With a collection of 600-plus pieces, “Bunk” Mann has lovingly recreated the noble history of firefighting
A century of firefighting history is proudly preserved and displayed in the home and on the office walls of local
historian Hunter R. “Bunk” Mann. At his house, overlooking the calm backwaters of Ocean Pines, and at the Fruitland headquarters of Mann & Gray Insurance, Bunk is caretaker of the largest toy fire department on the Eastern Shore.
As such memorabilia collections so often begin, Bunk was just a little boy of five when the smells and sounds of the shiny red fire trucks in their spotless stations began to fascinate him. Bunk’s grandfather, the original Hunter R. Mann, was a “country doctor” in the 1950s. His patients tended to be volunteer firemen, so Bunk grew up around the gleaming firefighting machinery housed in the stations his granddad frequented on his “firehouse calls.” Bunk’s father, also a doctor, was a partner of celebrated Ocean City physician Dr. Frank Townsend in 1969 through the 1970s. Surrounded by the flaming-red excitement of emergency vehicles and the men who operated them, the ambiance of a fire station was soon ingrained in young Bunk. As an adult he became an avid fireman, having served in both the Salisbury and Fruitland volunteer fire departments.
So passionate was his love of polished chrome and shiny red paint that in the 1980s, Bunk captured his first piece of life-size firefighting history. His treasure — a genuine 1950 American LeFrance Fire Engine that he paraded around for fun and that adorned the front of his Fruitland office for over 20 years. That historical vehicle and a 1936 American LeFrance, also owned by Bunk, were used in parades and in the provincial reunions firemen call “Musters” until both pieces of equipment were honorably retired.
The original procurement of Bunk’s array of miniature fire-mania began on a 1990 vacation through the U.K., where dye-cast miniature toys are both handmade and legendary. Bunk bought three toy fire trucks for his three young sons and a handful of handcrafted soldiers for himself. Bunk changed his mind by the time he returned to the States, and the three boys were gifted the toy soldiers. Their father piloted those first three toy fire trucks into a fire-engine empire.
Bunk’s collected works of antique toy firemen and fire apparatus grew to 500 pieces in a matter of two decades. It swelled to 600 when Fruitland volunteer fireman Ernie Pope passed away two years ago and left his vintage compilation to Bunk. The oldest piece in the collection is Bunk’s father’s 1920 windup toy ambulance, which Bunk, at 8 years old, discovered in his mother’s attic.
Perhaps because Bunk’s love and enthusiasm for period fire engines and toys began beside his grandfather and father, Bunk holds dear and close to his chest the family traditions his collecting has spawned. It was during their second week of dating, while in New Orleans, that Bunk’s soon-to-be-next-wife encouraged him to purchase a rare toy ladder engine that Bunk thought to be too expensive. But Shari Crocket insisted. He bought the toy, knowing there and then that he had truly found the love of his future life. “The strong support of a good spouse is important for a collector,” Bunk insists.
Even in his three sons, the ideology “to protect and to serve” is evident. And there’s a twinkle in Bunk’s eye when he speaks of his offspring. His eldest son, Mike, signed up to become a medic within six weeks of having received his law degree.
He serves aboard the medical helicopter known as “Trooper 4.” The middle son, Matt, does his part, too, as a road trooper with the Maryland State Police. Upon the shelves in Buck’s home are miniatures depicting each child’s professional vehicle.
Meanwhile, the youngest son, Brett, is a graduate student studying biology at Salisbury University. Each of the boys have committed to “making a difference,” according to their father.
As you sit in the den that houses these legends of firefighting history, you can’t help being impressed by it all. From the tiny lead firemen to the oversized ladder trucks decisively displayed (as only a true collector would), an amazing world of traditional yet unusual firefighting miniaturization hugs the walls of a pure enthusiast. As Bunk fittingly puts it: “The history of firefighting is right in these rooms.”
He should know. He’s a devotee to its preservation and a humble student of its past.
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