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Always Remember

Ironmen Drill Team


History of the Ironmen

It was an August night in Greenport when the lronmen of Riverhead lined up against Flying Dutchmen of West Sayville for the event that would decide the 1935 New York State Firemen's Association Tournament Championship. It was the efficiency run, and fleet-footed Walt Worthington was the nozzle man. "We'd been running neck-and-neck with West Sayville all day" recalled Al Bartenuk. The only way to win was to win the last event.

The flag fell and Walt was off on the 150-foot run. The coupling teams pulled up the slack and connected the 50-foot lengths of hose. It was still neck-and-neck with the Flying Dutchman. Al made the coupling closest to the hydrant and looked up as Walt lifted the nozzle and blasted the target. "That iced it" said Mr. Bartenuk. "It was a shining example of what we could do. It was also the start of a shining tradition.

The Ironmen were organized only eight months before the state championship, but they promptly became the team to beat. Over the years the team has taken numerous county, state and North Fork championships. The competition has changed over the years, and enthusiasm has ebbed and flowed. But today the Ironmen survive untarnished.

The Ironmen were forged from disjointed elements. Before 1935 each of the six Riverhead companies had its own racing team. "There was so much rivalry in Riverhead" recalled Mr. Bartenuk, "Each company would put their best men out". There was Chukka White, Captain of the Eagles, and Joe Walsh Captain of the Reliables. They both worked together at the lighting company, but there was a real rivalry. There were all kinds of secrets -- you'd have to live it to believe it.

The rivalry ended on January 23rd 1935, when Captain Joseph E. Walsh brought representatives of each company together to form a single tournament team. "They chose the best from each company" recalled Lloyd Case, a 50+ Year veteran of the department and an original Ironman. "We even had a first and second team, and I'll tell you, we were the best".

Under the stern hand of Captain Joseph E. "Smokey Joe" Walsh, the separate elements rapidly came together. Mr. Case said the team met on Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings to drill for two or three hours. "We drilled and drilled" said Mr. Case laughing. "I tell you, we drilled. There's no two ways about it. And you had to be there, miss so much as one night and you were gone".

Recalling the late Joe Walsh, Mr. Case said "He understood men, and he knew how to give orders". Said teammate Al Bartenuk "He was a tough guy. Everybody loved him." Mr. Case added "He shaped that team up like a million. And when we hit the track we took everything in sight. We were the champs -- it feels good to say".

Born along with the winning tradition was the traditional post-tournament celebration. To toast their first victory in 1935, a "Testimonial Dinner and Entertainment", was sponsored for the Ironmen by the merchants and residents of Riverhead at the Hotel Henry Perkins. The team revealed its playful side on the invitation list which included the names of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Governor Herbert H. Lehman, former Governor Alfred Smith and Internal Revenue Collector Almon G. Rasquin.

Since its formidable beginning the team has faced numerous challenges, one of which involved the change from "motorized" to old-fashioned' competition (and now back to motorized). Now the Ironmen rely on leg-power to pull carts, instead of horsepower to pull trucks. And there has been the test of time. Reflecting on the teams course through the years, Mr. Case said, "Like everything else, it reaches a peak and falls back. Then you get new blood and new enthusiasm, and you come back".

On October 26th 1985 the Ironmen celebrated their 50th Anniversary with over 100 past and present members of the team attending the dinner dance.

In 1986 the Riverhead lronmen had a successful year. They won the Cutchogue Drill, the Brookhaven Town Drill and Brookhaven Town Total Points for the third year in a row. They also finished second in the North Fork, second in the Suffolk County Tournament and second overall in total points for Suffolk County for the year.

above article by Jeffrey Miller, originally printed in the News-Review in 1986, revised for this web site July 2001

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