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MJ History: The Fire Chief

This week, we have another selection from “Julip” by Ron Castleman, his book about growing up in Mt. Juliet. This chapter is titled “The Fire Chief.”

I was five years old in 1950 and of course hadn’t started to school. On what I remember as a spring day, Daddy and I went to the nearby town of Lebanon.  Lebanon is about 15 miles East of Mt. Juliet and to me was a big city at the time. I’m not sure I knew why we were going until we arrived.

The city of Lebanon had given Mt. Juliet an old fire engine as a start toward our volunteer fire department. The local civic organization, the Mt. Juliet Men’s Club of which Daddy was a member, had decided fire protection was long over due.

The town had had its fill of fires during the nine-year period detailed in the previous chapter. The memories of these fires and the town’s helpless rural isolation were probably the biggest catalyst in the Fire Department’s creation.

Upon arrival in Lebanon, I recall that we went inside a building where a group of men were sitting and chatting. A couple of men were playing checkers. The next thing I knew we were on the highway heading toward Mt. Juliet. The unusual thing was that we were on a fire engine – a 1917 “American LaFrance” Fire engine.

This great machine intrigued me. There was my father, clutching a large wooden steering wheel at the right side of this open cab vehicle. I sat with him to his left on a long, black leather tufted seat that had a peculiar odor (probably moisture had caused this as a result of the open cab). It was a bit scary to a young boy of my size to be perched high up on the seat of this contraption that had no roof or doors.

The motor had a sound about it that I shall never forget. To this day I have never encountered another like it. The sound was a mixture of throaty, quick – slow and determined noises that made a music all its own. Only those of us with a strong love for the internal combustion engine could appreciate it.

Placed conveniently to my left was a siren with a hand crank. Turning this crank was more fun than going to the store with a nickel to buy candy.

Behind my Dad’s right shoulder was a large brass bell with a rope attached to the clangor. The rope ran horizontally all the way to the rear platform so those firemen in this location could ring the bell. No doubt, the numerous volunteers were as intrigued with the bell as I was the with hand siren.

Blocking my dad’s exit on his right was at least one long wooden ladder and a hook or two attached to long wooden poles.

The large lights (approximately 14” in diameter) were made of brass and in need of shining, as was the rest of the engine.

It had large wooden spoke, solid rubber wheels (at least 25” in diameter) and a chain drive, which is almost unheard of for a four-wheel vehicle. The chain drive proved to be one of the weaker points and l recall it breaking on at least one occasion.

Since the town had no public water supply at the time, water for the 500-gallon tank onboard was obtained from the frequently muddy and out of banks creek. In a field next to Mt. Juliet road there was a natural sloping access to the creek that made it fairly convenient to fill the tank. After filling the tank about dark one day Daddy started to pull away and the chain snapped, probably due to an old chain, rough terrain and a heavy load of water. It was so late in the day that the chain wasn’t repaired until the following morning when more light was available. Today armed security guards would have to stand watch all night.

It wasn’t long until the Men’s Club decided it was time for our fire department to become more modern so a project was undertaken to raise funds for a better fire engine.

Since Mt. Juliet was in the center of a rural area, there were frequent grass fires on farm terrain that called for a 4-wheel drive, rough terrain type vehicle to make the most remote fire accessible, while at the same time be versatile enough to be used on paved roads.

Since no such fire engine was available within the Club’s means it was decided one would be built locally. Daddy either volunteered or was volunteered to head up the project since (1) he was the owner/operator of the town’s only auto repair shop, (2) he was the only reason the town had been able to keep the original American LaFrance Fire Engine in running condition and (3) he was either officially or unofficially the “Fire Chief’”.

A government surplus “Dodge Power Wagon” truck chassis was first purchased and the fire fighting equipment was to be built on as funds were raised.

Since the Club’s funds were all but depleted after the purchase of the truck the initial plan to draw attention to the project and raise money was to make a halftime presentation at one of our local high school’s Friday Night football games.

Both the old “LaFrance” and the new “Dodge” were parked on the sidelines the night of the game.  It almost seemed both vehicles were anxiously awaiting a drive around the field at half time to show themselves off.  A picture of this scene now would be priceless.

When halftime came the two were driven around as someone talked about the needed funds on a crude public address system.  The results weren’t much to brag about.  The total amount raised that evening was $1.00, donated by two men from the town our team was playing.

As has been said, the Dodge Power Wagon was, at the time of purchase, exempt of any resemblance to a fire engine.  There was a lot to be done, the least of which was to change the color from “Naval Gray” to “Fire Engine Red”.  The major work to be done included rebuilding the truck’s engine and installation of a water pump (for creating water pressure to put out fires as well as creating a suction for drawing water from the town creek), the water tank, reels, hoses, a siren, red lights, hand railings, rear fenders, standing platforms, and of course the name on the door.  The work was all done by my father except for some special welding of the rear fenders and standing platforms which was done at no charge by Mr. Porter (a local resident who was an expert welder for the Nashville Bridge Company).

Dual wheels were added at the rear for added support of a full water tank.  The dual wheels made the rear section of the vehicle a good two feet wider than the front.  Many a farm gate was to be widened by this unique feature.  More often than not, the driver would forget about the engine’s wide behind and plunge with vigor through a smaller opening.

Over a period of several months, the work was finally completed with the final touch being the name painted on the cab doors:  (Daddy removed the doors and they were taken to a professional sign painter by Percy Bates and his son Phillip).

The number 1 in the upper left-hand corner was no doubt some optimism that someday Mt. Juliet would have more than one fire engine.

The finished product wasn’t your typical streamlined beauty that the city councils of incorporated towns spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on, but in the eyes of my Dad and the men who had worked to raise money for its creation, it was visible pride.

Although I was never at a Men’s Club meeting to hear if he received any recognition or praise for his efforts, I feel whatever was said or done was inadequate for all the hours he contributed at no charge.  Of course, he didn’t do it out of a desire for attention or recognition.  It was more because of his love for the automotive trade and his desire to see the town’s dream come true.  It was a greater accomplishment for him than it was for the town.

One Sunday afternoon, when I was still a little too young to go to fires, there was a phone call, a few quick words to my Mother about a fire, and my Dad and older brother Richard were out the door.  I raced to one of the large front windows and watched with my Mother as our ‘46 Mercury rounded a curve on two wheels, on the gravel road in front of our house that led to the fire hall.  Mother fearfully said, “They’ll get killed”.  They didn’t of course. The scene made me excited about my participation in the years to come.

I wrote this as an early 68th birthday present for Daddy and gave it to him October 16, 1978.

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