Hope, Maine’s Firefly Restoration: A Tale of Community
By: Katy Kelleher
Photography: Matt Cosby
Inside a large warehouse in Hope, Maine, I find fire engines galore, rare motorcycles, and perhaps the purest definition of community. Meet Andy Swift and his improbable business: Firefly Restoration.
If you’re going to ride a vintage fire engine to your December lunch date, you will need to bundle up and slap on a pair of sunglasses. When you are sitting high above the road in the open air, the wind rushes around you, pulling from every direction, whipping your hair from your hat and tears from your eyes. You look down on passing cars, and, like a child, ask to turn on the siren and ring the bell. The gleam of the truck is a dazzling punch of color on this gray day—fire engine red—and with wheels screeching, you pull into the parking lot and jump down from your perch.
Now, imagine making that kind of entrance to your high school prom.
For Andy Swift and his family, traveling in a fire engine is nothing new (although judging by his gleeful smile, I doubt it ever gets old). His children took one of the beautiful old vehicles to prom instead of a limo, and Swift’s vintage vehicles are a common sight around the midcoast. The owner of Firefly Restoration in Hope, Swift has been restoring vintage fire engines under the Firefly name for the past three decades, and he’s been working with engines for much longer. One of his earlier projects, a rare vintage motorcycle he repaired when he was in his teens, showed up recently in a celebrity talk-show host’s garage. “Vincent Black Lightnings are rare, so when he said he had one, I thought it must have been mine,” Swift says. “He says to me, ‘It’s mine now, Andy!’ and I just tell him, ‘I had it when I was 18, so kiss my ass.’”
This kind of sass isn’t something Andy reserves for famous friends. “Who gave the village idiot a smart phone?” he jokes as we scroll through photos on his iPhone. We’re sitting at the Hope General Store eating lunch and “shooting the shit.” When I set up a time to visit Firefly Restoration, Swift told me to show up whenever, and to bring beer. He was specific about what kind— “Coors Regular, I don’t like any flavored crap”—but doesn’t seem to mind when I arrive with a 12-pack of Budweiser from the local gas station instead. He jokes easily and often, frequently at his own expense. A self-described “greaser, biker kinda guy,” he peppers every conversation with curse words, a habit I rather like (I tasted plenty of soap growing up). But underneath all the wisecracking and swearing, there is a kind man who is serious about many things: his community, his family, the importance of giving back, and, of course, engines.
Early in our conversation, he makes this bold statement: “Fire engines really are the most important invention that man has made.” I come from a family of engineers, so which invention was the greatest in history? is a game I’ve played before. I counter: “What about sewage? I heard once it was the toilet.” For a moment, Swift is nonplussed, but then he lets out a raucous laugh. “Come on,” he says. “If you think about it, what’s the most important vehicle in your community? If you don’t have a vehicle to protect your town or village, you can lose your town in an evening. Sewage, though, that’s important, too.”
Swift knows quite a bit about the American past, much of it filtered through the lens of mechanics. In order for his crew at Firefly to accurately restore a vehicle, they have to know exactly how it functioned, what it looked like, and where it originated. While many of his projects are commissioned by fire houses and private investors, Swift also restores steam engines, motorcycles, and cars just for the hell of it. He has worked on plane engines and vintage racecars. In his cavernous warehouse, he has rows and rows of fire engines in various states of repair, several old bikes, and a hang glider. He has framed pictures from the early twentieth century, photos of fire engines, and even an embroidered sampler depicting an engine. Near a radio, which is letting out a steady stream of classic rock, lies a pile of newspaper clippings. In the back, Tom Hopkins, who has been with Firefly Restoration for over 13 years, works on sanding and rounding out a pair of fenders. Dust spews everywhere and splotches of grease color the floor. It’s a mess, but a lively one.
Right now, Swift’s particularly excited about a self-propelling fire engine that he is restoring for a fire company in Connecticut. “I think they only made about 22 of these guys,” he says, showing off the steam- powered engine. “To me, it’s the holy grail of fire engines. Portland had a self-propeller once,” he says. “It looks like a horse-drawn piece, but it’s not.” From studying old photographs and movie clips, Swift has pieced together the story of many of these engines, including which fires they fought. He shows me pictures of the fire engines that battled the Boston fire of 1872 and the Portland fire of 1866. While he is extremely knowledgeable about each machine, he isn’t precious about them. He knows they will only be his for a few months, or at most, a few years. But he doesn’t mind. Many machines, like his old motorcycle, change hands as a part of their life cycle. Sometimes, it’s because they are objects meant to be enjoyed, machines built for the road. Sometimes, it’s because they are objects that belong not to an individual, but to the communities they once protected.
Much of Firefly’s business comes from fire departments looking to restore their town’s old engines, which are used in the funerals of firemen as well as other, happier town functions. Towns from around America ship their engines up to Hope, where every detail, from the nuts and bolts to the decorative flourishes, is meticulously attended to by Swift’s team of mechanics, painters, and craftsmen. “I’ve got a guy who has been with me for nearly 30 years and he does all the gold leaf and the painting,” explains Swift. “It’s very historically accurate. We don’t just…” he stops for a moment and mimes smoking a joint. “We don’t say, ‘oh wow man, that would be cool, man.’ We look at early photographs. We do our research.”
