“The first time I saw this vehicle was back in 1997, in a barn over in Olivebridge,” says Ralph Van Kleeck, Jr., captain of Olive Fire Department No. 2, where the bright red 1936 Holabird, now known as “The USA,” is currently based in Shokan. “It had just been kind of forgotten for a while.”
Van Kleeck explains how Olive Fire Department founder Al Fox had bought the custom-built fire engine from a U.S. Army surplus sale in Plattsburgh back in 1947, when he and several friends decided it was time to start a volunteer fire company to serve their widespread township. The open-backed truck was built for use at the army barracks there. Olive then kept it running as its one and only vehicle until its engine blew in 1959, at which point it was shoved away into the barn where it would live the next 38 years.
In the late 1990s, a group of Olive firemen took the engine out of “The USA,” named for the truck’s identifying army insignia, and shipped it up to Albany to be rebuilt. In the late 2000s, the truck was moved down to a body shop in Hyde Park for sandblasting and new paint.
Van Kleeck, who studied truck mechanics at SUNY Delhi and now looks after the Town of Woodstock’s vehicles as a Highway Department employee, says he took over the effort to get the historic USA up and running a few years back, overseeing its final fundraising push. The effort finally paid off last May when it premiered for a summer of outings that started with the annual Olive Memorial Day parade in West Shokan.
“We raised $120,000 in chicken barbecues and donations,” Van Kleeck adds. “We had quite a time finding tires for it. It’s a real rare size, and they’re expensive. We finally found a place in Ohio that had some, and brought them out to Rhinebeck for a show so we could save the shipping costs. They ended up costing $4,300.”
Inside the original brick Shokan firehouse, where The USA now rests pampered by its many admirers, Van Kleeck is joined by fellow firemen Craig Russo and his father Angelo Russo. The three start joking about how much chicken they all had to eat to get their new baby up and running. As well as how they have to keep fundraising to pay for each of its trips to parades by flatbed.
“We just thought it would be a great piece of history for the fire department and the town,” said Van Kleeck, whose father was an Olive firefighter before him. “Townspeople have been hearing about this for years, because of all the fundraisers and raffles, but they could never see the truck — and now they can see the truck. They can see what their money went to. It’s made a lot of people proud to see it out and about again.”
The three added how such little things help attract new members to the fire company, a must for small communities such as Olive.
Van Kleeck further notes a new Junior Firefighter program, just started, that allows youngsters to now join their local fire company at age 13, instead of having to wait until 16, as he did.
“We’ve got about 18 young members now for our five companies,” he said. “That’s alongside 100 active members townwide.”
The three men note how it might make sense, next, to start an Olive Fire Department museum.
But then they add how there were still more repairs on The USA to tinker through first.
They try to rev her up but it’s cold and the engine’s not turning over. Nevertheless, they open the fire house’s doors to stand back and take a gander at their achievement, and town’s first fire truck, anew. ++