Thursday, May 23, 2002

Fire Canteen founder looks back 50 years

Published in the Current

In the early 1950s, Eleanor Lorfano, now 85, got tired of driving her own truck to fires and serving her husband and his fellow firefighters coffee and
doughnuts out of the back of the pickup. She wasn’t tired of getting up in the middle of the night. Instead, Lorfano wanted some help and some company.

She got together members of the seven fire company auxiliaries in town and proposed setting up a canteen truck that could take food and drinks to the town’s firefighters if a blaze went on for a while.

The group, all women, found a used truck and quickly raised the $3,000 necessary to buy it. That truck went to its first fire on Ross Road with a card table in the back, Lorfano remembered at a meeting of the Scarborough Fire Department Canteen May 20 at the Dunstan fire station.

Some volunteers built cupboards and installed a stove, water tank and a big countertop into the truck, which saw many fires, including big fires in Saco
and the old dance hall on Gorham Road, Lorfano said.

During the war, Lorfano and several other women had been the fire department while the men were in the military. She was certified to drive fire trucks and even put out fires. After the men returned, she and others
maintained their involvement in the department through the canteen.

She remembered taking coffee to men fighting fires at the town dump, affectionately called “the Scarborough Town Park” in the canteen’s logbook. When rats would sometimes escape from the fire and run over near the canteen truck, Lorfano remembered men and women racing around trying to chase them away.

As learned from the logbook, long thought lost but recently located in a drawer in the canteen truck, the routine then was not much different from today’s canteen.

One difference: the truck – the third used by the group – is now maintained by the town rather than the canteen volunteers.

If a fire sounded big over the radio, canteen members would get up and start boiling water to put in Thermos bottles before going to the station to pick up the truck. Women who lived closest to the station, Lorfano said, would have the biggest Thermoses.

One night, Lorfano remembered, she was wakened by a call from a canteen member, in the days before pagers and radios sent out the signal “21” to summon the canteen truck. “She said, ‘You want to go to the fire?’and I said, ‘Yeah, what time’s the fire?’” Lorfano said. The reply came: “‘Right now, if you want to go.’”

Big calls now are rarer, canteen members said, because of better fireproofing in buildings. Smoke detectors and sprinklers are also more commonly used, making fires easier to catch and faster to fight. Shorter fires don’t require coffee and doughnuts the way long-haul battles against blazes do.

The canteen’s last call was at the Grand Avenue fire in Old Orchard Beach earlier this year, though it has served food in other towns at large fires, as well as at funerals for firefighters killed in the line of duty.

Lorfano was also a school bus driver in town for 25 years, starting in 1953. She was paid her “greatest honor” at that job, she said, when she was the only female bus driver; the boys’ basketball team asked her to be their driver, when there were several male drivers they could have chosen.

In that job, she had only one accident, sliding off the Black Point Road bridge with a busload of kids on board. Nobody was hurt, as the bus landed right-side up just next to the river, she said.