By Don Stacom
MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — When Middletown got a new American LaFrance fire truck in 1931, the city was a different place: The Arrigoni Bridge didn’t exist, the 1899 firehouse was still fairly modern, and a local factory’s cutting-edge product was the “noiseless typewriter.”
So it’s understandable that 92 years later, old Truck 1’s paint is bit faded.
“That’s the original paint. It’s got the original motor, the original transmission and they still work — it’s amazing it’s in as good shape as it is,” said Lt. Ryan Scranton, a leader in the campaign to restore what’s probably the oldest Middletown fire truck still in existence.
It wasn’t until two years ago that Middletown firefighters heard the old Truck 1 was in a private collector’s storage garage in Binghamton, New York, which turned out to be the next-to-last stop in an unusual journey.
Truck 1 was built in 1930 by the now-defunct American LaFrance, and delivered to Middletown a year later.
It was no ordinary pumper or tanker: Instead, it was a tiller truck, a predecessor to the modern aerial apparatus. Designed to get around tight city street corners, its cab connects to the ladder and trailer section with a hinge. So the driver steers from in the cab, but a second firefighter steers the trailer section from a seat at the far back.
Truck 1 spent about 25 years in service at the downtown firehouse, where the extendible 75-foot ladder on its trailer could reach up four- and five-story buildings along Main Street.
The city lent the truck to Connecticut Valley Hospital in the late 1950s, and a couple of years later it was fully decommissioned and sent to a private collector in Philadelphia. Long afterward, the Binghamton collector acquired it and then stored it for years.
“In the summer of 2021, we got a call from the gentleman in Binghamton, a retired fire captain from there. He’d seen markings for Middletown. All he wanted was to cover the back rent he owed,” Firefighter Owen Andrew said. “So a group of us formed the Middletown Tiller Association.”
Scranton and Andrew along with several other firefighters and a group of retirees chipped in to raise about $3,000. Two local businesses, Gallitto Construction and Yankee Heritage, lent a low-bed tractor trailer so they could haul the old truck back from Binghamton.
Since the overwhelming majority of fire trucks from that era became scrap metal long ago, the nonprofit association was grateful that private collectors had not only kept Truck 1 but cared for it, too.
“That truck has been stored inside its entire life. It was never more than a couple of days outside,” Andrew said.
Still, restoration is going to be a costly job. The truck runs, but needs new tires along with rear brakes and other mechanical improvements.
“We’ve had quotes on a full restoration — paint, gold leafing, everything — from $100,000 to $400,000,” Andrew said. “But right now our goal is just to get it mechanically sound, maybe $10,000 to $15,000.”
The association got 501(c) (3) status last year, so donations can be tax deductible. It recently set up a GoFundMe page that so far has raised $1,290, and will be seeking local corporate donations later this year.
The association has taken the truck to a few local events and parades, and wants to do more community events. For now, the truck has been a way for current firefighters and even some retirees to get a deeper sense of what the job was like for their predecessors.
“That (main) ladder is all mechanical. You have to crank a handle to make it go up, crank another to extend it and another to move it from side to side,” Scranton said. “It also has a 55-foot wooden ladder — I’d estimated it took five to seven firefighters to move it.”
By comparison, the main ladder on Middletown’s current aerial truck is entirely automatic, and the detachable ladders are lighter-weight aluminum.
“The ladder on the tiller has no hydraulics or electric motor,” Andrew said. “There’s no power steering, no power brakes, it has a true double clutch transmission.”
The rear axle is chain driven, the cab’s rear wheels are hard rubber, and top speed is about 30 mph. The cab itself has no roof, doors or seat belts.
“You were exposed to the elements,” Andrew said.
Scranton has learned that his late grandfather, who retired as a deputy chief in the mid-1980s, had driven the tiller section during Truck 1′s last years on the road.
“Then I get to drive the tiller part in the Memorial Day parade. That was kind of cool,” Andrew said. “He started in the 1940s and he used to be the tiller man.”
Taking the truck to community events is a way to share the department’s heritage with the community, firefighters said.
“We took it to a car show at Palmer Field in the fall. A lot of people said ‘We remember when it was in service going up and down Main Street,” Scranton said.
Andrew, the son of two firefighters, described the reaction as other motorists see the truck on the road.
“You see people turning around to drive back and take pictures,” he said. “Everybody in the Memorial Day parade wanted to pose with it.”
©2023 Hartford Courant.
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.