She leaks and rattles a lot, but she still gets around pretty well, and she proved it June 4 by visiting her childhood home to celebrate her 100th birthday.
The journey did, however, require a lot of backbreaking work on the part of Capt. Mark Gorman, with Littleton Fire Rescue.
“She's as cold as a mother-in-law's kiss,” he said, tossing a glare at her over his shoulder.
Regardless, theirs is a 36-year-long love story like no other.
“She” is the fire department's 1914 Federal chemical truck, the city's first fire truck. The department, then all-volunteer and known as Littleton Hose Company, bought her brand-new. They brought her home to Town Hall, 2450 W. Main St., or rather the old version of it. The current building wasn't built until 1920, and the fire department was where the lobby is now.
The Federal lived there until 1977, when Littleton Center was built and Station 11 moved in. She remains there today, though mostly as window dressing. She gets out only for the annual fire muster, on June 14 this year, and the Western Welcome Week Grand Parade, Aug. 16.
Gorman will be with her at each event, and will tell anyone who asks every detail about his pride and joy.
“I like the history,” he said. “It's been around for a long time, and there are people who served this city and district on this truck. This is a fine remembrance of their dedication and sacrifice.”
The visit to Town Hall was a special outing to re-create a historic photo of the Federal sitting outside the westernmost archway. Members of the Historic Downtown Littleton Merchants helped her celebrate, snapping selfies with the local celebrity and enjoying rides around the block.
But to accomplish it all, Gorman had to get her cranked up — literally. He said the first time he takes her out each year, it takes about an hour and a half of hard physical labor, with his thumb and collarbone at risk of severe injury the whole time. The second time, he said, it's only about an hour.
“I'll be sore for a week or so,” he said. “You have to do it just a certain way. It's a dangerous thing.”
Imagine being trapped in a burning house in 1914 waiting for the Federal to get ready to go. But she was a distinct improvement to prior conditions, as described at the time by the Littleton Independent:
“The men did not have fancy fire trucks, but were obliged to run and drag a heavy two-wheeled cart holding around 750 feet of 2-1/2 inch hose, a few leather buckets, a coal oil lantern or two, axes, crowbars, and a few other odds and ends to do damage with.”
Gorman said since the Federal got out more in her younger years, it likely took less time to get her engine revving. But just because she's old-fashioned and a little cranky now is no reason to dump her, he says.
“It's rare for a fire department to keep such an old piece of equipment, as old rigs are often sold, and an old-fashioned crank-starter like the Federal would normally have been melted for the scrap drive during World War II,” he said.
Of course, Gorman is not the Federal's first love. He was her rebound after LFR Capt. Tom Rybolt dumped her for retirement. But the relationship stuck, and Gorman poured himself into it wholeheartedly. He memorized every part of her during a complete frame-off restoration in 2003, the two of them spending late nights together at the department and sneaking into his back yard on weekends.
Her clutch is leather, reverse is temperamental and her oak rear wheels weigh 185 pounds each. Her shiny brass tank holds 30 gallons of water that mixes with sodium bicarbonate, pressurized to shoot high into the air — which came in handy for fighting grain-elevator fires back in Littleton's agricultural days.
With the help of Gorman's neighbors, friends and co-workers, today the Federal is as beautiful as ever, with all of her parts replaced, refinished or shined up to a high gloss.
“Several members of the department realize how fortunate they are to have this remarkable piece of history and volunteer their time,” said Gorman.
After all these years together, Gorman shuns pet names and still just calls her the Federal.
“She's never been disgraced with a nickname,” he says.
He knows someday she'll probably ditch him for a younger guy; he just hopes her future suitors are up to the challenge. But if not, he says, he'll always be willing to take care of her.
“They've got my phone number. They know how to reach me,” he grinned.