This antique goes mowing on Block Island

July 24, 2018

I don’t suppose there is a municipal public works department anywhere on the mainland United States where they still use a 64-year-old truck for road maintenance almost every day.

But there is one not far from Connecticut, just offshore on Block Island.

A place that only recently debuted some of the future of energy, the country’s first offshore wind farm, also relishes its rich history and traditions.

There’s perhaps no better evidence of that than Quentin Deane’s daily routine, working on the Block Island highway crew. In the summer, that means a lot of time mowing and weed wacking along the island’s 50 miles of winding roads that often are bounded by stone walls.

Deane, an island native and a 2014 graduate, one in a class of seven, of the kindergarten through 12th-grade Block Island School, is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, the late John Littlefield, who spent a long career as the road superintendent for the state on Block Island, back when the state took primary responsibility for island highway maintenance.

Littlefields widely populate island history, in an arc from fishing and farming to tourism and commerce today, and Deane says many members of his large extended family plan, like he does, to stay on the island forever.

He says he especially enjoys working around island cemeteries, making his ancestors’ graves look nice.

One of the most concrete links to his family’s past, though, is when he is piloting the orange 1954 Dodge truck that his grandfather used to drive.

In a place where there are magnificent vistas all over, Dean still manages to turn visitors’ heads when he is loading or unloading mowers or weed wackers from the antique truck, parked most summer days along one of the island’s scenic roads. The first clue that it is not a car collector’s toy is the town seal on the door, or the wooden planks sometimes left laid on the ground behind it for loading a mower back into the truck bed.

It’s a 1954 Dodge MT37, a military surplus vehicle, a beefy, big-tired machine that Dodge later made a commercial version of, the Power Wagon. A spiffy version of one of those will bring a lot of money on the antique car market today.

The Dodge was left behind when the state turned over maintenance of all the island roads to the town of New Shoreham 14 years ago, Highway Superintendent Mike Shea told me. He said he doesn’t have any paperwork for the truck and the state has probably long forgotten about it.

If not one of the more valuable trucks in the town fleet, it is most certainly not its least valuable.

Deane says he does most of the maintenance on the truck, taking on big projects over the winter, like rebuilding the brake system. He is planning a carburetor overhaul this winter. He says he finds parts, though it is sometimes not easy.

He is generally the only one on the highway crew to drive the truck, which, with no power steering and a balky clutch, is not easy to handle. He says he enjoys driving it knowing it is the same truck his grandfather used to drive, working on the same island roads.

Deepwater Wind’s Block Island windmills are becoming more a routine part of the horizon at Block Island and largely have fallen out of the local headlines.

There has been some public speculation this summer, though, about interference with text messaging on cellphones near where the wind farm’s cable comes ashore at the beach, marked by buoys with warnings not to use boat anchors there.

I have serious doubts there is really text messaging interference caused by the wind farm cable.

But it is amusing to think what John Littlefield, back when he was driving a much newer MT37 on island roads, would have thought about the idea of windmills interfering with island cellphone coverage, and other 21st century problems.

And it’s nice to know that his grandson is there to give it some thought, driving the same truck on the same roads.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


Update hourly