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Sometimes it Really Hurts to Say No – February 2020 Edition of History & Heritage

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Welcome to this month’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.

We are located at 421 Summer Street.  Our winter hours are Monday through Wednesday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. thanks to a wonderful staff of volunteers. Please stop in and check out the new permanent St. Johnsbury Town Band exhibit.

This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home and barn a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. Browse our web site at and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802 – 424 – 1090.

Sometimes it Really Hurts to Say No

Such was the case when Charley Leclerc came to History & Heritage to talk about his prized possession. It is a Peter Pirsch aerial ladder truck purchased by the St. Johnsbury Fire Department in 1938. It had the distinction of being the first hydraulic operated ladder truck in the state of Vermont. The problem is that it is 7 and half feet wide AND 40 feet long! The “hurt” comes when you talk to Charley, Richard Reed and Dave Brown and the truck comes to life as an important part of St. Johnsbury Fire Department’s history.

Purchased in Boston from Tip O’Neil, (remember that name? former Speaker of the House) a salesman at the time.  Richard and David remember hearing there was a Dodge Pumper of 350 gallons a minute thrown in to sweeten the deal. It arrived by rail and Bryce Montgomery remembers watching it be unloaded over at True Temper (off from Concord Avenue before you get to the light). It took up residence in the present day Fire Station on Main Street. The lot had been purchased from the Athenaeum trustees in May of 1923.The firemen had moved in to the new building in May of 1924.

When it was fully extended, the height was 65 feet and the first one to climb to the top was Johnny Willey, father of Harold Willey. Not only did he climb to the top, but he came down the other side! Charley’s father, Ernest, was a fireman when the truck was there and he drove it most of the time. Ernest was the number one fireman after the Assistant Chief.  Add to the truck’s story a dog named Lady; she was a German shepherd brought back by a soldier that served in World War II. Charley tells that Lady “took a liking to my father” and sometimes it would come home with him. When at the fire station if the phone gave one long ring, Lady would jump on the ladder and ride to the fire. If she wasn’t right there when the bell rang, she would come running and jump on.

Richard Reed’s first memory of the truck was as a student coming up Western Avenue on March 6, 1956 and seeing the Academy building North Hall on fire. “A bunch of us kids were coming up Western Avenue when low and behold, smoke was pouring out of the old North Hall. I saw that ladder truck in action.” Richard went on to become a fireman in St. Johnsbury and he had an opportunity to drive it. Richard said, “It was quite the experience. It was a truck that went to a lot of fires in the town and saved a lot of properties.”

After its time of over 30 years in St. Johnsbury, the ladder truck went to Bradford, Vermont and following that it was sold to Harold Puffer of Groton. There are probably some “kids” that remember being given a ride when it was in Groton.  In 2000, Harold donated it back to its original home and efforts were made to have it restored. The Box 36 Club was made up of former firefighters, current firefighters in the St. Johnsbury Fire Department and people interested in the fire service. The club took on the challenge of trying to raise $20,000 to restore the truck and it would be used in parades and for show. Bob Veilleux’s Service on Mt. Pisgah Road was doing the work.  The storage for the truck was lost off from South Main Street and all the funds that were needed fell short.  The home it has now is with Charley and he has brought it back to life. It has been driven in parades and was at the Elks Home on Western Ave. when they had their anniversary. Last summer it was part of the show at the old Waterford Race Track with its ladder reaching for the sky.

The 4th truck on the right is the ladder truck. Ernest Leclerc is pictured (second person on the right on the truck). Standing between the 3rd and 4th truck are Claude Arnold on the left (featured in this year’s Ghost Walk) and Chief John McGill on the right. Hubert Simon ( in like uniform) is to Claude’s left and straight back is John Willey – the first person on the 3rd truck.

With it looking so good and such a part of our Fire Department’s history, yes it hurts to say “No,” but it is just too big! What do many of us hope for? First would be that Charley will live a long time! The hope for the future is that some day at a new Fire Station in St. Johnsbury, there will be an additional bay that can showcase this 1938 ladder truck.

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