100-year-old fire truck more than a machine

Antique holds important role for family, business, community
Feb. 05, 2014 @ 08:56 AM

In March, Lee Huffman hopes to throw a birthday party for the oldest member of his family -- 100 years old, bright red and weighing 6,500 pounds.

The 1914 American LaFrance fire truck came into the family in the late 1950s, when A.W. "Bert" Huffman, Lee's father, bought it from the Hickory Fire Department. It had been Hickory's first fire truck.

Lee Huffman remembers playing on the old truck when he was a child, pretending to drive it and using its ladders as monkey bars, and on Sundays his father took the children -- Lee, brother Al and sister Adele -- and other neighborhood kids out for a ride in the truck.

Bert Huffman bought the truck as a collector's item, but if not for that old truck, Huffman Hosiery Mills in Granite Falls might not be what it is today.

Sometime after he bought the truck, Bert Huffman was trying to get a bank loan to buy more equipment for the hosiery mill he founded, but without extra fire insurance, the bank would not agree to the loan. And because the mill was in a rural area without a centralized water system, and the mill had no sprinkler system, the insurance company was reluctant to provide extra insurance.

But Huffman was able to convince the insurance company that because he had a working fire truck on the premises, his workers could fight fires and handle anything that came up, so the insurance company granted the insurance, the bank granted the loan, Huffman bought the equipment, and business boomed.

A.W. Huffman fully restored the truck in the '70s. It was the first in what became a collection of about a dozen or fire trucks, including Lenoir’s first ladder truck -- bought after the truck was in a wreck in 1963 -- and a 1934 American LaFrance that serves as the caboose in Lenoir’s Christmas parade each year.

But the 1914 truck is the gem of the bunch. It was officially signed over to the Hickory Fire Department March 10, 1914, when that department consisted of one full-time, paid fire chief and 20 volunteers.

The paperwork that came to Huffman along with the truck included notes on the truck's tests when it arrived in Hickory, saying that among the Hickory fire personnel there was “one green, but exceptionally good” driver, and that the city's streets were “very bad,” made of red clay, no sand, and were hilly.

The truck is fitted with a 200-gallon tank, a three-speed transmission, kerosene lanterns on the back for lights, 20-foot and 15-foot extension ladders, a steering wheel on the right side, and a hand-cranked siren mounted on the dashboard. It was built in Elmira, N.Y., by American LaFrance, a paragon of fire truck production throughout the 20th century, which closed for good a little more than a week ago, on Jan. 17.

“You hate to see an icon die,” Lee Huffman said, noting that the company had been building steam pumps and fire trucks since the 1800s, and that the Charlotte fire department has used the company’s equipment since the 1890s, including a steam pump that now travels to shows.

“People that collect fire trucks are different – they’re fanatical,” Huffman said, noting that with firefighters especially, the trucks are what protected them, among their most valuable tools – their lives.