Carlisle's 1931 "Engine 1" fire truck restored

This photo of Engine 1 was taken in 1938 in front of the old fire station on Lowell Street, now the present location of the Carlisle Police Station. (Photo by the late Esther Wilson)

When Carlisle's faithful old Engine 1 · a 1916 Model T · met its unfortunate demise in a rollover accident over seventy years ago, citizens rallied together at Town Meeting and appropriated the sum of $1200 to replace the old fire engine in February 1931. But then-Fire Chief Waldo Wilson thought he could do the job more frugally than that. He bought a new 1931 Chevrolet chassis, took it over to Middlesex Garage in Bedford (where the Boston Market restaurant now stands), and had the new fire engine · Carlisle's second Engine 1 · built and outfitted for just $1065.05, according to current Fire Chief and self-appointed department Historian David Flannery.

Fast-forward some seventy years and Engine 1 was showing its age. Somewhere along the line, volunteer mechanics had covered the original black paint with bright orange. Rotting floorboards were replaced with discarded planks. Chrome was tarnished, metal was showing signs of rust. Although former Fire Chief Robert Koning did some research into what it would cost the department to refurbish the old treasure, the amount, ranging up to $20,000, was far too steep.

The restored fire truck is shown on the day of delivery to the fire department on Westford Street. Left to right are Chief Flannery, retired Chief Bob Koning, and Bill and Dean Luther, who volunteered their time to refurbish the engine. (Photo by Kevin Stacey)

When brothers Dean and Bill Luther, owners of Carlisle Auto Body on Bedford Road, heard about the ill-fated restoration, they were intrigued. They had already outfitted a police car for the DARE anti-drug program in the Carlisle schools, and decided they wanted to do something for the Carlisle Fire Department as well.

"I love history, and this is a piece of Carlisle history," says Bill Luther, whose family has its own bit of history in Carlisle. Although he has lived in Carlisle for nearly a decade, the business itself has been in town for over 25 years. He, Dean, and another brother, Kenneth, are active in town activities, including coaching sports teams for Recreation Department leagues. "We live in this town and are dedicated to being a part of this town. We decided we would donate the restoration of the truck."

Although the truck's engine was in remarkably good shape with just 3,300 miles on it after seventy years, the body was another story.

"We did it in stages. We took the vehicle apart, cleaned it, then repainted the frame last winter," says Bill. "Then we put the frame on wheels at the fire station and worked on the sheet metal. We completely stripped it, repainted the pieces individually, then reassembled it."

The Luthers are quick to add that they had help on the project. Fire Department Lieutenant Rob Koning Jr. served as the project manager and had truck pieces re-chromed. Carlisle Fire Fighter Bryan Sorrows was able to appropriate some hard-to-find replacement parts, including finding a set of original headlights on-line. And "Stu" of Restoration Painting in Carlisle replaced the old floorboards with solid oak flooring, stained and polyurethaned to a shine.

One of the most interesting aspects of refurbishing Engine 1 was the unexpected items the workers found hidden in the old fire truck. While taking it apart, they discovered an area where the passenger seat flips up to reveal the gas tank underneath. There, they found what at first appeared to be a pile of old rags. But when they unrolled one of them, it turned out to be a little girl's dress, stained with grease but otherwise in good condition, and as Bill estimates, "at least sixty years old."

There was also a canvas and leather bag, with the words "return to Waldo Wilson" · the former fire chief · printed on it. "There was no address," Bill says. "Everyone knew who he was."

The truck also contained some ancient tools and an old 6-volt lantern fashioned from an old green-beans can, wires and alligator clips. Finding these items, says Bill, "was more exciting than getting the truck done."

At Old Home Day
The beautifully refurbished Engine 1 was prominently displayed at this year's Old Home Day parade, and now sits ready for work in a bay at the fire department on Westford Street.

"It is still in service," says fire chief Flannery. "It has been tenderly restored and runs beautifully." It is fully functional and can still be used to fight fires "in an auxiliary capacity," he adds. Although its smaller tank holds a limited amount of water and would be effective only for use on smaller fires, Engine 1 can also carry equipment in wooded areas that would be harder for the larger trucks to access.

But perhaps one of its most important and noble duties is to serve as a hearse to carry the caskets of prominent and beloved Carlisle residents to their final resting places. In recent years, Engine 1 has been used to transport the remains of Carlisleans Guy Clark, Cal Adrian, and Esther Wilson.

Engine 1 has always been a Carlisle treasure; now it has been transformed to its former grandeur, or is arguably in better shape than it has ever been in its vigorous 73 years of age.

Chief Flannery invites anyone who wishes to see the restored 1931 fire truck to stop by the fire department on Westford Street. "If you see the door open," he says, "You're welcome to come in and see it."