Antique fire equipment restored, city waits to restore truck

Published 12:03 am Saturday, October 3, 2015

A 1939 American LaFrance open-cab fire truck waits at the Natchez-Adams County Port to be restored. According to Natchez Mayor Butch Brown the truck is in excellent condition and just needs a fresh coat of paint. (Sam Gause / Natchez Democrat)

A 1939 American LaFrance open-cab fire truck waits at the Natchez-Adams County Port to be restored. According to Natchez Mayor Butch Brown the truck is in excellent condition and just needs a fresh coat of paint. (Sam Gause / Natchez Democrat)

NATCHEZ — Sitting beneath a layer of dust in a warehouse at the Natchez-Adams County Port is a ton’s worth of blazing Natchez history — a 1939 American LaFrance open-cab fire truck.

In its heyday, the truck assisted brave firefighters in extinguishing flames throughout the city.

Today, the truck serves as an important piece of local history, and tells a compelling story of how far Natchez has come in fire protection, Natchez Mayor Butch Brown said.

For the truck to shine new again, it just needs a fresh coat of paint, he said.

“It’s in excellent condition,” Brown said. “I’m still, at this moment, trying to find someone who would paint it.”

With the Natchez Tricentennial — the city’s 300th birthday — around the corner, Brown said there’s a big push to get the antique truck, and other Natchez artifacts, in pristine condition so visitors and locals can enjoy them.

Boasting a wooden ladder and “Natchez Fire Dept.” written in faded yellow paint along its right side and “Mayor Audley B. Conner” on the left, the truck reminds Natchez Fire Chief Aaron Wesley of days gone by.

“To restore it and show people where we come from, that’s important to the history of Natchez,” Wesley said. “I’ve been here 33 years, and I know of guys who are dead and gone now, and they would say ‘thank you’ for not letting this just go to waste.”

When the truck first arrived by train, it was an innovative gem, Wesley said.

The fire truck, which was used by the Natchez Fire Department back in the 1940s, shows how far firefighting has come. The hope is to have it ready for the Natchez Tricentennial. (Sam Gause / Natchez Democrat)

The fire truck, which was used by the Natchez Fire Department back in the 1940s, shows how far firefighting has come. The hope is to have it ready for the Natchez Tricentennial. (Sam Gause / Natchez Democrat)

“Many years before we had this, we had the bucket brigade,” Wesley said with a laugh. “Firefighters would pass buckets of water down the street to put out fires.”

Luis Videgaray, a Natchez Fire Department training officer, said he knows of firefighters who drove the antique truck.

“It’s an open cab, so if it rained you got wet, and if it snowed, you got cold,” Videgaray said, adding that the last time he saw the truck — back in the 1990s — the engine revved up. “I look at it, and I think ‘that’s where we came from.’”

And while the antique fire truck is still waiting for its refurbishment, Brown said other antique Natchez fire memorabilia are getting shined and polished right now — preparing for their tricentennial debut.

The antique fire equipment that has endured the elements next to the fire station on John R. Junkin Drive — a steam-powered fire engine, fire extinguisher and hose pumper — are currently in the hands of hobbyist Jay Ginn, who is restoring the equipment from his workshop in the Ohlo community, west of Hattiesburg.

Ginn, a former history teacher and friend of Brown’s, said his favorite part of restoring the equipment has been learning the history behind all the parts.

While stripping paint off the engine, Ginn said he discovered its age was older than he thought.

Judging by its appearance, the engine was made between 1891 and 1896, Ginn said.

The hose pumper, Ginn said, was also manufactured sometime in during the 1800s.

Ginn said all the equipment is currently in his blacksmith workshop, attached to his house.

“My wife does the painting and detailing,” Ginn said of the antique equipment’s restoration. “I do the heavy stuff.”

Ginn said his wife recently joked that the pair are likely the only non-English, non-Amish experts in antique fire restoration in the state.

“This kind of restoration usually takes a year,” he said. “But I promised Butch I would have everything ready by Jan. 1.”

Brown said because the city is having the equipment restored by an independent hobbyist, the cost is a bargain.

“What he’s doing is very generous,” Brown said of Ginn. “I’m looking forward to seeing how it all turns out.”

Brown said where the equipment will be displayed has not yet been determined, but a tentative location is the Natchez Visitor Reception Center.

“Hopefully we can have a big unveiling,” he said.

Wesley said he hopes the unrestored ladder truck can find a new, public home soon, too.

“Natchez is a historical town, and that is a part of Natchez history,” Wesley said.