to call firefighters to service.
But it is an artifact now of history and memory, as is the siren that later replaced it. The neighbor who rang the bell needed only push a button and the siren called. Nowadays, of course, modern phone and internet technology can more efficiently dispatch firefighters and arm them with constantly updating information.
But not at Repaupo. After 70 years, give or take a few years to accommodate history’s tenuous memory, the fire station no longer fights fires. In 2014 the fire company disbanded, no longer financially supported by Logan Township. It was a blow to a community whose recognized center for years was the firehouse.
“It’s like someone reached in and ripped the heart out of us,” said Dennis Yarborough, the last president of the firemen’s association that owned the building and the land. Lisa Shearer, once Assistant Chief at Repaupo Station, expanded on Yarborough’s statement. “We’re a rural area and the fire house, for a long time it was the only thing to do around here. To hang out, we went to the fire hall if you didn’t have a car. And you could join as a junior firefighter at 16, go to fire school at 18. It feels like a loss, the station itself being shut down, your local department closing its doors.”
That sense of community goes way back, Yarborough said. “Back in 1940 sometime the firemen’s association bought the property and built the fire house by hand. My grandfather was one of them,” he said, adding, “My grandparents lived near the firehouse. He’s the one who rang the fire bell. My grandfather, father, mom and grandmom, my whole family on both sides were involved. Thirty-eight years I’ve been a volunteer and filled almost every line job in the department, from floor sweeper to (association) president. So it was upsetting to face the (township’s) defunding. It still is.”
Logan Township, which benefitted from the expansion of fire services Repaupo Station provided, supported the station for years, funding equipment, vehicles and a number of necessities. The firemen’s association owned the land and building.
As rural Repaupo grew, many of the volunteers found it difficult to leave jobs and others moved to improve their careers. It became ever more difficult to attract volunteers willing to be trained and to commit to the fire station.
Logan’s fire department began covering more and more of Repaupo’s former area. Repaupo Station was no longer an advantage to the township as a whole, financially speaking.
“I remember back in the day when we had 30 guys run with the firehouse,” Yarborough recalled. “At the end, we only had five.”
But Repaupo fire station will not fade from memory after all. As luck would have it, Keith Kemery, president of CLAFAA, a group of people enormously fond of fire fighting memorabilia from small to large, especially large, heard about the demise of the Repaupo station and zipped into action.
He consulted with the members of CLAFAA and they decided to save the firehouse for use as a museum. He presented the idea to the volunteers who owned the land and building, and an agreement was made to sell the property to CLAFAA for $1, and to include a fire truck, also at $1. Both the fire association and CLAFAA are non-profits and not allowed to make money off each other, Kemery explained.
For the firefighters, it meant their station would not be torn down. Memories would be preserved and each volunteer was inducted into CLAFAA membership, and therefore able to visit the station for events and occasions.
For Kemery’s colleagues it offers a local site to enjoy their passion. There is a trend, Kemery said, for small towns to make fire museums of defunct stations, and he named Mantua and Salem as two South Jersey areas where a museum has been formed from an out-of-service station.
He knows these things because he’s the head of CLAFAA. The letters stand for Cradle of Liberty Antique Fire Apparatus Association. But wait. There’s more. CLAFAA is a local association affiliated with SPAAMFAA. Fully written out, SPAAMFAA is the acronym for Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America.
An “apparatus” refers to a fire vehicle. These are folks not only enamored of old fire engines, chief’s cars, brush trucks and all the associated equipment and paraphernalia, they collect them, refurbish them, repair them and delight the watchers at parades with them. It is, Kemery said, “a growing membership.”
Kemery retired from firefighting after 31 years with the Gloucester Township department. He noted that collectors generally share a history. “Usually they’ve been in the fire service,” he explained. He said he’s found that both firefighters and people whose families included firefighters were interested in learning more about apparatus. “There’s a collector’s market,” he said, and he, himself, is a collector.
Among local collectors, and a CLAFAA member, is Assemblyman John Burzichelli, who represents District 3. He is Deputy Speaker of the Assembly and the happy owner of nine vintage apparatus. But the one he said meant most to him is a blue 1949 Ward LaFrance pumper truck. It is the first truck his father, a firefighter at Billingsport station, ever drove.
“Like many others, I grew up around fire houses and fire trucks”, Burzichelli said. The firetruck his father drove was sold and in 1972 Burzichelli began his collection looking a long time for his father’s truck. The elder Burzichelli had retired in 1970.
He eventually found the LaFrance parked in a closed quarry in West Virginia, he said. “We brought it home and restored it. Firefighters form connections with their trucks and every one of the trucks has a story,” Burzichelli said.
“My father died in March. We took him to his final rest in the truck he drove.” Burzichelli paused, remembering. “You should have seen it. A beautiful blue fire truck against the March snow.”
It is collectors like Burzichelli and Kemery who are expected to visit and appreciate fire museums. Kemery said the Repaupo museum became official when the fire station was re-dedicated in June 2016 as a museum, but it is not yet decided what hours and days it will be open. The garage bays and other rooms are being filled with donations and loans of equipment, vehicles, photos and other memories.
Besides the brush truck sold for $1, Kemery said the museum will display a 1974 Ladder truck from the movie ‘Ladder 49’, starring John Travolta, and a 1903 hose cart from Woolwich Fire Company. Carts like that were pulled by firefighters, not mules or horses.
There will be a mule, though, a 1959 GMC pumper truck nicknamed for the long-eared equine and on display from Deptford Township Fire Department. In addition, Kemery said the museum will present helmets and fire fighting equipment, photos and historical memorabilia.
Admission, he said, is expected to be free.
Perhaps the best use of the re-purposed fire station, however, is the chance for the firefighting community in Repaupo to visit it for one of its original purposes: camaraderie. The new owners, all aficionados of fire-fighting culture and collectors of fire-fighting apparatus and equipment, come from the same sense of community the fire house in Repaupo fostered. That sense of community is important, Kemery suggested.
“You hear stories of when people get together and you get that sense of community. Even today, we talk about how the community in Repaupo has come together to support us in our museum enterprise.”
The museum will hold events and gatherings, happenings and BBQs, Kemery said, all of which will be open to former station volunteers.
“We’re doing our best to keep that (community) feeling,” he said.
Note: October is National Fire Prevention Month. For fire safety tips and suggestions, go to www.redcross.org and search for ‘fire prevention”
To learn about vintage fire vehicles and events, see the CLAFAA website at www.clafaa.org
The group also has a gofundme page for the museum at www.gofundme.com/repaupo-fire-museum
The SPAAMFAA website is www.spaamfaa.org
— By Jean Redstone