Old fire trucks don't die easily. 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.
Its legend began after it fell into Ashland Creek when the bridge it was on collapsed during a major flood of 1948. Its red warning light continued burning for hours, earning it the nickname of “the amphibious fire engine.”
The rugged but worn-looking engine bristles with chrome handholds for fire fighters to grab onto as the truck headed out on its duties. It served Ashland for three decades and was auctioned off in about 1976, says Ben Truwe, a member of the Southern Oregon Historical Society Board of Trustees.
The last outing for the 1½-ton fire truck, powered by a Ford flathead V-8 engine, was a 1992 wedding in Jacksonville. It passed through many hands and was put out to pasture for 10 years in Shady Cove, where it began deteriorating.
It was donated to SOHS recently by Lee Newton, brother of the now-deceased bride in that wedding two decades ago.
What will SOHS do with the 70-year-old fire engine? They’re not planning to fully restore it, which would require pouring untold sums into it, breaking it down to the smallest part and making each one as new and repainted as possible.
Instead, 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. When they're done, it will look like what it is: a very old and historic fire truck, complete 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 hoping to get volunteer help from carpenters (much of the truck is wood) and mechanics.
As part of the repair effort, SOHS will host 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 open house is also a recruitment push for volunteers who would be willing to join the restoration team, which will involve plenty of learning and just plain work. Donations, of course, are always welcome. The most generous donors will get to ride on the fire truck in the Ashland Fourth of July parade and in other parades.
Gathering in weekly work parties, they’ve spent $1,500 so far on replacement parts, including $400 for a radiator overhaul.
Showing old pictures from the January 1948 Ashland Daily Tidings, Black explained 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 will be part of 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.
The historical society has located two former firemen — Bill Robinson and Walt Wolford — who actually rode the engine 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 also wants to save and show relics from the more recent history of the 20th century, says Truwe.
The fire truck is already popular with area 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 firstname.lastname@example.org