CARIBOU, Maine — It has raced to fires, rolled through parades, is part of a museum and still works.
One hundred years after “Old Engine One” first rolled into Caribou, the 1922 American LaFrance pumper is still the pride and joy of the city’s fire and EMS department.
In a time when old vehicles end up in metal compactors, the city of Caribou sees the treasure in its first fire truck and works hard to preserve it.
“It’s like a [time] capsule; it’s been part of this town for years,” said firefighter Adam Chartier. “My grandfather [Gus McCarthy] rode on that truck in the 1940s.”
Though Caribou has gone through numerous engine trucks since Old Engine One retired in 1956, the truck has connected firefighters of multiple generations. Old Engine One has brought firefighters on their “last rides” after their deaths and is part of local family histories.
Even younger firefighters today can recall stories of their grandfathers riding atop the truck at fire calls and city parades.
For as long as Old Engine One has existed, each generation of firefighters has considered it their duty to pass down historical stories to the youngest team members.
The most famous story of Old Engine One originates with a flood in May 1923 that damaged the pumps of Caribou’s water company. Crews brought the truck to Collins Pond and pumped water for seven days so that the town would not run out of drinking water.
Firefighter Scott Michaud said that the story is one that shows the creativity and ingenuity of fire crews in those days.
“They performed oil changes [on Old Engine One] while the truck was still running,” Michaud said. “This was only six months after they purchased the truck, so it definitely proved its worth.”
In 1922, $12,500 was a high price to pay for a fire truck but one that Caribou willingly spent in order to have their first pumper truck. Prior to that, the town, which became the city of Caribou in 1967, converted old automobiles for firefighting.
The truck that firefighters still affectionately call “old girl” served during another one of Caribou’s famous fires. On Aug. 26, 1952, the famous Rudy Theater on Sweden Street burned, temporarily pulling Old Engine One from its status as a reserve truck. All trucks were on deck that day to prevent Sweden Street from burning to the ground entirely.
In 1956, the Old Engine One officially retired and became a regular presence at local parades and the funerals of fire department personnel. But the truck gained new life in the 1980s after former firefighter Greg Belanger and others completed a full restoration.
“Greg has since retired but the rest of us have taken on the task of keeping [Old Engine One] operational,” Michaud said. “In 2002, we built an addition to the fire station so people can see the truck from the outside.”
That addition houses a mini museum for the fire station, with old photographs and awards that Old Engine One has received from statewide antique truck competitions. The museum is where Old Engine One sits, though the department hopes to one day build a larger museum.
In August, Caribou Fire & Ambulance will celebrate the truck’s 100th birthday during its annual fire muster and the Caribou Cares About Kids parade. Even city councilors are in on the action, declaring August as Old Engine One Month.
“[During the muster] we’re going to see if we can pump out water one last time,” Michaud said.