GREAT FALLS — You don’t have to be in Howie Schneider’s presence long to realize he’s a firefighter with more than 30 years of service. The family portraits give it away, as most of the Schneiders wear fire suits for a living. He’s the third generation and spent more than 10 years at the Los Angeles Fire Department, where his grandfather started.
“He had badge number 3, so he was one of the founders of that department. They got over 2,000 guys down there now,” Schneider said.
Now that badge number three sits in a case and is the oldest known LAFD badge in existence - but that isn’t even close to the oldest pieces Schneider has. The bulk of the case is what appear to be fragrance bottles but are actually old fire extinguishers dating back to the 1860s.
“They were designed to be decorative and fit in in plain sight,” he explained. “If there was a fire, you could just grab it and throw the whole bottle at the fire.”
If you take a look in his garage, you also learn he’s one of few people in the country that restores old fire engines. Schneider claims there are six or seven professionals in the country, and about 50-100 who do it as a hobby, himself included.
To date, that hobby has resulted in 11 fire engines being added to his collection, some built like the two currently in his garage, one dating back to the 1890s, while some are still a work in progress. Some are down in Los Angeles, some are up getting worked in places across Montana, but it’s not just about the restorations for Howie.
“Yeah, that first engine was a groundbreaker. Never in my life had I ever built something like that and it was just, jump in and start doing it. And after so many years you’ve got the hang of it. It’s the people. We’ve met some wonderful people over the years. Hunting parts down have been a lot of fun and when you finally finish one. The satisfaction of getting it done,” he explained.
This year, Schneider has already been to Maine, Ohio, and Michigan, swapping parts and meeting other fire engine restorers.
He and his brother Paul have been building them for more than 20 years and have been featured in Great Falls' Independence Day parade.
Coming from a family of firefighters, restoring key pieces of history related to the firefighting industry means a lot to them. “My grandfather started in 1912. Now my son is on and he’s on L.A. County Fire Department. He’s a fourth-generation fireman. It’s a lot of pride in that and a lot of history in our family.”
Schneider says he couldn’t have done any of this without the help he’s gotten and the connections he’s made over the years.
He plans on continuing to restore whatever engines he can get his hands on. His advice for those looking to get into the hobby: “Buy surfboards,” he said jokingly. “They’re much cheaper.”