An old relic finds a new home at the Fire Museum of Memphis.
As a child, no more than 3 years old, Larry Newsom Jr. had a passion for fire trucks. He recalls going with his father to the vehicle inspection center and seeing a nearby fire station with its brilliant red fire engines parked inside. From that day forward, he was smitten, peering eagerly each time he passed a fire station. Over the years, he has collected and restored vintage machines, most recently Engine 15, a 1954 model that was the frontline pumper at the fire station on Faxon Avenue at Decatur Street from 1954 to 1976.
During that time the pumper truck responded to the April 1960 fire at Midtown’s Russwood Park — “the most intense and potentially catastrophic fire Memphis had seen to date,” says Newsom. (Russwood, a wooden stadium, was home to the local baseball team the Memphis Chicks and served as a setting for many other historic events, including a 1956 Elvis concert.) The truck “cut its teeth on that conflagration,” says Newsom, today an executive with Somner Express flatbed trucking company. “The echoes of long-dead heroes can be heard in the radio traffic transmissions from the men that arrived on the scene. … My hair still stands on end when I listen to those.” (The recordings can be heard at the Fire Museum.)
The truck also served after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, Elvis’ death in 1977, the police and fire strikes in 1978, and numerous other events, until 1990, when it was retired — and met a fate Newsom couldn’t bear to see: sold to various scrap dealers, burned by vagrants, vandalized by kids. In 1998, after hundreds of phone calls and many miles traveled, Newsom found an owner willing to sell it, for $700. “I was finally able to give it the respect and restoration I felt it deserved,” he says.
“The pumper fits right in. We get lots of oohs and aahs, and questions about where the pumper served, why it has such a big cab. And I guess the really cool thing is the sedan cab that you don’t see very often in a restored apparatus. It just looks like something out of an old Hollywood movie.”
— Kimberly Crafton, director of the Fire Museum of Memphis
The latter was a process that started in 1999. Newsom found a scrap metal dealer who was going out of business with several Memphis fire trucks still in his scrapyard. Searching through “an untold number of wrecks and rubble,” he discovered the “unmistakable shape” of two 1950s Memphis sedan cab pumpers. Says Newsom, “The Holy Grail for me had finally been found.”
But restoring his beloved pumper involved considerable effort, from custom-cutting stainless steel, to disassembling and replating chrome, to replacing various wood parts with persimmon or white oak wood. And with the painting — Vermillion Red and Veranda Green — and gold leafing, “we left nothing to chance,” he adds, with a local paint dealer doing the work. The cab-mounted light and siren were sent to a company in Arizona for restoration.
Today, Engine 15 — built by now-closed Peter Pirsch and Sons, a Wisconsin plant that was a highly respected name in the fire engine business — stands on display at the Fire Museum of Memphis, located Downtown at 118 Adams, in one of this city’s original firehouses. Kimberly Crafton, the museum’s executive director, recalls Newsom coming by the museum one day and telling her about the pumper he restored. “He broke out pictures like a proud papa,” she says. And now it has a place of honor at the museum as a piece of Memphis fire history because “it no doubt helped firefighters save countless lives over its years of service,” Crafton explains.
She adds that kids love anything big and shiny. “The pumper fits right in. We get lots of oohs and aahs, and questions about where the pumper served, why it has such a big cab. And I guess the really cool thing is the sedan cab that you don’t see very often in a restored apparatus,” says Crafton. “It just looks like something out of an old Hollywood movie.”
Happy that the truck is on display at the Fire Museum, Newsom says, “I couldn’t be the only one to enjoy this behemoth dominating my garage.” In an email, his affection and pride for the pumper — and its place in a former fire station — shines through: “At home again, peering through the antique window glass of the firehouse doors, looking contentedly at the streets of the city she served with dedication and pride, the old rig rests firmly, solidly in the fabric of the world she loved.”
Marilyn Sadler is a former senior editor of this magazine.
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