More than a decade ago, Hartford Fire Department rookie Ashley Shapiro was sitting in the South Green fire station waiting for the next call when his captain dropped a rusty, sickle-shaped blade on his desk.
“I hear you like this tool,” Tom Dalton told Shapiro, a history buff who had recently arrived at Engine Company 1 Ladder 6. “Here’s the head. Play around with it.”
Dalton had brought Shapiro an original Hartford hook, forged as early as the 1920s in the department’s original machine shop behind their Main Street fire station. It had been a decade or two since Hartford firefighters had carried the tool, though it was once so widely used a stone carving of the hook embellishes the bay doors of the century-old fire house.
Now, Shapiro is bringing back a modern version of the capital city’s unique fire hook. On Monday, the 14-year veteran gave the fire department six new Hartford hooks produced by his company, Capital City Fire Helmets, which crafts and restores custom, retro fire helmets.
The Hartford hook had always featured heavily in the stories Shapiro’s father told him when the elder firefighter came home from his shifts smelling of smoke. The tool was especially useful for pulling apart plaster walls and punching through tin ceilings in search of pockets of flames, and firefighters felt pride in using something designed and hand-built by an earlier generation of Hartford Fire Department machinists.
Today, a black and white photo from the 1980s, now hanging in Engine Company 1, shows a mustached Leigh Shapiro standing with the half-moon hook in hand.
When Ashley Shapiro first reported for work himself at Engine Company 1, he immediately looked for a Hartford hook, but all he found were the two-pronged variety developed in New York in the 1940s.
It was a blow to Shapiro, who was already lamenting the plain helmet he was issued, which Shapiro thought was inferior in look, feel and fit to the leather one his father had once worn.
But his nostalgia was encouraged by his captain, Dalton, who brought Shapiro the weathered, steel head of an original Hartford hook. Shapiro bought a new wooden handle, bolted the thing together and brought it on his next call, where he was promptly told off for carrying equipment that nobody else recognized.
The rookie wasn’t deterred.
“I got yelled at for trying to use it, but I didn’t care,” he said Monday. “I kept using it. It worked.”
In 2010, Shapiro started Capital City Fire Helmets to recreate old-school helmets for buyers who shared his preference for all things old-school. For help, he brought on his father, who retired as a deputy chief after 28 years with the department, and retired deputy chief Richard Driscoll, who served 26 years.
This year, they produced their new Hartford hooks, which also feature finger grooves and a metal cap that allows the end of the handle to be used as a battering ram.
“It’s a very effective tool,” Hartford Fire Chief Rodney Barco said Monday as he accepted the donation from the Shapiros and Driscoll.
“We have historians among us but these gentlemen took it a step beyond,” Barco said. “They have brought back the Hartford hook.”
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.