Blast from the past with old fire engine for Basalt Fire Dept
June 3, 2015
The Basalt Fire Department is getting a blast from its past — quite a blast from its early past.
A 1929 Model AA Ford that was Basalt's first fire engine decades after it went into service was refurbished and unveiled to the volunteer firefighters and emergency medical responders Tuesday night.
It was a quasi-surprise. The man who handled most of the refurbishment, Will Handville of Marble, was scheduled to deliver it around the Fourth of July. Instead, he crammed in 10- and 12-hour days to finish it about one month early. He stealthily drove the truck into the department's El Jebel fire station Wednesday night during a volunteer meeting and unveiled the surprise by leading the volunteers out into the parking lot.
The truck was sporting fire-engine red paint (of course) by Professional Auto Body, Handville's intricate gold-leaf printing and pinstriping, equipment that dates from the 1930 and '40s, including some original tools.
The engine has a history as colorful as its appearance. It was used as a logging truck in the Rifle area until a falling tree smashed the cab. It was donated to the Rifle Fire Department and retrofitted as a fire engine.
The Basalt Fire Department purchased the truck in the 1960s, according to Cleve Williams, a fire officer and unofficial department historian.
"It was absolutely Basalt's first fire engine," said Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson.
It eventually fell into disrepair, and about 13 years ago some members of the department started to restore it. The engine and transmission were overhauled and some bodywork was performed, but the project languished before it was completed.
Williams persuaded the fire district and volunteers that the treasure should be restored before time slipped away and expenses climbed higher. They turned to Handville, a firefighter and paramedic with the Carbondale Fire Department. He is a restoration specialist with a passion for finding and fixing old camper trailers, custom building motorcycles and fabricating artwork with his wife, Evie. Earlier in his life he also worked as a master gold leafer who applied lettering and design on fire trucks for a company in Florida.
Handville said he jumped at the chance to restore an old fire truck. "I thought it would be a fun project, but it was much, much, much more work than I anticipated," he said.
Despite good intensions, the prior overhaul was shoddy, he said. Poor materials were used to replace rusted out pieces of the body. Somebody hand brushed a coat of paint somewhere along the way.
Handville met Gene Hill, a Marble resident who drives a Model A roadster, and enlisted his help in getting the truck back to its original appearance and in sound running condition. Hill was the master in all things mechanical and electrical, Handville said.
Extensive bodywork was performed and Handville paid particular detail to the tools and implements that were carried by a fire truck from 1929 and the early 1930s. Research on the Internet helped him find the right ladders, a pike pole, sand buckets, a wooden toolbox, fire extinguishers and hose wheel. The original axes were on the truck. He could salvage the blades but had to recraft the exact wooden handles. He created a replica pry bar and custom built the brackets. He found a kerosene lantern from the 1940s.
Sopris Glass donated a windshield for the rebuilt, open cab.
Handville said the extra work created extra expense, despite discounts from some companies that helped him. The fire district and volunteers initially budgeted $10,000 for the project. Handville said he quickly burned through that. He estimated it would cost another $8,000, which the fire department approved. But the cost kept climbing.
"My invoice right now is about $30,000," Handville said. Before he went above $18,000 in work, he consulted with his wife and decided to donate $12,000 worth of labor to finish the job right. It couldn't leave his shop, he said, unless it was "perfect."
"It's something that will be around for a long, long time," he said.
The Basalt Fire Department plans to use the truck for Fourth of July parades and other special events.
Handville said it was tough to return the fire truck.
"I don't want to get rid of it," he said. "I'd just as soon close my (shop) door and not let it out."
Instead the truck has a reserved spot in the El Jebel fire station.