Shiny and bright red, the state-of-the-art truck rolled out of a rail car into Lawrence.
The $27,500 pumper truck came equipped with a 10-cylinder engine, two batteries and a 500-gallon water tank, and would serve Lawrence through some of its most tumultuous times until it was taken out of service years later.
But that year — 1955— it was brand new.
Fifty-six years ago today, Lawrence purchased the American LaFrance pumper and branded as No. 68. The pumper was taken out of full service in 1968 and was used as a reserve truck until the 1980s, when a local firefighter bought it at auction.
In 2009, he donated the truck back to the department. Now, the truck sits in the Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical’s investigation center, 1839 Mass., awaiting restoration.
Bill Stark, administrative division chief, said the pumper was unloaded off the train near the waterworks on May 16, 1955. There, it underwent a four-hour test until the fire chief accepted it.
“This would have been the state-of-the-art truck,” Stark said.
For the first time in Lawrence, all four firefighters on a pumper could sit in the cab, although two were squished facing backward.
Harold Mallonee, 69, was one of the firefighters who would ride on the truck after he joined the force in 1964. It was used as a reserve beginning in 1968, when the force bought newer trucks to replace it. But tense relations in town led to riots in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and the pumper was pressed into service again.
“During the riots, I was on that truck,” Mallonee said. “I grew up with that truck.”
Stark said the fire department often loaded up all of its trucks during that time because countless fires were breaking out around the city.
“When they had riots going on, they’d staff it up,” Stark said.
By the 1980s, the truck was taken out of service completely. Mallonee saw it regularly at Station No. 1, where he said the city parked it when they stopped using it. Then it went up for sale.
“The city put it up for auction, so I put in a bid for it. I had no idea what it would go for,” said Mallonee, who retired as a fire lieutenant in 1994.
He won the auction and immediately fixed it up. He put in a new head gasket and fixed the cylinders and brakes. The truck joined two more fire trucks, a 1937 model and a 1945 model, thatMallonee already had at home.
“I didn’t want to see them sold or somebody junk them out or something like that,” he said.
But as he got older, he no longer had the time or energy to keep the vehicles in good shape. Many trucks were often scrapped by departments, but Mallonee wanted them preserved.
“I decided to donate it back to Lawrence Fire,” he said.
In 2009, Mallonee donated the truck to the Lawrence department. Now the truck sits in the investigation center, which was once the station where the truck was based. Stark said a group of firefighters plans to restore the truck.
“Compared to the trucks nowadays, everything about this truck seems small,” he said.
A comparable truck today would cost about $600,000, he said. The truck is only about 25 feet long, much shorter than modern trucks. To sound the siren, the driver has to pump it, while still concentrating on shifting the manual transmission and pumping the brakes to stop. With only 26,620 miles, the truck seems young, but it’s got 43,388 engine hours on it.
Stark said the first goal for the restorers would be to get the engine safe to drive again by checking the brakes and wiring. The project would be good for morale in the department, especially for those who like to tinker or love department history, he said.
“It’s a rare opportunity to get a truck back that you don’t have to pay for,” said Stark, who joined the department in 1981.
There’s no deadline for finishing the restoration, which will be done during off-hours, Stark said.
As part of the department’s historical group, Stark and the other firefighters want to show people what the old engine was like and use it in parades and educational settings.
“This is a conversation piece,” he said. “We try to engage people.”