“A large and excited crowd gathered at the corner of Clinton and Jefferson streets … Water was pumped from the hydrant at the Clinton and Jefferson street corner and with firemen pointing nozzle (sic) skyward a stream of water extended 200 feet into the air.”
Forgive us our plagiarism. But it seems appropriate here. That above description by The Huntsville Times of a scene 90 years ago, on July 6, 1927, almost perfectly describes a similar scene on July 6, 2017. Same site. Same truck. So, why not the same words to begin our turning back the clock?
If you’ve seen a parade in Huntsville, you’ve seen the Ahrens-Fox fire truck, that candy-apple antique with polished brass and shiny chrome that is just one Dalmatian away from being a Norman Rockwell painting.
It was 90 years ago that the City of Huntsville took delivery on the specially ordered machine, from a now-defunct company in Cincinnati. Where many cities may have long since junked a pumper truck that old, Huntsville not only rolls it out for special events, but it has assured the old boy can still function.
So, to mark its birthday, Huntsville Fire & Rescue personnel drove the Ahrens-Fox downtown and pointed nozzles skyward. Side-by-side geysers shot toward the heavens, filling the air with cool mist and filling everyone with awe.
There was a purpose to the Clinton and Jefferson site, according to Huntsville Fire & Rescue Captain Jay Gates. When the City ordered the Ahrens-Fox in 1927 – what Gates calls “the Cadillac of fire trucks” it was bought for $12,500 — the tallest building was the seven-story Terry Hutchens Building, located at that corner. So equipment suitable for that site was the prerequisite, as was the ability to pump water from Big Spring to the courthouse.
At the time, Huntsville’s fire department only had a 1919 pumper with a chain-drive transmission and a chemical truck which operated on essentially the same premise as the baking soda papier-mache volcanoes we all made for science class.
The Ahrens-Fox served its purpose well for decades before becoming something of a museum piece.
Gates was a rookie firefighter in 1986 when was dispatched to a Fire Prevention Week appearance at Madison Square Mall. The Ahrens-Fox was there, too. At the end of the event, a wrecker pulled up to tow the fire truck back home. A sad scene, like Superman having to call Uber.
“I made up my mind that day, if I ever get any authority or say-so in this department, I’m going to try to fix that truck,” he says.
Sure enough, he became a captain in 1997 and was assigned in 1998 to Station 1, where the Ahrens-Fox was quietly suffering its AARP years. Gates had been told of the truck’s various woes that left it idle, but he began tinkering with it, gassed it up, got a new battery “and it cranked right up like it was supposed to.”
With the assistance of mechanic Bill Mahan and a supportive City budget, a renovation was begun. Except for a new carburetor and replacement of some of the wood trim, it’s the original equipment, encased in a fresh paint job.
Though Gates laughingly admits, “Every time you sit down in that driver’s seat, you cross your fingers,” it still runs – even though many a parade has been stalled while having to stop and add oil.
“It’s a wonderful truck but there are certain things it doesn’t do,” Gates says. “We’ve got to remember that even though it’s a 90-year old truck, in its day it was the top of the line. It was the most modern piece of equipment that we could have. Even in 1927, Huntsville was a very progressive city and we were looking to the future.”
“Even as we look back we are looking forward,” he continues. “There are seven new trucks on order now. And they’re the most modern trucks out there. We’re able to look ahead and see where we’re going.”
Those new trucks in mind, see you at the corner of Jefferson and Clinton in July 2107.