60th Anniversary of HCRA Field Day Inferno

This year’s Field Day will mark the 60th anniversary of HCRA’s Field Day that didn’t happen. In 2010, Jim/KK1W asked Jack/W1WEF, an HCRA member in 1954, to give an account of the event. Jack gives a wonderful narrative on ham radio in Hampden County at that time, as well as what happened that day. The photo posted here was the 2004 W1NY QSL card marking the 50th anniversary of the event.

No fires planned for this year, but we do hope that you’ll come out and participate in field day.  It’s  a great chance to hang out with fellow club members and operate on HF radios and antennas you might not have access to at home. Please contact Matt/W1MSW or leave a comment below this post for more information.

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Hampden County Radio Club Memories                     Jack Schuster   W1WEF

I was asked by KK1W to possibly give a short talk to the Hampden County Radio Club on my recollection of the Field Day fire on Wilbraham Mountain. I doubted I could remember enough to talk about for more than a couple minutes, but thought I’d see what I could remember in general from my earliest ham radio Field Days while a member of the club.

Licensed in 1952 at the age of 13, I was probably a member from around 1953 to 1956.   I can remember getting a ride to meetings…I think from Roger Corey, W1JYH at that time…W1AX now.  Roger lived on the next street, but the end of one of his wire antenna was only 100 ft from my bedroom window where my shack was located.

 In my early days of ham radio, it seemed like everyone built their own rigs. I’ll never forget my transmitter with a pair of 807’s…those were tubes before they were beers …that I built from an article in an issue of my Dad’s “Radio News” magazine.  As soon as I turned it on, the 807’s blew. I checked and rechecked my wiring, and my Dad did the same, but we couldn’t figure it out. After blowing a second pair of tubes, I asked Roger if he could take a look and see if he could figure out what was wrong.  I think it took Rog about three minutes to see that the screen and control grid pins were swapped on the schematic in the magazine. As a result, screen voltage was being applied to the control grid and zappo!  After that experience I converted the rig to 6146’s and had no further problems.

I was an active CW op in those days as I am now, and did a lot of traffic handling on the Western Ma net, First Regional Net and Eastern Area Net. Through the National traffic system,  I met a few other Hampden county members  I  recall. Art Zavarella , W1MNG (later W1KK) was on Western Mass Net every night. I remember Bob Julian , W1DVW also being active…and in later years learned that Art was Chief Engineer at the Springfield Armory, and  I think Bob was head of Research. It was probably because a good friend of our family was Art’s secretary and she always referred to me  as “Jackie“, that Art called me “ Jackie”  also as long as I knew him!

A few other CW op calls from the club that I remember were W1WEN, Bob Little, W1WDW, Don LeFebvre, W1SRM Ken DeCelle, and of course W1EOB, Vic Paounoff. Vic is now N4XR and in his 90’s is doing great. Ham Radio helped me get thru college…despite all the time I spent in the ham shack at U Mass. Vic hired me for three summers at Sickles where I was a troubleshooter on the TV tuner  production line, back in those days when we had an American TV industry.  Sickles was building the majority of the tuners used in every manufacturer’s TV sets back then. It was in HCRC that I met Jean and Norm Peacor, K1IJU and K1IJV. Jean also was a CW Op handling traffic in those days.

I remember Eunice and Bob, W1UKR and W1KUL who were active members of the club. Eunice was active in handling traffic on 75M, and a good phone op. Bob was a good engineer, working for Monsanto and building the station that did well for Eunice from a small city lot in Springfield. I remember their Johnson Ranger that Bob built from a kit, a rig I could only dream about in those days. I can also recall attending a lecture on modulator design that Bob presented on the U Mass campus. It’s funny how you never forget some little things that you learned at a young age. It was on a Hampden County Field Day that Bob Gordon saw me stripping some 14 ga antenna wire with dikes, and he showed me a neat trick that I use to this day. Instead of cutting part way thru the insulation to strip it with the business end of the dikes, he showed me how to first crush the insulation with the side opposite the cutters, and then just cut the insulation without nicking the wire.

I can remember FD that year was in a field somewhere in Hampden. I can remember Hank Baier, W1NY being there, as well as the Peacors and Hal, W1UPH. I probably only operated 3 or 4 Field Days with the club, but I remember going to the home of W1CJK, Bill Werenski one year in Holyoke for a FD planning session.

I also remember operating FD  (maybe 1953) on top of Wilbraham Mountain in someone’s back yard right on the ridge of the mountain. I seem to recall that the fellow was somehow associated with Springfield Sound company, and was not a ham, but others in the club who worked there were hams. The name Bob Lyman comes to mind. I know I did some CW operating that FD, but I recall being really impressed by how many Qs they were knocking off on 2M using a Gonset Communicator, aka a “Gooney Box“.

In those days, it seemed like the ham population density was far greater than it is today…at least that of active HF operators. W1JYH was one street to my West. W1QUQ was on the next street. W1KFV, Bob Leeson was one street to my East. Dick Stevens, W1QWJ was  a few houses from Bob Leeson. W1CCH, Lyle Luce was a big VHFer with 144 elements on 2 M just North of me about 300 yds away.

In those days, radio supply places were abundant. In Springfield alone, we had Springfield Sound (later Soundco), Springfield Radio owned by Lou Richmond W1AVK, Cushing Radio owned by Frank Cushing whose call I cant remember, Knapp Radio who sold radio kits and components, Hatry and Young owned by Murray Dressler…another ham. All sold components and some sold ham gear. That was a time when the only Radio Shack was in Boston, and it was primarily a Ham radio supplier. There was also a Lafayette radio in town, come to think of it, and there were even Lafayette ham rigs! How times change…today the computer stores like Comp USA are already disappearing!

That brings me to my last FD with the club, the reason I was invited to test my memory. After exchanging a couple emails with Mike, N0HI (ed. now N1TA), Mike mentioned a club QSL with a photo of a fire atop Wilbraham Mountain on a club field day. I told Mike I’d love to have one of those cards, because I the last one out of the structure that burned. We were getting set up for FD on Saturday morning in a terrific location atop Wilbraham Mountain. We had the use of  a wooden tower structure which at one time probably housed a concession stand on the ground level, and had an inside staircase going to an observation room on the top level. As I recall it was maybe 4 or 5 stories high and resembled a Dutch Windmill tower but with a porch all around the first level.  It had been closed for some time before the club got permission to use it for FD.

The VHF/UHF station was going to be on top, and the HF stations on the lower level. We would be protected from the weather, as it was all enclosed an ideal FD setup. I was on the top level after carrying up some gear, when someone down below yelled “FIRE”!

I was the only one on top at the time, and went flying down the staircase but grabbed a fire extinguisher that was on a landing at the second level. Unfortunately the fire extinguisher didn’t work, but I don’t remember how big the fire was at that point. It might not have mattered if it worked because the dust covered wooden structure was doomed to go down fast. Everyone got out in time, and I don’t think any of the gear on the first level was lost. All was lost on top however, including some homebrew gear that Bill Rosner, W1RFU had used to set records.

I think it was no more than ten minutes when the tower was burned to the ground. The cause was declared to be spontaneous combustion. Needless to say, the club didn’t operate FD that year!

One thought on “60th Anniversary of HCRA Field Day Inferno

  1. Great story from the past. Can you take a picture of your technique for stripping wire with crimping pliers?
    Thank you.

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