Old fire trucks hate to die. The big old things have a lot of romance and memories attached to them — and have helped save many a home and life. Ashland’s long-abandoned 1946 Ford fire truck is no exception.
Among its legends is that it fell into Ashland Creek during the big flood of 1948 when the bridge it was on collapsed, but its red warning light continued burning for hours, earning it the nickname of “the amphibious fire engine.”
The rugged but worn-looking beast, bristling with chrome handholds so fire fighters could just jump on bumpers and running boards and go for it, served Ashland for three decades and was auctioned off about 1976, says Ben Truwe, a member of the Southern Oregon Historical Society Board of Trustees.
The 1-1/2 ton fire truck, powered by a Ford flathead V-8 engine, was last used for a 1992 wedding in Jacksonville. It passed through many hands and was put out to pasture for 10 years in Shady Cove, where it seriously degenerated.
It was donated to SOHS recently by Lee Newton, brother of the now-deceased bride in that wedding two decades ago.
What is SOHS to do with a hobbling, 70-year old red fire engine? Well, they’re not going to restore it, which means pouring untold sums into it, breaking it down to the smallest part and making each one as new and repainted as possible.
Truwe and SOHS program manager Rick Black have tackled the gritty job and are hip-deep into a major fix-up, or “repair and maintenance,” making the machine safe, with everything working — and looking like what it is: a very old and historic fire truck but with all the “patina” and worn-off paint that time has bestowed on it.
As the duo tinker and fix the vehicle, often finding old parts (and an owner’s manual) on eBay, they are issuing a call for volunteer help from carpenters (much of the truck is wood) and mechanics who know what they’re doing.
To this end, SOHS is hosting an open house for the fire truck, which is getting its rebirth in a modern garage at 3263 Biddle Road in Medford, across from the airport. The open house is set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23.
The public is welcome to come out, see the old girl, honk its horn and help wax it, they say. In the process, volunteers can commit to joining the restoration team, which will involve plenty of learning and just plain work. Donations, of course, are always welcome. The most generous donors get to ride in the fire truck during the Ashland 4th of July and other parades.
They’ve spent $1,500 so far on replacement parts. The radiator overhaul cost $400. Tools are donated by the volunteer crew. Work parties are every Tuesday from 10 to six. They’re also asking for any old photos of the fire truck.
Showing old pictures from the January 1948 Daily Tidings, Black explains how the then-new truck was trying to help the Weitzel Department Store by using its pumps to get water out of the basement. The wood bridge at the entrance to Lithia Park gave way, sending the machine into Ashland Creek. It was towed out the next day, considerably damaged. Jim Busch Ford dealer worked on it and got it back on the road.
By the time the vehicle was auctioned off, AFD had two other much more modern fire trucks.
Fixing it up is no walk in the park.
“It’s two steps forward and one step back,” says Truwe. “We come in with big plans and spend the day working on one bolt. Everything is a learning experience. All the people who worked on this 70 years ago are dead.”
The truck was accessioned to SOHS’s educational collection, meaning it’s not just for display, but can be touched, climbed on and used for parades, festivals, and other activities, helping to impress the public with the importance of history and the need for SOHS to get funding to survive.
They have found two old firemen — Bill Robinson and Walt Wolford, who actually rode it to fires in Ashland or drove it.
“It’s going to have a real positive impact on cities in the Rogue Valley,” says Black. “Everyone loves to see an old vehicle that’s still running. This will be a living exhibit and we’re confident this will be charismatic and working well enough that everyone loves it.”
Normally known for its work on 1800s history, SOHS can use the fire truck to help get across the message that it wants to save and show relics from the now-historic 20th century, says Truwe.
The fire truck is already adored by area old car clubs, with sizable donations from the Model A Ford Club, the Old Timers Car Club and, in Grants Pass, the Henry’s Lady Model A Ford Club.
When it’s up and going, the fire truck will live in the barn at SOHS’s Hanley Farm.
For more information, to make a donation, or to volunteer to help with restoration, visit sohs.org/fire-engine, or call Rick Black at 541-499-1356; Lee Newton at 541-
840-5568; George Kramer at 541-482-9504; or Ben Truwe at 541-773-8369.
— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at email@example.com