WEYERS CAVE — Just over a week ago around 100 folks from the Weyers Cave community gathered at the village firehouse for a farewell party. The sendoff was not for a person, however, but rather, for a big green firetruck dubbed Engine 52 that has been a fixture with the company for nearly 32 years.
When the brand-new truck pulled into the fire station in 1988, it was with lights flashing and sirens blaring. When it pulled out this time, destined for a museum in Roanoke, it was again amid flashing lights and wailing sirens. The send-off was bittersweet according to several long-standing veterans of the Weyers Cave Volunteer Fire Company.
On one hand, the truck with its aging equipment could not meet the needs a modern fire company. On the other hand, there was a bit of sadness seeing the big green machine depart. For Melvin Groah, who has been in the company for 54 years, the engine has been an important part of his long firefighting career. He spent 36 years as a paid firefighter in Harrisonburg, but his love of the profession took root in Weyers Cave where his father was a charter member.
“When the fire whistle went off, I was always in the car before my father even got there,” Groah said. “I actually drove a firetruck when I was 15 years old.”
The 1988 Hahn custom 1,500 GPM pumper is a rarity these days because the Hahn Company in Pennsylvania went out business a year after Weyers Cave received its truck. It was one of few Hahns in the area and, consequently, Engine 52 was the go-to truck that the company took to parades in addition to it being the go-to firefighting engine.
Four members, who represent a combined 181 years of service in the fire company, shared stores about the truck and its association with the community.
The story of the Hahn truck is just the latest chapter in a long history of fire fighting in the community that began in 1924 when, after two big fires in two years, Weyers Cave organized a fire company.
Three chemical trucks were purchased and placed strategically around the village. The new company also had three handcarts with mounted water tanks and hoses. The carts had buggy wheels on them, but the company converted two carts to rubber tires so they could be pulled behind cars to fires.
In 1948, the company was officially chartered as the Weyers Cave Voluntary Fire Company with 73 members, one of the few companies to use the word “voluntary” rather than “volunteer” in its official name at the time. It was at that time that the group bought its first real fire engine, a Chevrolet with a John Bean High Pressure Fog Pump. The company still owns that restored red engine today.
The company continued to grow and expand, but by the late 1980s, the vehicle situation was dire.
“We had had 18 years of hand-me-downs and overhauls,” said Doug Wrenn who has been in the company for 41 years, but was a junior firefighter even before that.
In 1987, a small miracle occurred. The county, under administrator Dick Huff, helped created a revolving loan fund so that small volunteer companies could fund the purchase of large ticket items like fires trucks.
Weyers Cave became the first local fire company to qualify under the new loan system and an order for a new truck was placed with the Hahn Company in Hamburg, Pa. A group from the fire department made the trip to the factory on several occasions to follow the building progress of their engine.
One of those who traveled to Hamburg was Linda Beathe, who has been with Weyers Cave for 38 years, and was one of the first female line officers in Augusta County. In 1988, she was also the company treasurer, a position that she would hold for 18 years.
“There were very few women in firefighting at that time and when we went through the factory they totally ignored me … until they found out that I wrote the check,” she said with a smile. “Then they were side by side with me all the way through the factory.”
The check that Beathe signed on July 2, 1988, for $176,792, is still in the archives of the fire company. By the time all the equipment had been added to the vehicle, the total price tag was $234,000.
The vehicle immediately became the star of the company fleet.
“It was special because we bought it new and also because it was a Hahn. It was kind of like owning a Cadillac after having had Fords and Chevrolets. Before this, our fleet was so poor, maybe the worst fleet on paper in Augusta County. That’s why we were first on the list in the revolving loan fund,” Wrenn said.
Because of it quality, the engine has made the rounds at parades and firefighting gatherings. It went to the International Chiefs conference in 1988 when it was brand new, which was quite an honor.
The Hahn, however, was purchased to fight fires and in those days the Weyers Cave company had a larger territory to cover.
Company veterans said back then they ran and laid down their own lines, covering calls from the Blue Ridge Mountains on the east to the Alleghenies on the west.
The Hahn had a lot of new-fangled things like a four-door cab, which was a new innovation, and a powerful V-8 engine. It also had an improved hose system that increased the company’s capacity and efficiency in dousing flames.
The engine soon became even more of a showpiece because the family-owned Hahn company closed down the following year during the national financial crisis after having been in business since 1898.
There was one other thing that the company special ordered with their Hahn — it was painted green. Although green engines are more common in the north, Weyers Cave is one of the few companies in the Valley with a green fleet.
How the company ended up going green is an interesting story because it has not always been so. In fact, that first Chevrolet engine that they bought in 1948 was, and still is, traditional fire engine red. They then added a vehicle that they assembled themselves that was yellow. Finally, in 1978, they purchased a used 1969 Rouss pumper truck that was green.
“When we bought that truck, our intentions were to paint it chrome yellow,” the veterans remembered. “But the paint was on too thick and besides, it was too pretty to change. We didn’t have the money to redo it anyway, so that became our color.”
“At one time we were known as the rainbow company because we had a green engine, a red engine and a yellow engine. That was before trucks had numbers so it was real easy when you were fighting a fire to say, ‘go get such and such’ off the red engine,’” Wrenn noted.
By the time the Hahn arrived, the company had deeply invested in a future of green vehicles.
The Hahn was a great investment, both as a showcase piece and as a firefighter. It recently flipped over to 80,000 miles after it had returned from a fire engine show in Hamburg and was then driven directly to a fire call in the Piedmont area of Augusta County.
“It has been a showpiece. It was featured in a book and has been a big winner of trophies. Rumor has it that it is one of the most awarded pieces of fire equipment in the state of Virginia,” Wrenn said.
Joe Bush, who has been with the fire company for 40 years, remembered that he was involved in the first wreck of the new engine when he was driving it back from a parade in West Virginia and collided with a Ford Escort.
No one was hurt and the other driver was at fault, so the sheriff just waved him on, he recalled with a laugh.
Bush, who lives in Swoope, added that he got married the same year the Hahn arrived in Weyers Cave and that he and his wife have many fond memories of traveling with the Hahn to special events.
The rest is history
An engine with 80,000 miles on it and all original equipment, however, sometimes struggles to meet the demands of modern firefighting and could compromise the company’s ability to safely do their jobs in an emergency situation.
“We knew it was time. The Hahn was just not suitable for 21st century emergency services, especially for long hauls or runs on the interstate,” the group said.
However, the last thing the company wanted to see was No. 52 being torn apart for scrap metal.
“We didn’t want to see it sitting out in a pasture field being robbed of its parts. We wanted to see it go to a good home,” Wrenn said.
Therefore, the company decided to advertise it online with a focus on collectors rather than scrap metal dealers. Darryl Thompson of Roanoke agreed to pay $8,000 for the shiny engine with all its original equipment.
Thompson is creating the Virginia Fire Museum in Roanoke to tell the story of firefighting in the Commonwealth. He tentatively plans to open the museum late this year and wants Engine 52 to be part of the museum’s exhibits.
“Weyers Cave has its own neat story. I want to tell the story of the green and the story of the Hahn, which is probably one of the last custom cabs that the company ever made,” he said.
On that fateful Friday when Thompson arrived to pick up his new firetruck, a group gathered at the firehouse to give Engine 52 a proper sendoff. They hooked everything up, turned on the hoses, expelled water from the tank for one last time, and shared stories about their big green engine.
“We knew it was time, but it has been such a war horse for us,” Groah said.
The company has a new truck on order that is due to arrive in January of 2021. When it arrives, it will be the start of a new tradition at the Weyers Cave Volunteer Fire Company.