Historic Amsterdam firehouse renovated into living space



With a cornucopia of century-old photographs, news articles, a fully restored fire engine and antique collectibles, calling Walter Martin the Amsterdam Fire Department's historian isn't too far of a stretch.

"Well, unofficially," Martin said, giving an AFD fire helmet from the 1940s a once-over Monday in his firehouse-turned-home.

Martin retired from the department as a battalion chief in 2010, but never once throughout the nearly 40 years he worked there did he think that one day he would store his personal collection on the first floor and his home on the second and third.

"I used to drive by it and always think it would be cool to live there," Martin said. "I finally got the idea in my head that I could own it."

He and his wife, Mary Beth Martin, took a tour of Fire House No. 5 in 2000 and fell in love with the 1911, three-story structure.

"I never thought we'd live here either," Mary Beth Martin said, noting it took 10 years for them to finally move in. "It needed a lot of work. But [Walter] caulked every crack and painted everything. It's unbelievable how far it's come."

In 1973, months after Martin became a fireman, the firehouse went out of commission and it became Green's Confectionery. The back entrance the horses -- Buster and Tidge -- used was sealed up and the front overhead door was replaced by a regular door to accommodate the candy shop's customers.

Walter Martin said the condition he purchased it in was satisfactory for a bachelor's pad, but he had to think of his then-fiance, too.

"Let's be honest, he would have lived in it just how it was," Mary Beth Martin said, emphasizing her husband's appreciation for his large-scale hobby.

They kept the home for storage of Walter Martin's thousands of collectibles while the worked on the living quarters -- the area that had one housed a hay barn, lockers, a bunker and the chief's office.

Now that it's much more complete, Mary Beth Martin is mindful he keeps his "fire stuff" on the first floor, though she proudly displays a string of firehouse Christmas decorations in her kitchen and they keep a fire scanner both up and down stairs.

Collectibles line the walls in glass cabinets and shelves around the space, much like a museum, though he stressed it is his personal collection only.

He started collecting photographs in 1978 and created files for each fire with news articles that accompanied them. The oldest dates back to a 1919 Recorder article about Fred Dobbs, the captain of Fire House No. 4 during that time. The newest is an article and photos from the fire on William Street just last week.

Martin said he frequents auction houses and eBay sales to grow his collection.

"I try to get only Amsterdam things," Martin said. "I try to stay in the area."

Soon he advanced to collecting badges, equipment, his 1913 Ford Olds Wagon -- the Bigelow Sanford carpet mills fire brigade -- and his most prized possessions, his toy trucks.

His 1927 toy truck was in poor shape when he got it, but he cleaned it up and had the dings removed and applied a fresh paint job at a local garage.

"This was one of the first things I had," Martin said.

The original information board still hangs on the wall, denoting the addresses of handicapped people the department regularly helped, the locations of broken fire hydrants and other "helpful hints."

A pull box -- a communicative tool residents used "before texting and 'the Tweeter'"

-- sits on display in the corner. Once pulled, the message was sent to the four satellite houses and one central house. On the far wall hangs the original department bell that the alarm was sent to, and below that a device that punches holes in a reel of paper to signify where the alarm came from. The wall beside the bell displayed signs of the locations.

Just those signs, Martin said, hold immense history.

"I'd say about 90 percent of those places don't exist anymore," Martin said. "Like the YMCA, the Vrooman Avenue school which is now the Vrooman Avenue apartments. The numbers represent the wards and there used to be eight wards in the city."

Of the remaining satellite houses, Fire House No. 3 on Locust Avenue is now a private residence and a woodwork shop, house No. 4 on Bunn Street is now Extreme Looks, No. 6 sits on Pulaski Street and the central office was where the Verizon telephone company building is currently.

Martin, while surrounded by AFD history, said he made history in the department, too.

He was part of the first group of three firefighters to be a certified modern-day EMT. They had fewer responsibilities then as they didn't administer drugs, but they were trained in first aid, treating broken bones and doing CPR.

Once, he said, he even delivered a baby.

One of 62 firemen on the job, he said he was chosen as fireman of the year twice for his dedication. The department responded to about 500 to 600 calls a year -- many of which were false calls, he said.

With all the history store in his home, often when people stop in to the AFD headquarters looking for information about an old family member, they send them to the Martin's.

"People are always calling when they pass through town," Mary Beth Martin said. "He always will look through his files to try to find something to make copies of for them. Some little piece of information, something connecting them to that family member they're missing. Which is so nice."

Though he said he isn't usually searching for anything in particular, he's always interested to see what people find in their grandparent's attics and can contact him at 212-2254.