A 1934 Seagrave fire engine sits in Ipswich, Mass. where it first entered service. (Photo courtesy of James Sullivan)

A 1934 Seagrave fire engine sits in Ipswich, Mass. where it first entered service. (Photo courtesy of James Sullivan)

Brier teacher restores 1934 fire truck, returns it to New England

A teacher at Brier Terrace Middle School rebuilt it as a learning aid for his students. Now it’s going home to Massachusetts.

By John P. Muldoon / Ipswich Local News

IPSWICH, MASSACHUSETTS — After it was rebuilt in Brier, a 1934 Seagrave fire truck will be returned home to Ipswich, completing an almost 90-year journey that saw it owned by people in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York and Washington.

The truck was recently purchased by Stuart Abelson, the CEO of medical research company Ora, who wants the rig to go on display in Ipswich rather than get stored in a garage somewhere.

The owner before Abelson was James Sullivan, a middle-school STEM teacher in Brier.

Sullivan said his purchase came about as a reaction to COVID and a separate health issue.

“When the pandemic hit, I talked to my wife and said, ‘What am I going to do? Everything’s closed,’ I don’t idle well,” Sullivan said. “I need to get hooked on something.”

He went on to tell his incredulous wife that he wanted to buy a fire truck. As a teacher at Brier Terrace Middle School, “it became the best classroom element I could have ever imagined,” Sullivan said.

“My brother, Mike, and I have always been in to old fire trucks,” Sullivan said. Mike Sullivan was working on one from 1953 a couple of years ago, and James Sullivan had also just suffered a heart attack.

After coming out of the hospital, one day he said to himself, “‘You only live once — let’s go get that truck.’ It was probably the healthiest thing I’ve ever done.”

Sullivan said he “bought” the rig from a retired firefighters’ association in 2020. That was located in Custer, a stone’s throw from the Canadian border.

The charge to take ownership was a $500 donation on condition he do his best to get it running and that he didn’t strip it for parts — some of which, such as the bell and lamp, are worth up to $3,000 each.

School time

Back in Brier, the truck’s new home was in Sullivan’s garage.

“Using it as a classroom prop in my garage for COVID teaching, I began to restore it to full driving and functionality while remote teaching,” he said.

Holding class over a video link with his students, Sullivan said every Friday became “Fire truck Friday.”

The truck had been sitting outside under a tarp that had been slowly disintegrating in the elements, Sullivan said.

It had old gas in the tank, the water tank had rusted out, and the bed was painted with lead paint. But on the whole, “It stayed in pretty darn good shape.”

The key to getting it running again was the carburetor, which had been incorrectly installed by a previous owner, he said.

The class, teacher, and helpers disassembled it. And with the help of plans found on the internet, they milled three brass parts and reassembled it.

After it was back in the truck, Sullivan was able to turn the engine over for the first time in 30 years.


“Students learned about the truck but also scoured the internet, finding history on different parts and even past owners of the truck,” he said.

However, one missing owner baffled the class for a while.

“We all had time to spare,” Sullivan said of that period of COVID.

But the missing information turned up right under their noses.

“We were surprised to find the missing link from 1979, written behind the seat back, while restoring the seat,” he said.

A full list of owners has now been recorded back to 1934, when the truck was first bought by the Ipswich Fire Department.

In class on Zoom with his students, Sullivan said blue and red lights would flash while he told them something new about fire trucks. The sessions wrapped up with the truck’s siren wailing.

As time went on, Mike and James would get together and work one weekend a month in an effort to get the truck ready for its return to Ipswich, he said.

James Sullivan sitting on the 1934 Seagrave fire engine he restored. (Photo courtesy of James Sullivan)

James Sullivan sitting on the 1934 Seagrave fire engine he restored. (Photo courtesy of James Sullivan)


Rule number one of buying a fire truck is “having an exit strategy on how you are going to get rid of it,” Sullivan laughed.

“We’ve always seen ourselves as caretakers,” he said. He hammed it up on video to try to drive up interest in Ipswich to find a buyer.

In summer of 2021, the brothers took the truck to Portland, Oregon, to the Society for the Preservation and Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America’s national conference.

“The rig was now a star!” Sullivan said in an email of the experience. “Lots of rides, car shows, and kids have sat in that new seat since July 2021. A garage full of trophies from car shows, always winning People’s Choice or Best of Show.”

He said he wanted the rig to return to its original home and made several appeals in the last couple of years for buyers.

Jim Foley, a former Ipswich selectman (akin to a City Council member), saw the posts and got in touch. Along with the late Bill George, another former selectman, Foley researched the truck and was instrumental in drumming up interest in Ipswich to get the rig back home.

Around $16,000 in work went into the truck and it sold for $13,500. Abelson then had to pay for shipping cross-country.

“Truth be told, I had another person who really wanted the truck and was scheduled to come by in a couple weeks to purchase it,” Sullivan said.

But his real goal was to return the engine to where it started.

“For us, this is an absolute best-case scenario,” he said. “It’s sad to lose it, but it’s the best.”

Last job

The last call for this truck in Ipswich had been to help with a forest fire in Manchester in 1957. Despite being over 20 years old at the time, it pumped 1,000 gallons a minute for seven days, Sullivan said.

“The engine blew up on the drive home” and was towed into Ipswich.

The bill was $2,000, said Foley, a former selectman and avid fire truck historian.

“That was kind of a lot of money in 1957,” Foley said of the repair bill. There was some back-and-forth between Ipswich and Manchester over who should pay, but then-Gov. Foster Furcolo declared a state of emergency, and the commonwealth picked up the tab.

In 1964, the engine went to Swampscott for its auxiliary fire department before it was sold into private use 15 years later.

“It had a long history — ’34 to ’65 almost — and a second life in Swampscott,” Foley noted.

He said George told him that as a young man he remembered a fire on Little Neck in the 1950s. Two of the town’s three Seagrave trucks were there first.

“That truck saved all the surrounding houses,” Foley said. “I really wish Bill was here to see that truck arrive, because he would have loved it.”

Back home

In 1934, the truck arrived in Ipswich in a rail car and sat for a couple of days in the goods yard on Hayward Street until it was unloaded, Foley said.

This time, the truck will go to Beverly, Massachusetts, on the back of a modern truck. Sullivan took the breakable pieces off and packed those securely along with the body.

He planned to fly out to reassemble everything in an airplane hangar.

“I can’t wait to replicate a couple of key pictures outside that fire station,” Sullivan said.

But the one picture he is missing shows the truck in action spraying water during an emergency. Both he and Foley hope the truck’s arrival will prompt people to dig through their archives to see what new information can be found.

Hopeful that the picture can be found, Sullivan said: “That’s the one I want to blow up and put on the wall of the shop.”

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