The workshop is in a constant state of flux, and Swift and Hopkins like it that way. “To see them leave is the best part,” says Hopkins. “That truck you drove today? I’m sick of that one! I am ready for a new one.” He says that part of the reason he enjoys his job at Firefly is the constant change. “I have friends who work on welding all day every day, and it’s always the same.” He adds, “Here, everything I work on means something. Most of these engines are heirlooms. They’ve been in service for years.”
Swift echoes this sentiment, calling the vintage engines “big juju for a fire department.” “We get fire departments who come up here, and they see their engine during restoration, and they can’t believe it,” Swift says. “It’s big medicine.” And big medicine has big healing properties; in the wake of 9/11, Swift reached out to the New York City Fire Department and offered to restore any fire engine for free. It was an unconventional gift, but one Swift knew would be significant to the firefighters and their families. In 2002, after months of work, Swift and his team presented a nineteenth-century hose wagon to the FDNY following a brief ceremony at the Owls Head Transportation Museum. The white-and-gold wagon was later transported to New York City. On October 12, 2002, it played a role in a memorial service, honoring over 356 fallen firemen, including 343 killed in the 9/11 attacks.
In an interview with National Public Radio Swift revealed that this act of charity was unexpectedly healing for him. Like many Americans, Swift was devastated by the violence—he even considered rushing down to New York City to lend a hand. “When you’re a fireman, you have a firefighter’s heart,” he told reporter Coburn Dukehart in 2008. His “firefighter’s heart” comes from spending years on the job, working as a professional fireman in Alaska and later as a volunteer fireman in Maine. “I loved that job,” he says, referring to his employment in the Far North. He served in a small community, where firefighters were trained in nearly every aspect of rescue and safety. “I did mountain rescue. I was a paramedic, a fireman. There was always a ton of work, but it was worth it.” Only when the town decided to merge its fire department with the police force did Swift reconsider his career. “I’d be the worst police officer,” he laughs. “And Kathy wanted to come home to Maine.”
Kathy is his wife of many years and mother to their two sons, David and Jake. Like Andy, she is quick to laugh and easy to hug. After lunch, she joins us in the workshop. Hours after leaving the Hope General Store, we still haven’t run out of things to talk about. We cover Swift’s adventures in Alaska, Hopkins’s daughter and her success in the military, and the Swift family’s Maine lineage and history. “I’m a Mainah through- and-through,” he says, stressing the final syllable with its inaudible R. In 1984, the Swift family traded one coast for another and found a home in downeast Maine, but it wasn’t long before they moved again, this time to Hope. Swift grew up in Rockland, so this was a homecoming of sorts. And yet, there is something different about Hope, something that makes this town unlike any other that he has lived in—and in truth, unlike any other I’ve visited.
“Hope is such a special place,” Kathy says from her perch on a workbench. I’ve abandoned all sense of professional decorum and am sitting on the floor with my legs stretched out in front of me, beer in hand and my notebook thrown open on the floor. Hope, I think, does that to people; this small town seems built on a sense of casual camaraderie. I felt it in the general store, where everyone who walks in is greeted by name, or at the very least with a huge smile. Sitting amongst the tools and grease-covered parts, listening to the din of work coming from Hopkins’s section of the warehouse, I feel it here. For the people who live in Hope, the sense of honest and hard-won closeness can be a double-edged sword. It can make you feel at home, loved and safe. It can also make you feel the pains of the town all the more acutely.
In the past year, Hope has lost several of its most prominent residents, including Jim Laurita and his two elephants, Rosie and Opal, who were moved elsewhere following their owner’s tragic death. There have been several other recent deaths in this small town, and Swift puts it simply: “It hurts. It hurts badly.” He adds, “We’re all knit together. There is some really fun stuff about living in a small community, but when you lose some of the greatest people in town…” He stops, for once, at a loss for words. “It hits you. That’s the heart of it.”
We talk for a while about the subtle and aching hold of grief. We talk about how it lingers with you, how it spreads from person to person. How, paradoxically, it also lessens as it does so—a shared burden. If the small community is subject to great pain, it is also sustained by an ineffable sweetness that runs beneath. Swift, with his characteristic irreverence, nails it: “I try to encourage young people to go out and help others. ‘Oh I feel depressed.’ Well, why are you depressed? Screw ‘me, me, me.’ Go that way,” he puts his finger on his chest and then points away from himself. The gesture is unmistakable: think outside yourself. “What talent do you have that you can give away?” he asks. I’m reminded of his fire wagon gifts, his volunteer service, Kathy’s embrace, and their repeated offers to return, come back for dinner. Sit down, stay awhile, make yourself comfortable. “If you give to other people, you will have a better balance, a better life.” Looking around the workroom filled with Swift’s beloved fire engines, his unlikely business, signs of his success, I’m inclined to believe him.