Story by Sara Paul
Joseph Christian Walter was a well-known working welder at age 12. By age 14 he had rebuilt his first hay bailer engine.
Recently retired high-level plant manager and retired Warwick Fire Department Commissioner, Walter looks back on the nuts and bolts of his life, and the ups and downs of his 50 plus years as craftsman, serviceman, and family man in the Hudson Valley.
Most locals know Joe as the guy who can fix anything. His wife knows him as the “guy who wouldn’t leave me alone… so I married him.” His children know him as “the guy who raised us with love.”
Joe and his wife, Debbie, adopted their three children: Laura, Peter, and Thomas shortly after their marriage in 1981.
The kind of retired couple now owns the Edenville General Store, the same lot his grandfather R.B. Davenport purchased in 1912. Davenport sold cows in the early 1900s.
Born at St. Anthony Community Hospital in 1956 to Frank Walter and Elizabeth nee Davenport, Joe was drawn to anything mechanical at a young age.
“My dad was into machinery not cows, and I was only interested in learning about machinery as well,” said Joe, who was raised in the house adjacent to store with his family surrounding him in neighboring lots; most have passed away or moved.
As early as age seven, the talented lad went out with his father’s servicemen and watched them fix tractors.
“I was probably a real pain in the butt. I always wanted to go with them, and I asked a lot of questions,” remembers Walter fondly, noting that he likely badgered serviceman Mike Berry, one of his mentors, the most.
With no computers, Internet, or Google searches at his fingertips in the 1960s and 70s, Joe instead read tons of books on mechanics, learning all he could about his favorite topic.
The young lad’s sights were soon set on being a race car driver, and Joe plunged into the fast world of pit stop, pit crew, and pit anything. His youth held him back a pit bit, and he spent some frustrated years looking on from the grand stands.
In October 1972, Joe’s father sold his repair business, retaining the property, and 16-year-old Joe went to work at Sleepy Hollow Farms. Manager Tom Brunning took the young mechanic under his steely wing and would be one of the special folks Joe would later attribute his knowledge and success to.
Through the last two years of high school as well as two years of college at SUNY Alfred, Joe was a worthy and curious apprentice at Sleepy Hollow, learning even more about mechanics, welding, repairs, and fabrication.
The loyal worker turned two-year college grad now had the opportunity to continue on to a four-year Engineering degree with the prestigious choices of Cornell University or the Georgia Institute of Technology.
“I was asked to build a ditch digger, and so I took the famous one year off from college,” smirks Joe, noting that at 20 he indeed built the ditch digger from scratch, working 44 hours a week, five days and a half day on Saturday.
With bulky equipment and safety implementations certainly not up to today’s standards, there was tedious and dangerous work to be done. No job, car, truck, tractor, or otherwise was a match for young Joe, who now ran Walter Equipment Company, the very business his dad had started.
During this busy time, the Orange County go-to guy was also a primary mechanic in the creation of many attractions at Action Park in Vernon, NJ (now Mountain Creek) as well as ski lift machinery in Pine Island, NY.
“People just kept asking me, ‘Can you fix this? Can you make this?’,” remembers Joe, who carried on for five long years fixing, making, working, and doing.
With little time for romance, the hard-working bachelor was hit by Cupid’s sly arrow not in his northern home base, but oddly in the southern state of Florida. High school buddy, Deborah “Debbie” Bulger, had relocated to the sunshine state with her family and as fate would have it, Joe’s parents, now retired, as well as his sister, Susan, lived not ten miles away from his wife-to-be.
The newlyweds settled down in Warwick, and Debbie became a devoted mother, a diligent worker, and of course, a mechanic’s wife.
“I learned about sprockets, sprayers, and tractors,” recalls Mrs. Walter, who worked at NAPA Auto Parts in Pine Island before becoming a mom.
Joe went to work for Georgia Pacific in the Village of Warwick for four years, still putting in time at his own shop, before joining Amscan, Inc. in Chester, NY in 1987.
After ten tears as a mechanic and machinist, Joe was promoted to plant manager at the company’s then newly opened Newburgh location. After 20 years in that post overseeing no less than 139 employees, Joe retired on July 1, 2018 after 31 years of service. His adventures with Amscan included travel to company plants in Korea, Germany and all over the US.
“This little guy from Edenville would have never traveled so much had it not been for work, but it was really a wonderful opportunity, and I met lots of great people,” Joe said.
Fire House Years
Joe’s father, Frank Walter, was a proud Raymond Fire Hose member from about 1957 to 1981. However, when his only son turned 18 years of age, joining the Warwick volunteer organization was not something the busy mechanic planned on pursuing.
“I said, ‘No way, no way, no way. I make stuff and work on cars’,” smiles Joe, admitting that when he was gently pressured by good friend and former Fire Chief, the late Wayne Stevens, not to mention his community minded new bride, he joined the Raymonds in 1981.
