• Carmen Marie Fabio

Local fireman’s tribute to International Firefighters’ Day

PHOTO BY CARMEN MARIE FABIO

Pointe des Cascades firefighter Mike Lavigne’s extensive collection of firefighting memorabilia includes this 1927 American LaFrance truck once owned by the Shriners, and now displayed in yearly parades.

May 4 marked the 16th International Firefighters’ Day coinciding with the feast day of Saint Florian, patron saint of firefighters, and was adopted worldwide following the deaths of five firemen battling wildfires in Australia in 1999. And while the worldwide day of recognition is relatively young, fi refighting has a rich and storied history and a Pointe des Cascades firefighter has amassed an extensive collection of memorabilia in paying homage to his fellow comrades, and especially to his dad.

“The reason I got into this is because I was so proud of my father,” said Mike Lavigne of Michel Lavigne Sr. who was hired by the Dorval Fire Department in 1971 and spent his 33-year career working in firefighting and prevention.

“It wasn’t easy for my mom when the phone would ring at four in the morning but if they were calling in the middle of the night, my dad had to go.” Mike Junior’s collection, filling every square inch of wall space in his home, includes newspaper clippings documenting his dad’s career and honours received including his 25- year Exemplary Service Medal and recognition of his work as acting president of the local chapter of Dystrophie musculaire Canada. Along with early 19th Century individual and group photos of the Service Incendie Montréal (SIM), Lavigne’s collection includes segments of history from a number of American stations with a wall in his home dedicated to the 343 firefighters who perished in the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City.

“I’d eventually like to open up my own museum,” said Lavigne of his massive assortment that spans everything from insignia and uniforms up to a pair of vintage turn of the century trucks and, his current restoration project, an 1883 Lysander Button manual pumper fire wagon rescued after sitting outside for almost a century at a dude ranch in Montana. “I won the online auction New Year’s Eve” said Lavigne in his quest to obtain the coveted piece, number 685 in a production series and named, ‘The Chateau’ and sent to Fort Benton in Montana to protect against invading factions.

PHOTO BY CARMEN MARIE FABIO

A 1998 newspaper article highlighting his father’s 25-year Exemplary Service Medal with the Dorval Fire Department is part of Mike Lavigne’s collection of all things related to the history of firefighting.

“I’m in the process of having it completely redone.” Though components are missing, Lavigne has already begun refinishing both the brass and mahogany portions of the pumper wagon with the eventual goal of restoring the piece to its original grandeur. “This is what they fought fires with in the 1800s,” he said of the mechanism that produced a pressure-driven stream of water capable of reaching 287 feet.

“In the 19th Century, they used this and steam engines.” Lavigne, who also works for a private search and rescue company as a liaison for the Canadian Coast Guard, is currently in the process of brokering a deal to sell refurbished fire trucks to an independent organization in Central America. A tour of Lavigne’s collection, stored in both St. Lazare and Pointe des Cascades, is accompanied by a narration of his encyclopedic knowledge on the topic of fire fighting including details of manufacturers, historic significance, and an explanation of not only what design features of uniforms and equipment are called but the purposes they serve.

“This came from the Shriners,” Lavigne said of his 1927 American LaFrance chain-driven truck built in Elmira, New York, the first truck ever purchased by the Myrtle Beach Fire Rescue. “The windshield was an add-on in 1930s so I’ll probably remove it.” Though the truck is in surprisingly good condition given its age, Lavigne also has plans to restore the upholstery, replace a melted thermostat, and install the new brass bell adorned with an eagle before the next annual Firefighter’s Day in Laval at the end of May and in Pincourt, usually held in August.

With an engine crank in the front and oak rimmed wheels, the truck, along with another LaFrance truck Lavigne owns built just before the company declared bankruptcy in 2010, is a reminder of how much has changed in manufacturing while still being a testament to pride in workmanship and the longevity of mechanics prior to the age of technology. The epitome of Lavigne’s collection is the hats, from across a historically significant time period that includes firefighters’ and chaplain gear made from the traditional leather and adorned with a selection of brass finials including beavers, greyhounds, and eagles, and a rare ceremonial stovepipe hat made by the Fairmont Company in Philadelphia around 1850.

“This is an oil lantern that they had on top of the steam engine so you could see the truck coming from far,” said Lavigne displaying the brass accessory adorned with multi-coloured acid-etched glass. His collection was amassed in less time than his 15-year firefighting career and Lavigne is now exploring how to set up a permanent display somewhere in the Vaudreuil-Soulanges region, incorporating everything in his current collection from extinguishers, sirens, old photographs, and even the dashboard of a firetruck.

“Being around all that as a kid, I wanted to be part of it. And now I am,” said Lavigne, before quickly adding, “but I’m still not finished collecting.”

To see more pictures of Lavigne’s collection see our Facebook page.

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