Smithfield native brings a truckload of the past to the Granite State

Smithfield native brings a truckload of the past to the Granite State

One More Thing

John Schlemmer, 69, formerly of Smithfield, lives in Center Harbor, New Hampshire, on the northern end of Lake Winnipesaukee, but when he wants to visit a Rhode Island eatery that he frequented in his youth, he need only drive to a neighboring town 10 miles down the road.

The 104 Diner in New Hampton, a classic of its kind, used to be known as Lloyd’s Diner, and it sat on Route 6 near the Scituate-Johnston line for many years. It was widely patronized after it opened in 1957, and, since it offered late-night service, it was a popular destination for lots of locals, including area volunteer firefighters, highway crews, off-duty police, and second shift workers.

However, after three decades of feeding the local public, it closed in the late 1980s. It made several stops in Massachusetts and New York before being moved to New Hampshire where it was remodeled and began a new life in the mid-1990s.

John was already in the Granite State by then, having relocated there in 1986. He brought with him a 1941 tow truck. It was the first one he ever drove, and he often drove it to Lloyd’s Diner when he still called Rhode Island home. These days, if he wants to, he can drive it to The 104 and sit on the same stool he did when he was young.

The truck, now 80 years old, is a Chevrolet built to military specifications but intended for civilian use. It was modified by his father, Dave, who bought the vehicle in 1944.

Originally designed as a battery truck, it was intended to transport very large batteries to provide electric power in support of communications equipment and the like in remote deployments. Dave added a bomb hauling hoist mechanism, and he used the truck to tow vehicles. He also equipped it with a plow to clear the roads when he worked as a snow removal contractor for the town in winter.

Dave Schlemmer, a lifelong Smithfield resident, was trained as a diesel technician by the Army during World War II and sent to Okinawa. When he got out of the service in 1944, he began working as an auto mechanic, eventually opening his own gas station on Pleasant View Avenue and founding Dave’s Towing as well.

As time went by, he acquired more modern equipment, and the original wrecker passed out of his ownership, but as fate would have it, the Schlemmers and the venerable vehicle were destined to be reunited.

A versatile and inventive man, Dave, who died in 2008 at age 85, enjoyed the challenge of restoring cars, trucks, motorcycles and even airplanes. He had become a licensed pilot in 1950 and maintained his interest in flying all his life. In fact, flying facilitated his reconnection with the 1941 wrecker.

While aloft one day over northern Rhode Island, Dave’s gaze fell on the familiar shape of the tow truck’s body. He recognized it as his former wrecker, and he calculated its location. Back on the ground he went there and reacquired it. The truck had been in the woods 40 years.

It took four years to restore it. Today, it turns heads on the New Hampshire roads. John keeps it painted the same colors his father originally chose, a vibrant green with bright red on the undercarriage and hoist, and it looks much as it did when it was a familiar sight on the local roads here.

“It’s an antique that I just enjoy driving around. I drive that old truck a lot,” John remarks, explaining that he actually has five similar trucks. One is kept for parts; the others are in his collection. He also has a vintage fire truck that he restored.

“I’ve always been into fire trucks,” he says, confessing that the work of restoring older vehicles can be quite challenging. It took him three years to accomplish. “Sometimes you’ve got to walk away for a while and then walk back and finish the job. Overall, it’s keeping tradition, a hobby, something I like to do.”

John, 69, who worked in the oil heating industry and for U-Haul as a manager after moving north, had been active in the Greenville Fire Company when he lived in Rhode Island, so it is no surprise to learn that when the job of fire chief in Center Harbor came open in 2007, he applied and got it. He served until 2013 when he retired. He also was named senior instructor at the area fire academy, a post he still holds.

“It’s a cool job,” he comments, adding, “I get to teach some of the modern youth.”

Before moving to New Hampshire, he had taken over Dave’s Towing, now operated by his sister Virginia Schlemmer-Lavoie, one of the seven children born to Dave and his late wife Mary.

In New Hampshire, though, John left it to his son, also named John, to take up the family tradition. He runs John’s Towing. The elder John and his wife, the former Cynthia Farrar of Smithfield, who is nicknamed “Sam,” have two other children, daughters Kimberly and Amy Lee and seven grandchildren, six boys and one girl.

John has fond memories of Rhode Island as it once was, but he says he left Smithfield for New Hampshire 35 years ago because the apple trees here were disappearing and Center Harbor, with its rural setting and a population of 996, reminded him of how things used to be in Smithfield.

“I wanted a slower way of life,” he says earnestly, and adds that he got what was looking for. “Life is good. It really is.”

(Contact me at smithpublarry@gmail.com)