A newbie on the job, what should have come easily did not. In his first months as a fireman, Walter was lost and untrained.
“I went to my first fire and didn’t know what I was doing, and I felt bad about it… If I was doing something I was going to do it right,” admits a humble, self-deprecating guy, who immediately began attending drills and training classes.
Joe soon became a driver and then a second lieutenant. Then in 1989, a large, broken down package was to be what married Joe’s commitment to the firehouse and his mechanical hands of gold. The Raymond’s 1936 Sanford was salvaged out of a New Jersey lot.
“They couldn’t get it out of the garage, but I had a hunch,” said Joe.
That hunch rendered the Sanford up and running and back to Warwick for a restoration that culminated in its 1996 completion, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the Raymonds.
With some help from local connections, some cheap or free parts here and there, it was Joe along with his three comrades – Buzz Joslyn, Ed Schmidt, and Bill Doty, who Joe himself dubbed the “Four Guys from Edenville,” who brought the Sanford back to life.
“We became friends over that truck, and we are still friends today. It felt good because we did it ourselves. If we couldn’t find a part, I made one,” notes Joe, who worked on the antique masterpiece every Tuesday, only missing three days: the days he brought his three babies home, Laura in 1990 and Peter and Thomas in 1991.
By then, the young father saw the need for more space, so he purchased and renovated his grandparent’s house on the garage’s property. The Sanford he helped restore would call Joe’s garage home until 2004, as it awaited its home in the new Raymond House.
“I realized if I wanted the Sanford out of there, I’d have to have that house built,” says Joe, only half-kidding.
The man who had once uttered “no way” to any firehouse involvement found himself running for Fire Commissioner. With a spectacular campaign, more than 300 voters came out for the election. Joe won by nine votes, and three and half years later the new Raymond House was built. An additional $25K was set aside, using non-taxpayer dollars, for a designated room for the Sanford.
In that five-year term, things were built, firehouse dreams were realized, and Joe found out that, “I actually liked being Commissioner.” Walters ran again and then again, spending 15 years as Commissioner, and seven years as Chairman.
A Surprising (and secret) Diagnosis
In 1988, Joe Walter was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). While he was still able to perform the duties of his many jobs, Joe kept the diagnosis a private, family matter.
“I don’t like to complain or talk about being sick so I just kept it to myself,” he said, noting that there were lots of administrative duties he could still perform, albeit “not as glorious as being in a burning building.”
Eventually though, when the MS symptoms began to worsen, Joe realized not only that this was a secret that could not be kept, but that he would have to step back from the majority of his duties.
During his last five months as FD Commissioner, the 59-year-old work horse was utilizing a wheelchair regularly. On Dec. 31, 2015, Walter stepped down from his 15-year tenure as Commissioner. Three weeks later, he spent more than 14 weeks in the hospital for medical procedures related to MS and rehabilitation.
In January 2018, brave and dutiful wife, Debbie, drove the two in a blizzard to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. While the expansive facilities and knowledgeable staff were impressive, the prognosis was not what the couple had hoped for. Doctors confirmed that Joe would not walk again; their comments on his condition were also not positive, urging him to return home and get his affairs in order. They could not help him.
“It bugs me because there’s nothing out there I can’t fix. It may take a day or two, but I’ll figure it out,” says a still strong hearted, strong willed Joe.
Edenville General Store
These days, Joe can be found chatting with family, friends, and regular customers at the Edenville General Store.
As a man who put his all in all he ever did, Joe’s enthusiastic endeavors over the years ranged from salt and fresh water aquariums, tractor restoration, and then one day to smokers. Inspired while on a business trip to Portland, ME, Joe returned to Warwick and purchased a small smoker. He graduated to a larger smoker and now owns a beast that holds 96 racks with a 400 pound capacity, which sits in the backyard of the General Store, smokin’ up such meats as chicken, pork, beef and ribs.
In 2014, Joe retells, a delicatessen down the street had closed after 50 years. Joe and Debbie liked the idea of opening a deli, and so they sat down and wrote a list of the things they disliked about deli’s, such as a lack of bathrooms and parking.
When the store opened, they worked hard to ensure a better deli experience. Joe did much of the cooking, and when crowds demanded more of his popular dishes such as “Plain Jane Chili,” he taught Debbie to cook as well. The Edenville General Store now serves up smoked meat concoctions year round.
The building’s garage currently houses a Chevy Nova II that Joe is restoring with only the use of his left hand. With help from friends Bill Doty and Luke Bollenbach and his family, he plans to finish the car in a few months.
With his wife of 37 years, three children and two grandchildren by his side, Joe’s thoughts on life are, “Family first, and every day is a new adventure.”