The Little Engine That Could

By Dennis Randall


This is a tale of some of the history of the apparatus of the Weedsport Fire Department and one piece in particular.

The Weedsport Fire Department is thought to have existed prior to the actual incorporation of the Village in 183l. Unfortunately, all records of the early operation were lost in the great fire of 1871 which destroyed many buildings in downtown Weedsport, including the fire department engine house on Furnace Street.

In the early days, all fire apparatus was hand drawn to the fire and then hand operated. A fine example of this is the 1832 Lewis Selye pumper "Neptune" which is still owned by the department and amazingly still operates!

As the nineteenth century progressed, a man in Cincinnati, Ohio invented a dependable pump operated by a coal or wood fired boiler. In the 1890's, a Silsby steam pumper manufactured in Seneca Falls was purchased by the Village of Weedsport and put into service at the new (10884) firehouse on South Street. It was beyond the village's means to stable its own horses and so offered the princely sum of five dollars to the man whose team made the hitch to the steamer when the fire bell rang.

As a note aside, when I first joined the fire department in the early 1960's, Bill Johannes who was Chief Ray Pichany's father-in-law, by then a very elderly man, used to tell stories of when he was a child hearing the fire bell ringing and seeing driverless teams and wagons racing to the firehouse with the cursing driver chasing along several blocks in arrears. Bear in mind that in those days five dollars was a family man's weekly wages and the horses had been beaten so hard to get to the firehouse first that they were taking no chances, whether the driver was on the wagon or not!

As the twentieth century moved along, a new and wonderful invention had been made - the automobile. Soon the Weedsport Fire Department replaced the hand drawn hose carts and other apparatus with various types of automotive power. The "Eagle" Seagrave hook and ladder was even converted with a Ford Model TT tractor pulling the previously hand drawn piece. Early pieces of automotive apparatus include Atterbury and Sanbert makes, among others.

In the early 1920's the village started looking for a replacement for the Silsby steamer. Coincidentally the Sanford Motor Truck Company of Syracuse, that had been building commercial trucks since 1910, had decided to concentrate their efforts on custom fire apparatus. Their "Greyhound" models had found great favor in industry and were seen throughout the northeast with freight bodies, snow plows and the occasional fire truck. As a matter of fact, the neighboring Port Byron Fire Department was using a piece of Obenchain Boyer apparatus built in Logansport, Indiana, which was built on a 1923 Sanford Greyhound chassis and they were well satisfied with it.

The Sanford Company built a demonstrator bearing the serial number 501, which after considerable negotiation was delivered to the Weedsport Fire Department on June 25, 1925. The apparatus was powered by a massive (in those days) Continental engine and was equipped with a 500 GPM Waterous rotary gear pump, which required no priming. This was the first apparatus operated by Weedsport that carried its own water (245 gallon chemical tanks), ladders and hose making it a triple combination engine.

Sanford wanted to make this first piece special, so instead of the typical gold leaf which is still seen on the fire apparatus today, it was lettered in "silver" leaf (actually white gold), outlined in a dark green and hand detailed with a tremendous amount of white accents. This elaborate white "piping and flagging" was to remain a Sanford trademark until regrettably they went out of the business in 1990.

Again, a short digression, the Silsby steamer had been traded in on the Sanford, but old steamers were a drag on the market and no one wanted them, therefore, it was returned to the WFD to use for parades and such. Space at the firehouse was at a premium (some things never change!) and it was stored at the local Buick dealership ( W.H. Smith). Unfortunately, the steamer was lost when the dealership burned. In those days gasoline was dispensed by applying air pressure over the liquid in an underground tank. A car knocked over the gas pump sending a geyser of gasoline into the air with very predicable results!

Apparently the recommendation of Sanford by Port Byron was a good one since Sanford S/N 501 served the Weedsport community for an amazing 38 years until 1963! "Old George" as it came to be known, became a legend in its own time. It's thought that it acquired the nickname for Chief George E. Wethey, as it was his favorite piece of apparatus. An item of note is that on drafting ten feet from the Seneca River at the state dock, "Old George" could consistently throw a straight stream completely over the river. Several pieces of fire apparatus come and went without being able to meet this challenge - not the LaSalle, not the 1937 Dodge/Cayasler, not the Autocar, not the 1950 Ford/Sanford and not the 1962 Ford/Howe.

During the 1950's, a serious flood on the downtown area resulted when ice dammed up Putnam Brook, which sent millions of gallons of water through the old millrace into the basements of the businesses on E. Brutus Street. Old George was called upon and pumped day and night for three days, never shutting down. Gasoline was poured in from jerry cans and a clever floating oil gauge on the engine allowed oil to be added without having to shut down and use a dipstick.

In 1962, upon delivery of the Ford/Howe, space again became a problem, and the village of Weedsport sold the Sanford to longtime President of the Fire Department Dwight "Doc" Goodwin. Doc drove the Sanford to musters and parades all over upstate New York and for years kept it outside the Port 40 Motel (now Day's Inn) that he and his wife Fran operated. Doc became an early member of SPAAMFAA - the Society for the Preservation And Appreciation of Motorized Fire Apparatus in America. As a matter of fact, during the 1970's, the national publication of this group showed the Sanford under about four feet of snow outside of the motel. The caption was "Doc Goodwin's 1925 Sanford in winter storage". The motel became knows nationally as the one with the fire truck!

Eventually a large garage was built behind Doc and Fran's home on Green Street and the Sanford more or less retired there. As Doc and Fran grew older it became impossible for them to drive and maintain this vintage truck and it sat for many years. After Doc's passing, his daughter and son-in-law, Mike and Donna Glowacki, saw fit to donate this historic rig to join the approximately one hundred other pieces of antique apparatus at the American Museum of Firefighting in Hudson, New York.

The museum staff has lovingly restored "Old George" to as new condition in Dot and Fran's memory. We were fortunate that many delivery photos existed so that the exquisite detailing could be replicated. The Sanford was shown last year at the National SPAAMFAA convention, The National American Truck Historical Society Convention and privately shown at the Old Brutus Historical Society in Weedsport. It may be seen any day except major holidays at the museum, 117 Harry Howard Ave., Hudson, NY from 9:00 a.m. to 4:40 p.m. Admission is free.


The above article appears in the March 2004 issue of the Weedsport "In Port" newspaper.

You can contact Dave Keel who is the Business Manager there,

or write to :

In Port

PO Box 430

Weedsport, NY 13166


You can see more photos of Denny and Jennie on the firetrucks during the 2003 Flag Day Parade at these links :

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