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Historic wheelchair returned to Smithtown medical charity decades later

Rosemary Camilleri, left, poses with Joan Wiles, center,

Rosemary Camilleri, left, poses with Joan Wiles, center, and Joan Vitale, right, and a refurbished hand-caned wheelchair estimated to have been made in around 1920. Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

It was a medical mystery -- an early 20th century wheelchair with a caned wood seat and iron fixtures was returned to a Smithtown nonprofit decades after it likely was loaned to a town resident.

Volunteers at The Society for Lending Comforts to the Sick said they were shocked to see the wheelchair -- stenciled with the organization's name on the seat bottom -- back in its original home. The organization has provided free medical equipment to Smithtown residents for more than 100 years.

"We could have lent this out 80 or 90 years ago . . . it's just magnificent," said Joan Wiles, the group's vice president. "It's history."

"It shows how long Lending Comforts has been doing this service."Wiles said she plans to have an antique dealer determine the wheelchair's age, but some volunteer members estimate, based on photos of similar looking wheelchairs, that it was made between 1900 and 1920.

Lending Comforts has loaned medical equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers, commodes, crutches and canes to town residents since 1906, Wiles said. The group is able to buy the items with funds raised by selling clothing, jewelry and household items at its adjacent thrift store on Blydenburgh Avenue, and through donations.

Rosemary Camilleri, 60, of Sayville, said she donated the historic wheelchair to the group in late fall.

Camilleri planned to sell the wheelchair, which she had kept in her living room for about 35 years as a conversation piece, in an effort to downsize. But instead of finding an age marker on the chair, she found the stencil with the words "Lending Comforts, Smithtown, NY" and sought out the group.

"I realized that possibly somebody had borrowed that wheelchair and probably never returned it," Camilleri said. "I thought, 'Well, maybe this is where it belongs.' "

Camilleri said she found the wheelchair in a thrift shop in a now-closed secondhand store in Nesconset. She was shopping for old sporting goods but said, "I saw this, and I was drawn to it."

"I found it in there with stuff piled on top of it. The cane was broken," Camilleri said, adding she later refinished the wood and had the cane professionally refurbished. "It's a well-built solid wood and iron piece."

A wheelchair with similar features -- but made of solid wood and steel -- is on display at Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Great River, executive director Nelson Sterner said. He estimated that chair was produced between 1910 and 1920.

The wheelchair at Lending Comforts is on display. But it is not for sale nor is it to be used.

Wiles said the group plans to contact the committee planning Smithtown Town's 350-year anniversary celebration next year to determine whether the historic chair could be included in events.

"I just think it's a great story. [Camilleri] is a special lady for returning it to us rather than putting it up for sale," Wiles said. "What are the odds . . . that we would get this chair back after all these years?"

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