AHOSKIE, N.C.

Matt Bradley first laid eyes on the faded red fire engine as a boy.

The 1936 American LaFrance model — one of only 31 made that year — was sitting in a warehouse near the town's fire station.

A resident, Walter Futrell, bought the truck in the 1990s with plans to restore it. But the vintage rig with eyeball-like headlights remained stored for two decades.

At the Ahoskie Fire Department, a circular chrome piece, with a red Maltese cross in the center, sat on a trophy shelf for nearly as long. No one knew where the part came from or what it belonged to.

When Futrell moved to New Mexico and left the truck behind, Bradley seized an opportunity: He asked its owner to donate it back to the town.

“I’ve been wanting to get that truck since I was a child,” said Bradley, a volunteer firefighter whose father also served there. “Now I can look at it any time I want to.”

The engine is back at the Fire Department in Hertford County, awaiting restoration to its glory days.

The truck was bought in 1936 to augment the department’s only other engine, a 1928 model, Bradley said. The $13,000 cost was hefty for a small town during the Great Depression.

But Ahoskie, which is off U.S. 13, was thriving with railroad traffic and tobacco warehouses, said Mike Bradley, Matt’s brother and chief of the fire department.

At that time, firefighters donned raincoats, rubber boots and plastic helmets. Then they jumped onto the running board and held on. The driver would pull the choke knob to get the vehicle started before racing through town, pushing the clutch and shifting gears as he maneuvered the large steering wheel in the open-air cab. The single siren whined from behind a big red light, and one of the riders rang a bell that was attached outside the passenger door.

American LaFrance supplied most of North Carolina's fire departments in the early 1900s, said Mike Legoros, president of the Raleigh Fire Museum. 

Despite its age, the 83-year-old engine has held up well. The leather upholstery on the bench seat looks good. Faded red fenders without a single big dent flare over the tires. The original 12-cylinder engine still sits under the long hood. The bed behind the driver carries a 75-gallon water tank, a fraction of the 1,500 gallons hauled by today’s vehicles.

A little rust decorates the chrome frame around the radiator and the red paint has faded. The windshield, the original wooden ladder and the alarm bell are missing.

“It was the Cadillac of that time,” Matt Bradley said.

He hopes to find the original bell. His research shows the late J.D. Linkhaus had it after retiring in the 1970s and hung it on a family fishing pier along the Chowan River, he said. Linkhaus descendants could have the artifact, he said.

Thirty years ago, the fire department restored its 1928 model for about $30,000 with grants and fundraisers, Mike Bradley said. The fire engine has won several classic car contests and carries Santa Claus in the annual Christmas parade. It sits on display at the downtown fire station.

Plans are to raise money over the next two or three years to restore the 1936 model in a similar way, Matt Bradley said.

And that circular chrome object that had been on the trophy shelf?

Turns out it was the radiator cap and hood ornament for the town's newly acquired antique.

Jeff Hampton, 252-491-5272, jeff.hampton@pilotonline.com

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