A model candidate for an overhaul

Volunteer fire company in Violetville to restore 1917 Model T fire engine

April 23, 2002|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

It still has the headlights and brass kerosene lamps that helped guide firefighters through the night as they raced to burning buildings nearly 90 years ago.

But the 1917 Ford Model T fire engine that belongs to the Violetville Volunteer Fire Department has seen better days.

The red paint that covers the body is chipped and worn. The black lettering, "Violetville Baltco. Co." has long faded. Rust corrodes the engine's metal parts. Two of its tires are flat, the other two gone, with bare wooden wheels remaining. The engine hasn't moved since the 1950s, when department members drove it in parades.

Although it looks like a heap of red junk, the Violetville department recently announced its plans to return the engine to its former glory.

"It's been sitting dormant as far as I can remember, but the condition is not devastating," said Donny Warthen, a fuel-company owner who serves as a volunteer. "It can be restored."

Department members plan to do the work and estimate the restoration will cost about $30,000. They hope to solicit donations from area businesses to cover the costs.

"It's just a part of history," said Warthen, who has restored 13 antique cars. "It's sad because it's been sitting there since I was a young man, and I'm 63."

When the hand-cranked truck was purchased by Fire Chief John A. Purkey Sr. in 1917, it was the department's first piece of motorized equipment. Before that, the unit, formed in 1906, carried its equipment to fires on carts.

When it was new, the engine was considered state-of-the-art firefighting equipment. A copper tank, still visible behind the driver's side, contained chemicals that, when mixed with water, produced a more forceful spray.

Having the motorized truck also enabled the department to help neighboring villages. The 1917 Model T led the charge in 1919 when fire gutted St. Mary's Industrial School in Baltimore, the boyhood home of baseball slugger Babe Ruth.

By the 1930s, the engine no longer was an effective firefighting tool, and the department turned it into a showpiece. One of the last men to drive the truck was John Purkey Jr., son of the former chief, who at 79 is still a member.

"We had some good times with that thing," Purkey said, staring at the truck, which sits in a bay at the fire station. "It took me 15 hours to drive that thing to Frostburg."

The truck survived a fire in 1955 that destroyed the stationhouse. Since then, the engine has sat idle.

One agency hoping to help is the Heritage Board of the Baltimore County Fire Commission. The group recently helped Halethorpe restore a 1951 Mack truck.

"We don't have a lot of financial resources," said Jim Doran, secretary for the group. "But we can help with expertise."

The Violetville volunteers have saved a black-and-white photograph of the truck in its heyday. Wooden ladders stretch down the sides, axes are tucked into the walls, a shining bell stands out front.

"This is the oldest motorized piece in Baltimore County," said volunteer John Purkey III, who also serves as a county firefighter. "I used to ride it in the American Day parade downtown."

Department members hope to restore the Model T by 2006 for the unit's 100th anniversary.

"It looks like a challenge, but we know it's a challenge going in," Warthen said. "We will get it done."

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