Nearly everyone has a vehicle they dream about owning. Maybe it’s a sports car, luxury vehicle, decked-out Harley or even a fire truck.
“Every firefighter, I think, dreams of owning their own fire truck,” said Marblehead Fire Chief Jason Gilliland.
And for Gilliland, that dream has come true.
Gilliland recently became the proud owner of a classic 1939 model 80 Mack combination pumper/ladder truck. If that weren’t exciting enough, it is an original Marblehead fire truck.
Gilliland said he’d looked off and on for a truck he could call his own, something small enough to store, ideally with an open cab. He wasn’t sure it would ever happen.
Then he got a phone call from a guy who said he had something he thought belonged to Gilliland.
“I hate calls like that,” Gilliland said with a laugh. “I said, ‘What could you possibly have that belongs to me?’”
When Sunapee, New Hampshire Assistant Fire Chief Dana Ramspott said it was a vintage Marblehead fire truck, Gilliland said, “OK, now you’ve got my attention.”
Ramspott immediately sent photos.
“It’s pretty funky looking,” Gilliland said, showing the photo Ramspott sent. “I’m not a real big fan of the swayback, but it belonged to Marblehead, so you know what, I’m interested.'”
A little history
Along with photos, Ramspott also sent Gilliland the original “bill card,” which is essentially a list of the specifications the chief sent to the company that built the engine. He called the card a rare find that also verifies that the truck is exactly what it’s purported to be.
While the accompanying letter is undated and unsigned, “which kills me,” Gilliland said that he believes Chief J.S. Adams ordered the engine in 1939.
The truck was housed at the Franklin Street Station from delivery in 1940 to approximately 1962, then it ran out of headquarters as a reserve piece until it was auctioned off in 1974, Gilliland said.
Marblehead resident Ray Burns bought the truck at auction and took it to New Hampshire, but Gilliland said they lost track of it after that — until Ramspott called from Sunapee.
The Sunapee Firefighters’ Association would take the truck out for parades, musters and shows. Still, as is typical everywhere, Gilliland said the younger firefighters had little interest in the old engine, and it’s been sitting in a garage for years.
When the association decided it was time to sell it, Gilliland was their first call because “we’d rather see it go back home.”
Otherwise, it would have likely gone back up for auction.
Bringing the truck home turned out to be a family affair. Gilliland and his wife drove up, and his two sons pitched in. Logan drove a semi-truck and trailer on which the engine would be carried home, and Liam, a Marblehead firefighter, drove the service vehicle stocked with tools, just in case they were needed.
“It was great fun,” Gilliland said. “There were like 20 guys up there; they were sad to see it go, and we were excited to see it come home.”
Gilliland was also excited to see that nearly everything on the bill card from 80-plus years ago was still on the truck. Along with the wooden ladders and old brass nozzles, the Mack hubcaps, mirrors and bulldog hood ornament were all still in place.
“Usually, people strip that stuff right off, but there were a lot of tools that came with it,” he said.
The only thing missing was the bell hanging off the truck’s side.
“That’s probably sitting in someone’s living room right now,” he said.
But Gilliland said he’s already been in touch with South Park, the company that manufactures bells for various fire engines, and they’ve agreed to replicate it.
Looking at the single cab engine, Gilliland said Logan asked where everyone sat.
“I said, ‘They don’t.’ The driver and the officer sat inside, and come hell or high water, no matter what the weather was, the other guy had to ride the tailboard.”
Gilliland, who has ridden on the tailboard of an engine, said the last time they were allowed to do that was in the early 1980s, and he’s glad he had a chance to experience that ancient tradition.
Before they left, Gilliland said the firefighters caring for the truck shared a wealth of awe-inspiring knowledge.
“They showed the little secrets — they knew everything,” he said.
So how much does an 80-plus-year-old fire engine cost? Gilliland said that was interesting, too.
He said he had looked at engines that were going for as much as $10,000 and was prepared to hand over some cash. Ramspott said he needed to negotiate a price with the association, and he’d get back to him.
When Ramspott called him a month later, he asked if he was sitting down. Gilliland said he thought that was a bad sign, but then Ramspott said, “How about $1,000?”
“I said the check is in the mail,” Gilliland said. “This made my day. The stars were aligned.”
Ramspott said the association was happy to see the engine go back home and that it would be taken care of.
“The goal now that it’s back in town is to take the time to restore it properly,” Gilliland said.
The motor runs fantastic, and Ramspott said it pumped 900 gallons a minute last spring. Gilliland also said the body was in good shape with no significant rust, but the chrome would all have to be replaced. He’s hoping to start the restoration in a few months, but in the meantime, he has to find a place to store it out of the weather.
“That will be a huge goal,” he said.
He added, “Once we restore it, I’ll put it in parades and take it to shows.”
And Gilliland also hopes to one day soon return it to Franklin Street Station. Gilliland said he and Town Planner Becky Cutting are working on a project to restore the old firehouse fully.
“We have an article for Town Meeting, and we did get a grant from Massachusetts Historical Preservation … we’ve had architects look at Franklin Street, and we’re going to try and restore it as it was with the hose towers and everything,” he said. “When that’s finished, I think the cool thing to do would be to put a fire truck back in it. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”