WILLIAMS, Ariz. - One thing about fire fighters that's not bound to change any time soon, is the love they have for their fire trucks.
Several members of the Williams Volunteer Fire Department demonstrated this when they recently re-acquired the first fire truck ever owned in Williams, a 1922 Waterous-Ford Motor Fire Engine.
A few weeks ago, firemen Kevin Schulte, Daniel Sutton, and Cameron Maebe and Fire Chief Chase Pearson traveled to Cortez, Colorado to pick up the fire truck that had been stored for 86-years.
Preserving a piece of history
According to the Fire Department, the 1922 Waterous was retired in 1929. A man from Glendale, Arizona was interested in purchasing the fire truck when
local resident Ivan Smith stepped in to stop the purchase.
"They're not going to get that thing," former Williams resident Norman Smith remembers hearing his father say.
Norman lived in Williams in the 1920s and remembers his father, Ivan Smith, saying the fire truck needed to stay in Williams. Ivan owned a drugstore and Grand Canyon Hotel in 1929.
"Someone was trying to get it (the truck) from them (the Fire Department), but my dad went and got $200 and bought it," Norman said.
The fire truck was stored at Ivan's home on First Street in Williams for more than 50 years. The family occasionally brought it to parades or drove it around town.
"We used to drive it down the street," Smith said. "But now when we tried to go up the hills we would have to back up because the reverse was stronger. It couldn't go up hills very fast."
The fire truck eventually stopped running, but the Smith family continued to store it. Norman's brother Robert moved into his parent's home after they passed away and kept it for another 20 years. When Robert retired, Norman moved the fire truck to Cortez where it was stored in his barn.
"It's always been in our possession," Norman said. "This meant something to my dad."
Norman said the family never planned to use it for personal use and never intended to sell it.
"We just wanted it to stay in Williams," Norman said.
Bringing it home
Pearson said the fire department kept in touch with the Smith family over the years and always hoped to reacquire the truck. He said the department had been in contact with Norman off and on over the years when things finally fell into place.
"My mom was talking to Norman Smith and he said 'Tell Chase he can have that truck and do what he wants with it,'" Pearson said.
Pearson organized a group of firefighters to travel to Cortez to retrieve the fire truck. He said the city of Williams offered to pay for the fuel, Larry Pittenger donated a trailer and Sutton lent his truck.
Pearson, Sutton, Maebe and Schulte retrieved the truck and brought it back to Williams. The department had a barbecue when the truck returned to Williams.
"We invited some old-timers from the fire department who had been a part of trying to get the truck back," Pearson said. "We solicited their thoughts and are trying to decide if we should try to restore it or not. We're not sure at this point."
Pearson said many of the original components are still on the truck. There are several lanterns, fittings, nozzles and hoses. The paint is still a bright red with the name Williams Volunteer Fire Department visible on the sides. Pearson said the motor spins but it doesn't run. The department hopes to restore the engine to use as a display and possibly drive in parades.
"That was really neat to be the fire chief and be able to bring this truck back," Pearson said.
Although Williams experienced several town fires in the 1890s, it wasn't until the devastating fire of 1901 that residents decided something needed to be done. According to the Williams News, calamity struck the town during the night of July 2, 1901. A fire broke out in the general merchandise store of T.A. Fleming and spread rapidly to other buildings. In about an hour, 36 businesses, two hotels and 10 residences were consumed in flames.
This catastrophic fire resulted in a demand for immediate incorporation of the town by many of the 1,300 residents. A petition with the requisite two-thirds residents was signed and presented to the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, and on July 9, 1901 the Town of Williams was incorporated.
The first ordinance to be passed by the newly organized city council provided for the collection of a tax from residents and the city purchased its first firefighting apparatus.
Hand Carts to the Rescue
By the fall of 1901, the city began issuing building permits and controlling the structure and placement of new buildings. The town marshal was put in charge of its fire fighting apparatus. This apparatus was likely a handcart designed to be pulled by horse and later automobiles. The News reported the first automobile wasn't brought to Williams until resident J.J. Gilson purchased one in 1904.
Several other large fires occurred in town over the next twenty years. In 1903, a fire on "Saloon Row" on the eastern end of Railroad Avenue destroyed six saloons, one restaurant and several small huts. According to the News, many residents considered the blaze a blessing.
In 1908 another large fire burned down the post office, the Babbitt Brothers store, the Hill and Kennedy newsstand and the Billiard Hall. This was the last devastating fire in Williams, with subsequent fires being contained to one or two buildings.
Despite the school burning down in 1912, considerable progress was made that year toward better fire protection. Ordinances were passed which established a fire department and the office of fire marshal. In 1914, a siren fire alarm was installed at the water company's powerhouse to replace the old alarm of five gunshots.
In 1921, the department equipment still consisted of only two hosecarts which were hauled to the fire by the first truck driver who could reach the cart. Hose stations were established at different locations around town including Town Hall, and the I.O.O.F Hall. The Saginaw Mill provided their pumps and hoses for fires on the west side of town.
"Hickville Fire Equipment out of Place"
In March of 1923, the News urged the city council to purchase a motorized fire truck and train a squad of firemen.
"Fire Chief Charley Whitfield has been appointed to head the fireeaters and he has secured a crew of boys who can be depended upon to be right on hand in case of fire," said newspaperman F.A. Wells. "But what of the equipment which the boys are asked to use? It consists of a couple of hose carts which inevitably collapse when drawn faster than five or six miles an hour."
In May of 1923, the News reported that a newly acquired fire engine arrived in town. After a demonstration, the town purchased a 1922 Waterous-Ford Motor Fire Engine with an optional self-starter.
"Four of the councilmen witnessed the demonstrations and they, like all others who beheld it, were enthusiastic over the splendid work done by the little engine," reported the News.
The fire truck purchase was seen as a considerable turning point for firefighting in Williams. Residents were hopeful that not only would the engine quickly extinguish city blazes, but also the cost of insurance premiums would come down.
Two weeks later the department quickly put the fire truck to work as they battled two blazes in town.
"(There was a fire) Wednesday evening near the West End Garage in a small Mexican home, but was quickly controlled by the new fire-fighting engine, with the loyal firemen," the News reported. "...the fire was quickly under control, and the property saved, all because Williams is up to date in fire fighting methods. This equipment is one of the wisest investments the city has ever made."
The town of Williams purchased another 1922 Waterous shortly after and kept both fire engines in operation until they were replaced by a new American La France truck in September 1929.